Middle school education has been reduced to a number of stereotypes for too long. What is considered to be one of the most critical time periods in a child’s life is often overlooked as “lost” time of awkward transition from childhood into the teen years. In fact, it’s far more than just a transitional period between elementary and high school education. How a child experiences this time period can shape the way he or she performs in high school, college, and beyond. Through the right kind of parenting and education, students can take this as an opportunity to gain resilience and independence -- two important skills that will have an impact on the rest of their lives.
What is Resiliency?
Resiliency is the ability to bounce back and grow stronger from challenging moments. We all go through struggle and pain in our lives, and it is resiliency that allows us to pick ourselves up, learn from these challenges, and gain critical skills that we need to succeed in the future.
Harvard Business School professor and author of “Confidence”, Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in the New York Times, “Resilience is the ability to recover from fumbles and outright mistakes and bounce back."
As Kanter infers, it’s not only the act of getting through the challenges that makes a child resilient, but their mindset as well. A resilient child thinks differently. They believe they can get through hard times, learn from their mistakes, grow from their misfortune, and be positive regardless of the circumstances. Resilient people do not let these experiences define them, but positively redefine them.
The Importance of Resilience for Middle School Students
The transition from elementary to middle school is a difficult time. Students are met with daily fumbles and mistakes. Some of these struggles are personal, related to the emotional and physical development they are undergoing, while other struggles are external, including social and academic challenges encountered at school.
Commenting on the transition from elementary to middle school in The Washington Post, education reporter Valerie Strauss said, “On average there is a substantial drop in school engagement and achievement. Family relationships become more strained and kids report increased stress levels.”
When you are distracted by so many other changes occurring in your life, it is no surprise that many middle school students start to slip in the academic arena. According to one study done by the The United States Department of Health and Human Services, 29.3 percent of middle school students experienced bullying in the classroom. On top of this external stressor, children experiencing puberty are fighting an internal battle that includes things such as navigating self-awareness, obsessing over peer-acceptance, and finding a social life and sense of belonging in school. Whether it’s failing a test, not being picked for a sports team, not knowing where to sit at lunch, or even sharing a best friend’s secret, middle school children must learn to face these stressors and to learn from the mistakes and hardships that inevitably will occur.
Independence and resilience are two skill sets that allows the process of learning and perseverance to occur, but these skills are only learned with the correct support system. With a good support system, a child can build the mental strength and healthy perspective needed to face obstacles and grow through challenging times with confidence and motivation. With an inadequate support system, a child will instead learn how to hide, avoid, blame, and deny the reality of difficult life experiences, and this will be a coping method that they will turn to for years to come.
Raising Resilient Children and Students
Instead of looking at this period of life as just a phase to get through, parents and educators should start looking at this time in a child’s life full of opportunity to set barriers and habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Given that middle school students are so adaptable, this provides a greater opportunity for parents and teachers to establish a strong set of values and educational habits.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and foster parent who knows a lot about resilience. Her book, “12 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do: Raising Self-Assured Children and Training Their Brains for a Life of Happiness, Meaning and Success,” has become an international bestseller and is teaching parents how to better educate and raise their children to be more successful students, professionals, and people. She breaks down raising mentally strong kids into three parts:
“One is regulating your thoughts so you think realistically. Not overly negative but not overly positive. If I’m too confident I might not study; if I’m overly negative, I might think I’ll never pass, so why try. The second part is being aware of our emotions and how they affect how we perceive things, and knowing I can get a handle on things. The third is taking positive action. That might mean “If something is frightening to do, I’m going to do it anyway or ask for help.”
These simple behaviors and ways of thinking can go a long way in impacting middle school students. At The Harvey School, we promote a community that challenges our students and supports them to channel their own resiliency. The tactics that Morin discusses are useful in an educational setting, and we have been successful with putting them in place in our own school.
Our small class size -- a typical classroom has 10 students -- enables teachers to work closely with students, identify their strengths and create classroom tactics that will appropriately challenge each student. This provides that “perfect balance” of creating a sense of self-confidence that allows a student to take risks but not so confident that they become complacent.
We also provide a learning environment that is supportive yet challenging -- our Head of School, Bill Knauer calls it “Rigor with heart.” The support doesn’t just come from the teachers but from other students enabling them to feel comfortable when they “mess up” that it is okay to pick up and try again. No one will judge them.
We also have two long standing traditions -- the Lopes Poetry Contest and Wells Speech Contest -- both of which require students to get up and present in front of the classroom. For many students this takes them out of their comfort zone, but they know that it is okay if they fail and that their teachers are there to assist them if they need help. When alums come back to visit, they have mentioned how these two traditions helped them lose their fear of speaking and, in fact for many, develop of a love of public speaking!
Fueling our students with resilience and the proper tools they need to have a successful future is at the core of our values. We view the middle school experience as a pivotal time in a student’s education, and we believe the lessons and experiences they have at our school will drive them to be prosperous students, professionals, and civilians. By teaching them resiliency not only in the classroom, but at home as well, students are prepared for a brighter future.