A middle school kid can come in two versions. Take Chris, for example, from my first year of teaching. I was never sure which version of Chris would show up for class on any given day. Would he be a young adult? Or a little kid? Chris wore his emotional age on his face each day, and I could measure it with a five-second look.
Some days, it was all about Chris—what he thought, what he felt, and what he wanted to do. On those days he’d stomp right over the needs of other kids to get his own met.
But the next day, the grown-up version of Chris would come to class. This Chris would keep his emotions from escalating, control his impulses, and care about what others needed.
It was like I taught two students in one body. These differences in Chris discombobulated me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to him. But gradually I learned to keep my balance with Chris and other yo-yo kids. Here are some concepts that helped me.
- Expect that painful steps backward will follow forward leaps in emotional growth. For middle school kids, emotional growth is rarely linear. Valleys follow peaks. If you expect linear growth, you will be disappointed. Middle school kids sit, after all, on the precipice of childhood and adulthood.
- Use a retractable leash. With retractable leashes, dogs can roam much further than on a standard leash. But their owners have the option to lock a leash to a shorter length when necessary. Middle school kids need freedom to explore further afield, but they also need the safety of a short leash when their decisions begin to affect their long-term well being.
- Spotlight the grown-up moments. When students hit the bottom, remind them about the times they helped someone or made an astute comment in class or stood up for justice or showed restraint. Catch them at the high point and then send them messages: This is who you are. That’s a Chris-like thing to do. I see how you are contributing.
- Sympathize with setbacks. “You know, just the other day I lost my temper,” I liked to say to a guilty student. “And I felt rotten about it. But I’m going to try again to control my temper.” This gave students courage to try again. It gave them hope that growing up was within their realm.
Adolescence is tough—a time of social anxiety, physical change, and growing awareness that life is hard. It’s no wonder that some kids cope by fluctuating their emotional ages. Teachers of these students need deftness and agility. But the spinning and the zinging are fun when you catch the rhythm.