When I think about my own middle school experience, the thing I most remember is a sense of discomfort. Many of the girls who had been my friends since early childhood suddenly identified me as “not cool,” and I struggled with navigating my social experience. I recall loving classes, and particularly loving orchestra and chorus, but I also remember how terrifying it felt to potentially make the wrong choice of lunch table, and the possible outcomes of such a choice. There were people who were not nice to me, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to best avoid their insults.
It has always been my mission to help our middle school students have a school experience in which they feel both safe and comfortable, which includes being treated with dignity by both peers and adults. I tell them that they do not need to be friends with everyone, but they do need to treat one another in a civil manner. Most of the time that works pretty well. Yet, here we are at the end of October, and I am spending a fair amount of time fielding concerns from students about conflicts with their peers. It’s official: we have reached that point in the school year where students are comfortable enough with one another to voice their feelings, even the negative ones – and that means inevitable conflict.
Short of just remembering how awful these conflicts were in our own pre-adolescent years, how can we help? I have a few ideas.
- First, we can listen to them and validate their feelings. Even if something was said in jest, if the person receiving the comment feels insulted, that feeling is valid. It’s hard to process the feeling of being hurt by someone you love, especially when you are twelve. Listening to a child who is experiencing strong emotions is tremendously helpful.
- We can help them separate first-hand experience from assumptions, gossip and rumors. Recently, I had a student share with me that she thought a student had called her a “bad word,” but she wasn’t entirely sure. I listened to her concerns, we talked about possible scenarios, and I assured her that it is never okay for someone to call her names. She came to the conclusion that she may have misheard what the student said.
- We can help differentiate between normal social conflict and bullying. Anti-bullying author Carrie Goldman (who is presenting at our speaker series here at MPA on March 12, 2016) urges parents and school staff to articulate these differences. She clarifies that bullying behaviors are repeated, unwanted and involve an imbalance of power; normal social conflict does not share these characteristics.
- We can reflect on and share our own experiences, but know that our students live in vastly different social universes. When I recently asked a student why I might be talking with him about insulting a peer, he responded “well, because people were mean to you in middle school.” Clearly, I have shared this story more than once. But when I was twelve, the comments ended when I left school – the people who didn’t like me certainly weren’t calling me on their rotary-dial phones to taunt me at home. In the age of smart phones and social media, our students are more actively involved in these worlds outside of school, and thus open themselves up to comments, wanted or not.
As you likely recall, it’s hard to be a kid; the added pressures (plus the hormones!) of pre-adolescence make it even harder. Emotions are strong, and the social dynamic is ever-changing. As students work to express themselves and create fulfilling social lives, we promise to do our best to help them feel safe and comfortable.
By Heather Kurut
Mrs. Kurut is our principal for Middle School and Lower School.