So, have you ever had students talk about an adult that just "gets" kids their age? I'm not saying they think that adult is cool, although that tends to go hand-in-hand when there is an adult that kids generally like. Some adults are naturally aware of what I am about to share with you. They are the teachers that students are drawn to. Kids seek them out because they emanate an ora of comfort and support and understanding. Here it goes.
Puberty. That is all anyone thinks of when it comes to adolescence. But, oh, there is so much more to our middle school students than raging hormones! And believe it or not, they will like hearing you talk to them about this...which is why I am classifying this topic as a CELEBRATION!
To understand adolescent children, you first need to be aware of what is going on with them. Their bodies, their brains, their emotions, everything. Let's discuss the obvious first. There are some physical changes going on. While some students embrace these changes, others are embarrassed beyond belief about their changing bodies. Don't make it a big issue.
Secondly, adolescents are experiencing some major changes and developments in their brain. You know how a baby learns and grows so quickly? Adolescence is the second time in your life that your body and brain has a "spurt" of growth and change. Not as much or as quickly as a baby or toddler, but far more growth and change than an adult in their mid-twenties, or even an 8-year-old who has not yet hit adolescence. It's like your body takes a small break for a bit and then blasts full-steam ahead for a few years. Or perhaps an athletic analogy might help. Ever heard of a second wind? Adolescence is like a second wind in terms of growing up. Anyhow, back to the brain. You can't see these changes like you can see the physical changes. But you can appreciate them if you've ever been around a person in their adolescent years. They are questioning everything. They are crossing over into the abstract ways of thinking. Unfortunately, this is not happening at the exact same time for every child, which makes the job of a teacher even more exciting at this age. On one hand, you've got a student who just understood, for a brief moment, what the fourth dimension could be, and on the other hand you've got a student who is still struggling to find x. (I teach math...) Give that second child a year or so, and finding x will be so simple he'll wonder how it was every a challenge. I'll tell you right now--his brain wasn't ready for abstract thinking yet. Give him time, and he'll get it.
Next in line is their emotional growth. Girls might notice that they cry a whole lot easier than they used to. It's normal! Sometimes the hormones make girls cry and they don't even know why! Emotions are running rampant at this age, and they can change in an instant. Don't overreact to an adolescent's emotional outburst. Acknowledge their feelings, and work to make things right. They just want to know they are heard. Don't we all?
We also have some major social changes happening at this age. Friendships that existed in elementary years are erased. Social status is the most important thing right now, and can get in the way of learning at times. Bullying is at it's highest, and children need a friend more than ever right now. Even the most popular students may secretly feel alone and misunderstood. Friendships and relationships drive this age group. Be aware of that, and don't dismiss it. In a short while, academics will take a front seat again. And, the kids tend to be nice to each other again once high school rolls around. It's getting through the middle that's so tough.
So, now that I've laid out there some changes our kids are going through besides the obvious "puberty", let's talk about how to handle this all. My bulleted advice is:
- Listen. If a child seeks you out to talk, hear them out. Don't dismiss their feelings, allow them to feel the way that they do.
- Don't lecture about what you went through at their age. If it's appropriate, share a related story. But the truth is, they want to be heard, they don't want to draw parallels to your life and theirs.
- Don't take too much personally. Do you recall saying something you truly didn't mean at that age? And wish, as soon as you said it, that you could take it back? Almost every adolescent feels that way, much more often than you remember from your own adolescent years. Don't dwell on it. They'll get past it, and you should too. I'm not saying you shouldn't expect an apology when one is due, but realize that sometimes it really may not be needed. Perhaps consider raising your tolerance level for "mouth garbage" that might occur with this age group.
- Just because a teenager's body might look like a full grown adult does not mean that their intellectual or emotional developments are that of a full grown adult. They are still kids, and the changes don't happen at the same time. Their bodies might be ahead of their brains, or vice-versa. I once had an 8th grader learning pre-calculus...and he looked like he was about 8 years old! There was very little mind-body agreement there.
- When teaching kids this age, some might begin to feel "stupid" for not being in the highest level classes. As a math teacher, I encounter students who feel this way often. I squelch those thoughts immediately by talking about these developments. Phrases I use are along these lines: You might not be ready for that thought today because your brain just isn't there yet. That doesn't mean you won't get it next year! In the mean time, let's focus on what you need to prepare for that day. It will hit you like a ton of bricks one day, and you'll say OOOOH! THAT'S WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT!! I have had conversations about academic readiness with students for years. I give at least three levels of homework and tests for each topic I teach. My students always choose their own level based on their feelings of readiness. There is no shame when taking the low level, and likewise, no pride in taking the high level. They know they must take the level that is right for them (and I always have a stipulation that I can overrule their choice--but the students are surprisingly accurate!). The students are so aware of this (and accepting of it) that they can explain the system to their parents (who usually are startled at their children's sudden maturity!) I rarely have students or their parents begging me to allow them into the next higher level of math. They understand, through conversations, that they are where they are and it's OK if you are not in the tip top math class. They'll get there one day, when they are ready.
So, you still with me? Are you wondering when I'm going to get to the secret about how to become one of those teachers that kids are naturally drawn to? You needed that foundation first. Now I'm ready to tell you.
Raise your tolerance level, and listen (but don't get taken advantage of, and do NOT be seen as a friend). Allow the kids to share their thoughts and then treat them like valuable human beings. Hear what they have to say, and respond accordingly. Refer to others if the situation calls for it (social worker, principal, etc). Don't sweat the small things. Talk to the kids about what they are going through. Tell them you understand them in a way most adults don't, because you know what they are going through. It's been a while since you've been there, but you know its tough on them. Don't dismiss their feelings. Oh, and be silly with them. Kids of all ages love to be silly and really like when an adult joins in the fun. In no time, they'll be telling you you are different than other adults. They'll say you get them. And it's because you DO!
Some great links on this topic:
Inside the Teenage Brain (FRONTLINE)
It's My Life (PBS)