The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has studied one of my favorite subjects: the transition to middle school.
I spoke with Lori Nathanson, Ph.D, Associate Research Scientist, Director of Partnerships and Shauna Tominey, Ph.D, Associate Research Scientist, Director of Early Childhood Programming/Teacher Education to learn more. Nathanson and Tominey partnered with Kleenex brand to host a workshop with kids transitioning to middle school, in hopes of learning more about their feelings and to explore ways to help kids thrive socially and academically given the complicated feelings middle school brings.
“One of the messages we see so much in society is we’re all aiming to be happy,” said Nathanson. “But we have a whole range of emotions and we wanted to spread the message that to have that full range of emotion is really good.” Through role-playing and brainstorming with 50 rising 6th graders, Nathanson and Tominey saw kids make direct connections between their own feelings, (ranging from apprehension to excitement) and what others were feeling.
This is where empathy really kicks in.
To be able to think outside yourself, particularly when you might also be feeling stress, anxiety, fear or apprehension, is an act of bravery.
No surprise, the researchers found that 76% of kids in the workshop felt stressed about entering middle school.
- 91 percent of students worry about getting to class on time, getting lost in a new school and receiving bad grades
- 69 percent worry about not fitting in with new classmates
- 67 percent worry about being judged by others
They looked for moments where kids could say “I know how you feel. I feel that way sometimes, too.” But sometimes words are hard to come by. The partnership with Kleenex gave the Yale researchers access to a tangible tool kids could use to show empathy. Researchers found that Kleenex Care Kits are a great way to express caring when words failed. Handing someone a tissue is a universal sign of care, isn’t it? So when kids had the chance to look and act beyond themselves, and they were given a tangible tool to do it, it helped the recipient and also bolstered confidence in the giver.
One of the things we often overlook about learning new concepts or transitioning to new experiences is that language is key. From kids to adults, we need a common vocabulary to talk about new ideas and experiences. It’s no wonder so many teens go silent during adolescence. Sometimes they just don’t have the words to describe the storm of new and foreign feelings they encounter.
The researchers also noted that the kids came up with 54 words to describe how they felt about going to middle school. Of those, almost twice as many were negative as positive.
From my perspective, these negative pre-conceived notions about middle school happen for a few reasons.
- The bravado of older kids. Most kids who’ve “been there, done that” have a sense of accomplishment and pride around transitioning to middle school. Naturally they brag about how hard it is to make themselves seem cooler, stronger and more experienced to younger kids.
- The dread of parents. Your kids are listening and watching, When parents joke with each other about how they wish their kids could skip right over middle school, or how awful middle school was for them, kids take that in.
- The perfect storm of adolescence, or what I refer to as the “middle school construction project”. Kids undergo major changes to the body, brain and identity during middle school, making it one of the most confusing and unique periods in our lives. It’s challenging, but I talk about how to deal with this in my book Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience Middle School.
So what’s a parent to do?
- Find a common language. Ask your kids how they feel about starting middle school. Share some of your best memories from middle school and acknowledge that while you might also be feeling nervous about the start of school, you’re also looking forward to the great things your kid will do.
- Get explicit about fears. If your child is afraid, try to pin down why. Getting lost seems to be the biggest fear. Brainstorm what your child can do if that happens. Plan ways to keep it from happening by touring the school or downloading a campus map.
- Create a care pack for your kid. A combination lock, locker décor, special pens and Kleenex to share are great ideas for building excitement and empathy. The Yale researchers found that “77 percent of students reported feeling better about going to middle school and 55 percent of students reported that the kit taught them new strategies to manage their concerns about middle school.” A little support goes a long way!
I love the attention Kleenex and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence are giving to middle school and I especially love the tenderness in this video where kids talk about their fears of going to middle school.
For more ideas on how to make the most of the transition to middle school grab a copy of Middle School Makeover.