Caution: Children Under Construction

Children are under construction. I previously worked with a head of school who said that all the time. He was referring to the growing pains that young people experience, especially during adolescence. Driving down some roads this time of year after weeks of construction, frost heaves and now new potholes, I have often been reminded of how similar these experiences—road work and adolescent development—actually are.

Many of us have been baffled by detours sending us around and around. The bumps throw my morning coffee all over the cup holder. Some days we fly through, catching the traffic just right. Other days we are held up for what seems like forever. It’s messy. It’s inconsistent and frustrating. It’s a pain. One day, hopefully soon, it will be smooth sailing. All the waiting and all the dirt will have been worth it. I think the parallels to raising an adolescent might be obvious to most right about now (ha).

One day, I was speaking with Director of Lower School Sarah Kotwicki, and she said middle school should come with a warning sign. If it did, it would say something like, “Caution: Children Under Construction.” Because, while middle school might have all the angst, frustration, and bumps of a drive down Hart Street, it’s what—in our case, who—will emerge after the construction project of middle school that is important. The issues that make middle school difficult for so many are developmentally inevitable. Few people look back on middle school and say those were their best years. If they do, they probably went to GUS.

When I tell people I am the director of a middle school, most make a funny face and complain about how awful middle school is. Young people are straddling childhood and young adulthood, hormones are gearing up, and the physical changes are significant. For most of us who teach “the middles,” the complexity is what we love about the experience. One day we can be building fairy houses and the next, we are debating the need for an electoral college. I often joke that I have students who play with dolls, but the dolls are at a UN meeting. In every joke there is a grain of truth. Don’t let the dolls fool you. These kids are ready for intellectually stimulating conversations, when they want to talk, that is (another ha).

The jump from child to adolescent is a huge leap. The growth is only greater in early infancy. Remember how much they grew and how much they learned in those first 12 months? Growth now is almost as rapid. When you think about it, with so many changes coming at them in such a short amount of time, it isn’t surprising that middle school can be bumpy. Add a complex and developing social landscape and increased academic pressure, and there are bound to be some unplanned stops and unexpected detours.

According to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, adolescence is a time when young people might be struggling with many aspects of development, but most likely, it is also the stage where they are learning what they are good at. That is why a program like GUS’ is so important. We push kids to try new things, to see themselves through a different lens (as an artist, an athlete, a dancer, a mathematician, and so on), and to bravely take on appropriate risk. We strive to create a community that supports and encourages students to be who they want to be and to never say never. We recognize that this time might be hard, but we also know that without those rough patches, students won’t develop into confident difference-makers, capable of changing the world.

The next stage of development focuses on peer relationships. Often an adolescent’s identity, focused on where they feel most confident, is connected to peer groups. You might see this in your child’s group of friends. Are they teammates? Do they read the same books? Do they all love art? Young people who don’t feel good about themselves as students or school community members might struggle to find a place socially, as they yo-yo between stages. While this might sound dire, it’s very common and gives us some insight into the traffic jam that is middle school. We handle this challenge at GUS by creating opportunities for kids to connect around common interests. Clubs, especially, have proven to be a great occasion for students to find peers, and those relationships absolutely affect the classroom experience.

As if physical, social, and identity issues aren’t enough, adolescents also experience significant brain development. Currently, seventh graders are fascinated by how the teen brain works differently than a fully developed adult brain. Ask them about the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, and they will tell you why it can be difficult to have a rational conversation with your tween. A study from McLean Hospital found that teens misread facial expressions, often misinterpreting fear for anger. Sound like a fight you’ve had at home? You are worried, they think you are mad. It’s not you, it’s them. It’s their brain. As they grow, so will their ability to be more rational. In the meantime, we work on strengthening their synapses through practice. They practice weighing outcomes and evaluating options as the keys to mastering rational decision-making.

By including mindfulness in our curriculum, we provide middle schoolers with important resources for managing the emotional journey of adolescence. Seventh grade students work in Life Skills, often with second graders, to understand the benefits of meditation. In these sessions, we teach students how to calm down, reducing stress and feelings of fear, common emotions during the middle years. Mindfulness practices have also been found to reduce the size of the amygdala and allow for more rational thinking. More rational thinking! A breath of fresh air for middle school parents, and a helpful tool for our students as they confront the roadblocks of adolescence.

Yet, with all the physical changes, the ups and downs, the hormones, and the emotions, your child is nonetheless experiencing a time that is so very rich in learning experiences. This is why middle school teachers love teaching middle school, and this is why you should be happy your child is here. At GUS, we help your child create a strong foundation and a resilience that will enable them to brave the elements and stand tall, no matter what the future brings. We encourage our students to hold onto the child they are for as long as they can—to play, to try new things, to be brave in the way that only a child can be. We recognize their need for relationships and encourage meaningful connections with their peers in homerooms, clubs, sports, and advisory groups, as well as in daily interactions in the classroom. We give them skills that will help them through difficult times and prepare them for the future.

And then we celebrate them. No one does graduation quite like GUS. I think what makes it so special is how well it demonstrates who our students have become. As they stand and share what they believe, as they perform musical numbers that often hold deep meaning for them, as they don their GUS tartans and march between the trees to the graduation ceremony, it is hard not to be moved. The growth, the finished project, the tall tower, we graduate students who are confident, who love learning, and who aren’t discouraged by life’s potholes.

So, yes, the ride can be bumpy, but that is why GUS strives to teach our students that the bumps, the detours, the waiting—none of these experiences define them. And what they realize in the end, maybe long after graduation, is that when you work bravely to identify who you are and strive to be your best self, there really are no wrong turns. I believe our students flourish because they are in a place that values the journey, offers a soft landing when they fall, doesn’t define them by their mistakes, and most important, truly understands: children are under construction.

Originally published February 16, 2017; edited February 21, 2018

Gretchen Forsyth