A friend recently called upset after discovering that her daughter had arranged an outing with her drama club and had actively excluded other students in the program. My friend was distraught that her child, the one she thought she had taught to be kind, could be so mean.
I wasn’t too surprised. This is a great kid we’re talking about. She is capable of doing tremendously thoughtful and nice things for others. But, she’s 13. This is an age when our children can be almost unrecognizable in their capacity for unexpected — and unwanted — behaviors.
And, it’s a time in our lives when the lessons of kindness and being aware of the choices we have in how we treat each other are especially important.
We’ve long known young people at this age are affected by the hormones raging through their young bodies. And, we can see the outward physical changes as they morph from children to adults. What we can’t see, but what science has been revealing, is all the changes going on inside their pretty little heads.
Their brains are actually going through a massive transformation that rivals the development of their earliest years. Their grey matter is thickening and the brain is rewiring itself, research shows. This starts at the onset of puberty and continues through age 24. Those of us who have witnessed it aren’t surprised to learn that much of this growth comes in the prefrontal cortex – that part of the brain that’s responsible for reasoning.
So while we need to teach the underlying principles of kindness throughout the elementary school years, these lessons take on a new significance in middle school. With this brain development, students are gaining the capacity to analyze their options and make decisions using abstract concepts.
During these years, they are essentially learning new ways to make decisions. They are also more aware of others and the opinions of others and the implications of those opinions.
In some ways, it may feel like they’ve stepped backward in their maturity level, but really they’re running headlong into a new stage of independence. They’re pushing away from parental influence while grabbing for autonomous control over their decisions, emotions, and actions.
It may seem like they don’t estimate the risks of their actions as well as adults, but there is no evidence to support that theory, according to cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore. Rather, they actually do understand the health and legal risks, but in the moment, they are more concerned about being accepted by their peers.
The good news is that they are capable of a great deal of empathy and compassion. But they are more likely to prioritize fitting in and conforming over reaching out and showing care to others.
As parents and educators, we can do more than just grit our teeth and hold tight to our chairs to ride out the storm. Rather, as we understand more about what is happening during this transition, we can adjust our approach to guide them in how best to manage their complex world. And hopefully, we can improve the experience for everyone.
This was our goal when we developed the Choose To Be Nice program for Middle Schools.
In the elementary school years, we introduce nine character traits that combine to create an attitude of empathy and compassion: respect, kindness, acceptance, teamwork, honesty, responsibility, friendship, patience, and courage. Children are introduced to the traits through stories and activities that allow them to put into practice what they’re learning.
In our Middle School program, there is more of an emphasis on actions and practice through project-based learning. What they need is a structure that allows them to take charge and make decisions. This takes advantage of their natural push for independence allowing them to learn through experience, which is extremely effective.
Our program grows with the students as they progress through the middle school years. In sixth grade, they work together to create a project that will promote the culture of nice in their classroom. In seventh grade, they work on a project that will expand that culture throughout the school. And in eighth grade, they work on a project that will impact the community outside of their school.
The objective is to tap into the tremendous potential that is being created with their brain development. As they have a capacity for deeper thought and more meaningful interactions, we want to set them up to be more aware of their options and choices. It builds on the lessons of the younger years and sets them up for a stronger future.
We can expect that there will be difficulties during these years. Understanding what’s happening won’t change it. But the more we know, the better we will be able to manage through it. To my friend and all parents facing similar struggles, I want to offer a reminder and reassurance that the changes you’re seeing are part of a learning and growing process that can result in responsive, empathetic and compassionate adults.