Blog post written by Patti Kinney is the Associate Director, Middle Level Services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals
“Young adolescents are passing through an intense transitional period that affects their bodies, their intellectual development, and their sense of self. Educators working with these students must understand these changes and their impact on learning and achievement.” from the rationale for Core Practice 12 of the Bright Futures report
I have always enjoyed looking at optical illusions. It fascinates me how two lines the exact same length can appear to be different lengths depending on the placement of the lines around them. Or, how straight lines can appear wavy or seem to jump around the page. Some of the most intriguing ones are the pictures that could be two things depending on what you look for—vases or faces, an old hag or a beautiful woman. The illusions work because they were designed to fool the eye by throwing off our perception of the image; to solve the puzzle, you had to carefully examine the image and look at it from a different perspective.
In my experience with young adolescents, I’ve discovered that a key to successfully working with and understanding this age group also lies in one’s perceptions and perspective. It is interesting that the word “perception” has a double meaning. It can be defined as the process of using the senses to acquire information about the environment or the ability to perceive or discern things that escape the notice of most people. While it is second nature for us to use our senses to gather information from the environment around us, we don’t always take the time necessary to further examine what we are observing.
It is the deeper type of perception that takes on importance when working with middle level students, because our first impression may not always give an accurate picture. The boy with hair dyed black and wearing baggy clothing is one of the school’s honor students. The girl sitting in the corner of the room and not saying much delivers food to the homeless in the park on the weekends. The popular girl chatting animatedly with her friends battles an eating disorder. The boy being reprimanded for his third tardy takes responsibility for getting his younger brothers and sisters off to school each morning.
Sadly, today’s young adolescents frequently get a bad rap. They are commonly portrayed in the media as rude, self-centered, and uncaring. Descriptors such as brain dead, moody, or hormones on wheels are often used when describing this age group. And, while these generalizations do contain elements of truth, if taken as gospel, they discount the complexity of the age group. Young adolescents are experiencing rapid physical and emotional change as they struggle along the road to independence, and for those reasons they can be contradictory at times—confused or confident, awkward or articulate, passive or passionate. But those of us who work with them on a daily basis know just how concerned, caring, and compassionate they can be.
So how can we help them through this challenging and sometimes awkward stage of life? Just as examining an optical illusion from a different perspective can solve its mystery, we adults who work with and appreciate this age group must work together to provide the public with a more accurate perspective of who young adolescents truly are. And, perhaps, in doing so, we can also help young adolescents perceive adults as more supportive and sympathetic of their needs. But to do so requires a team effort; schools alone cannot do it. Ecclesiastes tells us, “a cord of three strands is not easily broken”—schools, communities, and families must join together to provide this age group with the support they need to develop into well-educated, independent, and ethical adults capable of productively participating in a democratic society. Let me suggest several measures adults can take to guarantee the future well-being of this precious resource.
- Commit to make a difference in the life of one young adolescent. Be a role model, a mentor, a friend. Listen. Share challenges you faced as a youngster and how you overcame them.
- Find out what they are thinking. Ask questions. Help them clarify their thoughts. Young adolescents are trying to make sense of their world and their place in it and a trusted adult can help guide them through this confusing time in life.
- Be a proponent of high-quality middle level education. Examine the practices in place at your school against the Core Practices described in the Bright Futures report. Young adolescents need an education designed expressly for them, provided by qualified and effective teachers who connect with them, challenge them, and care for them. Successful schools for young adolescents must be both academically rigorous and developmentally appropriate and base their program on what research has shown to be effective practices for working with this age group. Is your school meeting the challenge of developing the full academic, personal and social potential for every student?
- Model good health habits. Ask a middle schooler to join with you in healthy activities. Encourage the young adolescents you are in contact with to reduce the number of hours they spend in front of the television or computer and replace them with physical activity. Support your community’s efforts to provide after school physical activities for youth. Insist that your local middle schools provide a well-designed physical education program for all students. Today’s youth are facing serious health issues. Obesity is considered to be one of the most dangerous health problems facing today’s youth, and cases of diabetes and eating disorders are on the rise. Because lifelong health habits are established in adolescence, we must help our youth make healthy choices that not only impact their learning, but their future health as well.
- Be an advocate. Speak out. Share your thoughts and expertise with others. Speaking out on behalf of young adolescents at the local, state, and federal level is critical. It takes courage to step forward and be a passionate advocate, but it must be done. If you begin to waiver, just remember how important these years are. Young adolescents deserve our best efforts, if each is to have the chance to become all he or she can and should be.
- And finally, celebrate! Celebrate their accomplishments, their quirkiness, and their zest for life.
Once when I received recognition for my work as a principal, I received a congratulations card from a group of students. I was basking in the glow of comments such as “you’re the greatest”, “we’re proud of you”, “we knew you were the best”, etc. when all of a sudden I was brought back down to earth by Kevin’s comment. Knowing him quite well (he had premier level frequent flyer status in the office), I couldn’t quite be sure if he had just not been paying attention or if he actually knew something the other students hadn’t figured out. Kevin’s remark? “I hope you get well soon!”
Yes, sometimes it seems that you have to be just a little bit “not well” to love working with middle level students on a daily basis! One thing I miss the most in my current position is not having daily contact with students. Even though, as in the case of Kevin, I would often wonder at their thinking process, I enjoyed the daily conversations and camaraderie that occurred with them during supervision times and informal classroom visits. Once thing was certain, when asked (and often when not), they were rarely afraid to speak their mind!
In today’s climate of high-stakes testing and accountability, it’s easy to forget that we need to listen to our students – but it’s critical as middle level educators that we find ways and time to do so. Every young adolescent has a story to tell that bears hearing, but we must take the time to listen. Just like solving the puzzle of an optical illusion requires a second or even a third look, if we sincerely want to understand the true nature of this age group and help them succeed in school and life, we must constantly remind ourselves to look beyond our first impressions. It is the only way to ensure that all of the young adolescents that have been entrusted into our care can look forward to a Bright Future.