Making it through the middle-school muddle

Imagine three straight years of pimples, family squabbles and unexpected mood changes.

Aahh…the ever-changing life of a middle school student.

The road from childhood to adolescence can often be a bumpy one, with unexpected turns and pitfalls around every corner. Tweens must not only deal with physical and emotional changes in the privacy of their own home, but then attend school with countless number of classmates all going through the exact same thing.

“The tunnel through the junior high years on their way to high school can be sometimes dark and lonely for some of these kids,” says Ed Weston, Principal of St. George School in Tinley Park. “These kids are dealing with all sorts of expectations from their families, teachers and peers. It can be tough to juggle everything all at the same time.”

And while this time is often difficult for students and their families, junior high teachers and administrators are faced on with a classroom full of students who are quite literally changing overnight.

“The middle school years can be such a tough time for kids,” explains Megan Cawley, sixth through eighth grade Humanities teacher at Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette. “It’s really a power struggle between what is going on with them both physically and emotionally.”

“I see a huge difference in my students between the sixth grade and the seventh grade,” adds Dr. Roberta Zasadzinski, seventh and eighth grade math and science teacher at Kingswood Academy. “It seems like that is usually the time when the kids get more insecure and just not as enthusiastic as maybe they once were. They are also so self conscious due to all of the physical changes they are going through.”

Many educators believe this span of time can often be harder for the girls than for the boys.

“I think it’s so important for middle school to have a strong control over the girls and the cliques that form,” says Dr. Zasadzinski, who has worked at Kingswood Academy for the past nine years. “If it’s not controlled, it quickly turns into bullying. Boys certainly have their issues, but they tend to be resolved quickly without anyone holding a grudge.”

And while it may be inevitable to completely eliminate the problems that arise between different groups of kids in the school environment, enabling students with the tools to resolve problems themselves whenever possible is crucial. Many schools provide advisors to help students through the constant changes going on in their lives.

“While you are helping them build esteem, you also need to allow them to experience failures which they can learn from, “says Principal Shane Staszcuk at Mt. Carmel Academy.

During a time when tweens are desperately looking for their own identity, many school administrators have seen great success by offering a variety of responsibilities to students throughout the day. For schools such as Kingswood Academy, having the junior high housed in the same building as the primary school offers a number of opportunities for older students to take a leadership role.

“I always tell our kids they are the leaders of our school,” remarks Dr. Zasadzinski, who also serves as an academic dean at the school. “They really shine when they are working with older people and younger kids. They seem to especially like the fact that the smaller kids are watching them, and want to grow up to be just like them.”

Students at Kingswood Academy also take a leadership role during their daily morning broadcast, organizing a penny war for charity, and assisting the little kids during the school’s annual Christmas pageant. “It’s important to give kids of this age a real sense of accomplishment,” adds Zasadzinski. “Give them responsibilities, and chances are that most of them will rise to the occasion.”

Other schools have had success sending their junior high students out into the community to help others who are less fortunate. Mount Carmel Academy students often go out into the community to work with the elderly, the sick, the hungry and homeless. “This is a time where these kids might have the notion they are the center of the universe,” explains Staszcuk. “Getting them out in the community can bring them down to reality a little bit. As a Catholic school, we can weave a religious aspect into this crazy time.”

No matter what, parents and teachers must work together to ensure students get through the middle school years without a problem.

“I always say that we need the parents, students and teachers all working together,” says Weston, who has been at St. George for the past sixteen years. “It’s the perfect triangle where we need everyone in order to get the clearest picture. Parents are the first educators and we are their partners. We need to work together as a team”

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