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Today, I want to discuss something it took me years to figure out. It's quite simple, but can be transformative in how you interact with middle school students. At least it was for me. Here's the secret: middle school students can do much, much more than you think. At the same time, they are capable of far, far less than you expect. Let me explain.
When we do our school productions, they are run entirely by middle school students. The lights, the sound, the stage crew--all of these functions are run by students, but you would never know it. The audience would be astounded if they realized all the trouble-shooting and problem-solving that goes on. I am routinely surprised and delighted each year when I see how much they can do. Choreograph a two hour play with 180 kids? No problem. Oversee complicated set changes, lighting cues, while dealing with broken fog machines and touchy pyrotechnic devices? No problem. I've seen them edit newspapers, mentor small children run amazing plays on the court or field, organize two-day bake sales, raise $10,000 for cancer and so on and so on.
They can literally do pretty much anything at this age. Except pick up their jacket or remember their book.
I go to rehearsals and performances and watch these kids pull of truly amazing, adult-level work. And then I walk through the halls and see the daily detritus of their lives: planners, notebooks, textbooks, jackets, even a pair of pants once.
They can do big things when properly motived. But they struggle--tremendously--with little things.
I'm not a psychologist, so I can't explain why this happens, but I know it does. Details and routine tasks are incredibly difficult for middle school kids to grasp. Some do it well, but they are exceptions and most really struggle with this.
Consequently, messy rooms or forgetfulness on assignments or other mundane things is pretty common. When it happens, don't freak out. It's normal. It will pass.
However, this doesn't mean you simply surrender and just wait for three or four years to pass. You don't need to do that. But, it does mean that you need to structure things differently and make some adjustments. I'll talk next week about how to help the student. But this week, I want to talk about things the parent or teacher or leader can do.
One of the most difficult things about this age group is that they look much older and mature than they really are. They are big--almost look like small adults. But they are incredibly immature in terms of emotional and cognitive development. They are big babies, puppies, as it were and if you are deceived by their physical maturity you will set yourself up for disappointment.
Understanding that, you need to decide what is really important and then focus in on that like a laser and let the rest go. For example, if your child does his or her homework, letting the messy room go might not be a bad idea. Know the value of choosing your battles carefully and also of a tactical retreat.
Adults frequently focus on what the preliminary steps are to the desired goal. This doesn't work
with middle school kids because you end up focusing all your efforts on getting them to do the first goal or two, and frequently you'll never get to the end result.
Here's an example. When I first started teaching choir, I valued children sitting up straight by section and never talking. I decided that this was necessary to accomplishing my goal of having them sound good. We never got there because I spent all my energy enforcing this since it is an unnatural arrangement for middle school kids. I became punitive and harsh about minor things.
I finally learned that letting them sit where they want is a privilege they will work to maintain. I learned that enduring a little noise from the altos while I'm working with the sopranos made the overall class go much more smoothly. And I learned that giving up five minutes at the end of class to let them run around the gym or chat as a reward for doing focused work during the previous 40 minutes was more effective than forcing them to work that extra five minutes.
I get what I want and they get something of what they want and everyone is much, much happier.
This post is already a little long, so I'll stop here. Next week, I'll talk some more about structuring things in a middle-school friendly way and some thoughts on motivation.
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