A lot of times when people ask me what grade and subject I teach, their eyes grow huge and they ask the inevitable question:
"How do you deal with middle school teenagers?"
I get that. I do. Out in the wild where I can't control them, I'm not a big fan of teenagers either. They're loud, obnoxious and awkward. But the good news is...that's pretty standard and normal behavior for their age. We were ALL loud, obnoxious and awkward at that age. Seeing teenagers out and about reminds me why I'm so glad I'm not in middle or high school anymore.
But in all honesty, when I am working with them at school, they are the least of my worries, problems, frustrations and concerns.
They just don't bother me that much.
When working with kids you have to keep things in perspective. THEY AREN'T ADULTS. They do not have fully functioning brains to make rational decisions and to have a world view that does not focus on themselves and their own needs. It's not that they're TRYING to be incorrigible and self-centered........that's the stage in development that they're at. The terms "good" and "bad" get thrown around a lot with middle school students and I cringe when I hear kids being referred to as "bad." That's just such a final verdict when the child isn't even fully grown yet. Let's wait until they have a few convictions before we start labeling, no? But in all seriousness, underneath all the bad attitude and disrespectful mouthiness..........most kids at their core are GOOD kids. The "bad" kids are the ones that perhaps haven't been given a fair shake at life or haven't been set up for success by the habits and actions of their parents. It's my job as an educator to cut through their "bad" facade and get to the good heart that lies beneath.
And most importantly, you can't take any of it personally. Not the rolling of their eyes, the forgetting of gym clothes or homework, or even when they talk back. It perplexes me when adults get so offended by the behavior of a teenager. Frustrated I can understand, but offended? They're just kids. Half the time they truly don't know any better and isn't that kind of my job? To point out their missteps and instruct them on appropriate behavior in an effort to guide them on their path to becoming an adult?!
There's a little disciplinary philosophy and program out there called Love and Logic and the basic tenets revolve around letting kids know that above everything else, they are cared for.........but that doesn't exclude them from suffering the natural consequences of their actions. It takes the frustration of discipline out of the hands of the adults and places it squarely where it belongs - on the shoulders of the child. Why should my good day be ruined because a preteen forgot his gym clothes or because she talked back?
For example, when a child forgets their gym clothes, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Child: I don't have my PE clothes.
Me: Okay. You'll lose points for no clothes. And after three no clothes days you'll get a detention.
Me: Alright, go have a seat.
*Child looks at me out of the corner of their eye and shuffles off awkwardly.*
The child is expecting to be reprimanded. It kind of throws them for a loop when their behavior doesn't get a reaction out of me. As long as you have a good set of policies, expectations and consequences you just let nature take it's course and all the stress is off your shoulders. The natural consequence is that they'll receive a lower grade and if their behavior continues they will be given a detention and then referral. And NO child, "good" or "bad," wants to be hanging outside the coaching office at 8:00 in the morning when they could be talking with their friends in the cafeteria.
The sixth grade class this year as a whole was pretty "advanced" for their age socially and knew much more about the world (and not in a good way) than many of our 8th graders. As a group, they sent the sixth grade teachers and administration for a loop - we just didn't know quite what to do with them since all our normal methods of discipline didn't really seem to work or sink in. I quickly gave up on trying to bring them up to where I
wanted expected them to be (where other sixth grade classes had started out) and instead met them where they were, grabbed their hand and pulled them along the path I needed them to follow.
But this one young lady was a bit of a conundrum. She was outgoing but her actions spoke of underlying insecurities. According to her classroom teachers, she was a nightmare - never doing any homework and failing the majority of her tests. I saw her as funny and charismatic, but a little damaged. As a general rule, I try to keep in mind that no matter how you slice it, being in middle school is tough and it's not my job to make their lives more difficult but instead to hopefully be a bright spot in an otherwise very dark day. With this child I knew that she and I would have to come to some sort of understanding about her behavior since she started off the year insisting that she speak at the same exact moment as me. I leveled with her one day and laid out all the cards - I listed my expectations, how she wasn't meeting them and what would happen if she continued on her behavioral path. We had a "come to Jesus" meeting one might say. I was also in charge of the Advisory period which was kind of like a big silent study hall where the kids were expected to be silent and work quietly on homework. This was a struggle for this young lady. Not that I blame her but her behavior did get to the point where there were office referrals involved. After one referral, she brought down the pink slip from the office and said to me while getting dressed for PE, "Coach! You got me in trouble again in Advisory! Why do you hate me?" Whoa there turbo. Let's back this train up for a second. I explained things quite plainly for her. "Giving you a referral for behavior that was inappropriate has nothing to do with how much I enjoy having you in my class. In Advisory, my job is to enforce the rules and your job is to follow the rules. When that doesn't happen, the natural consequence is an office referral. I can still like you as a person but hold you accountable for your actions." I didn't lecture or glare but just had a casual tone to my voice. She cocked her head slightly and shrugged in agreement. "Yeah, I understand that. I just hate after school detentions." And off to class she went. No drama, no tears, no fighting. Just an explanation of the rules and our roles as student and teacher.
I'm not saying that I'm the best teacher in the world but I certainly know my strengths. And I'm really good at classroom management and connecting with students. Any good teacher has to be able to meet their students where they are at academically and emotionally and then have a vision of where the child should be at the end of the year, as well as a plan to get them there.
My natural inclination is to apply ALL the above mentioned stuff about behavior management and discipline to my own personal child.
NOT. AS. EASY.
I struggle because I DO take her temper tantrums personally sometimes because I feel as if they are a reflection of my parenting abilities. My brain and emotions are split down the middle when she acts out - one half of me reverts back to all those child development classes I dutifully sat through in college and I logically understand that she is desperately trying to establish her control over something and throwing a fit is the only way she has to express her frustration at this point in time. I TOTALLY understand that from a logical and rational child development point of view. But then there's the other part of me - I have a feeling my mother felt like this a lot when she was working with teenagers while also parenting a teenager, yeah....it's "normal" developmental behavior but you want your child to be better than normal. To be able to be a role model and above average because then it reflects on your parenting skills. I'm a teacher and navigate hormonal teenagers every single day. I should be able to quickly quell a toddler's tantrums.
Some days it's a uphill battle trying to get her to understand boundaries, limits and making her feel reassured at the same time that she is loved and cared for. But as difficult as it might be right now to establish and reinforce boundaries and proper behavior with Natalie, I'd rather do the hard work now and reap the rewards later.
Craig and I were actually discussing this topic at dinner tonight and we both related it to how we approach coaching our respective sports teams at the beginning of the season compared to the end. At the start of the season, I am a beast in the gym. I focus on perfecting the warm-up, practicing and correcting proper passing, setting, hitting and serving technique as well as behavior expectations during practices and games. There are lots of push-ups involved and the girls typically leave the gym sweating profusely. Quite frankly, although I understand the importance of all the stuff that I'm teaching, it's absolutely exhausting for me to be that tough and strict on my girls. BUT....the payoff is fantastic because by the end of the season, they can practically run their own practice. They know when to start stretching, they set up all their warm-up drills and we can easily transition from one activity to the next without hardly any distraction or interruption. Having them so obedient and respectful also allows for me to be more personal and engaging with them as individuals and as a whole. At the end of the season, I'm jumping in their drills and we're having a great time playing a sport that we all love while Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber blasts through the speaker system. Because they know boundaries, limits and have a healthy amount of respect for me as their leader and coach, my teams typically end the season on a high note with all of us genuinely sad to see the season come to a close.
So that's how we're approaching discipline, boundaries, obedience and respect with Natalie - we're beginning with the end in mind. What type of teenager and young adult to we envision ourselves living with and sending off into the world? So, with that goal in mind, what actions do we have to take now in order to produce that type of person? Right now the word "no" is used with us getting down on her level and speaking into her eyes with a firm voice. There is lots and lots of genuine praise when she follows instructions or makes a good decision. And when there is a complete meltdown we take a time-out as a family. Either myself or Craig will take her to the bottom step of the stairs in the entry way (away from most distractions) and we'll just sit, hug and talk calmly into her ear while she wails in an attempt to calm her down. Sometimes she calms down.....sometimes she doesn't, but she has started to go to that step when she's upset so maybe she is making the connection between that location, feeling out of control and taking a necessary little breather from the situation. Whatever the case may be, for the most part she minds very well and her meltdowns are few and far between. BUT we're only at 15 months old so I know there we're just hitting the tip of the iceberg as far as her asserting her independence and making her opinion known.
How do YOU approach discipline with your toddler and do you have any great tricks or tips?