In some ways, they can’t help it. Given the mismatch in their brains, it’s no wonder middle school kids often fail to see beyond themselves. At this age, the emotional brain has come into full swing well before the prefrontal cortex has matured. And so they struggle to control their selfish impulses, even when they know better.
It’s as if they live in one of those houses of mirrors you find at a fair. Caught in reflecting mazes, they turn down passageway after passageway looking for a way out. But everywhere they turn, they run into their own image. At every exit, they are blocked by themselves.
But even with all this constant turning in, I love middle school brains. Being nowhere near fully baked, they’re still formable. What I do matters. I can actually help them connect their emotional and logical brains. And as these parts of the brain begin to work in greater tandem, students become better able to do more than peering into mirrors.
Here are some windows you can offer instead:
- Vicarious living—Tangled in adolescent angst, middle school kids often have faint empathy for those around them. But I’ve seen tears run from the eyes of tough kids as they watched a movie or read a book. A step away from their own lives, they can muster up compassion. And these second-hand encounters offer kids a chance to form templates they can use back where they live.
- Purpose—Kids are willing to look beyond themselves when their strengths are tapped. “I’d like your help,” I’d say to a kid. “I’ve been trying to find a way to give Kato some extra practice in English. I’ve noticed that you’re good at talking with people. Could you . . .?” Almost always middle school kids step up to shoulder tapping.
- Travel—Every time I’ve traveled—to Ethiopia or Thailand or the Pacific Ocean or inner-city Flint, Michigan, or upstate New York—I learn, once again, that my small Midwest town isn’t the center of the universe. Not being able to take my students with me, I followed Emily Dickinson’s lead: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. With literature, I took them both around the world and back in time.
Looking through windows can become a habit. But middle school kids need frequent and repeated invitations to turn from self-gazing to look out. And actually, so do I. Even at sixty-five, I find myself reverting back to my middle school brain, peering into a mirror instead of looking out windows, even when I know better.