A few years ago, I realized something that fundamentally changed the way I approach middle school kids. In fact, if I had to pick one single thing to help explain middle school kids, this would be it (Do I say that every week? Well, this time I mean it.)
When I was in 7th grade, if you had come up to me and said, "I have a loaded gun. Either sing a solo in front of the school or I will shoot you this second," I wouldn't have paused. I wouldn't have thought or hesitated. I would have said, "Shoot me now." I'm not being dramatic--I'm quite serious. I had a morbid fear of singing because I was afraid I would look stupid and be embarrassed and I truly would have chosen death over being embarrassed.
I remember this--and yet, I had forgotten it in dealing with my own students. Many middle school students are like me. They would almost rather die than be embarrassed or look stupid in front of their peers--as they define looking stupid. Different kids will be embarrassed by different things. But embarrassment is a BIIIGGGGG deal to them.
This is a pretty potent motivation and it explains a great deal about middle school behavior. It's at least part of why they are so prone to go with the pack. Talking to a middle school student about standing up against peer pressure is sort of like talking to a lemming about not following the crowd. There are some exceptions, but generally, that is just the way they are programmed and there are some pretty strong forces inclining them to this mentality.
You can fight this, you can lament it, you can curse it--but for most kids, it will not change. To some extent you can try to work around it. But this is a time when it's helpful to understand that you are dealing with a force of nature.
The first year I taught chorus I tried and tried to get the boys to sing things in the right octave. They refused (and often still do). They were convinced that singing anything higher than the range of a gorilla sounds like a girl and they would rather die than be thought of as girly. There is no penalty I can give them that is stronger than that fear. They would rather have an F than to look stupid.
However--I have learned that I can work around it to some extent. For example, they're happy to be silly. So, if I sing in an opera-ish falsetto voice and make it clear that this is silly, not serious, they will follow. Often that's good enough. They hit the note and if enough of the girls are singing, you can't really tell it's the funny opera voice. Also, after a while, they get used to singing the high note and stop doing it in the silly voice. So, I work around it--but I have to understand that on a scale of 1-10, I'm only ever going to get a 7 at best.
Note: a more powerful approach comes if someone tries this on their own just to be silly--it happens frequently. If I pretend I'm slightly annoyed, the rest will start doing it. This kind of back-door approach is generally far more effective than the straight-on option, although that can work, too. You just have to experiment and know your audience. For parents, the sneaky approach will almost always work better. Allowing them to feel like they are just slightly rebellious is a powerful motivator. I grant, however, that this is a tricky thing to do. But over time, you can learn to do this.
I've also found that while there are no penalties strong enough to motivate them, rewards sometimes, but not always, will. Tossing a starburst to a boy who accidentally sings a higher note, or giving them a few minutes of recess for the same reason will often reinforce the behavior I want because those are drives that are even more primal than the fear of looking stupid and being made fun of. Giving an entire group reward is especially good, because no one is going to make fun of the kid who just got recess for the whole group.
Another way to mitigate this is to remove the onus from them. Making clear rules about things that will allow them to say, "My mom's making do this" can be really important. It gives them the cover needed. One year, I had a very socially awkward student. She came to class all alone and sat by herself. No one wanted to be near her since she was socially radioactive. I assigned another girl to be her partner and share music. Once she had been assigned, the second girl was able to reach out and be nice to the first girl. But she needed the cover of being assigned to do it--that way it was all my "fault," and that gave her deniability with her peers.
Parents can provide a very important service by being scapegoats in this regard.
For what it's worth, there are some gender differences here, I think. All of them, boys and girls are afraid of looking stupid. However, the way they process this, how they react, and what they define as looking stupid differs. I think I'll do a separate post on boys and girls at some point.
This will pass. Most kids begin to get a better and stronger sense of themselves and their own values as they get older--I see this begin to emerge in 8th grade frequently. By 10th, it seems to be much more developed (obviously, these are generalities).
However, for adolescents, it is difficult to overstate this. Looking stupid is literally one of the worst fates they can conceive and they will do almost anything to avoid that. If you can master that concept and work around it, you have a decent chance at success.
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