A little over one year ago I wrote about The Bridge between childhood and adolescence. Back then, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that bridge, longingly looking back towards the childhood side yet hopeful as I moved apprehensively towards the adolescence side.
Well, it appears my bridge was an express bridge.
Here I am; on the other side.
You know what's here? Cell phones, mustaches, adam's apples, deep booming voices, attitudes, challenges to limits, and boys who suddenly stand at eye level to me.
You know what else is here?
Meaningful conversations, random tight hugs, trust, and young men who are mostly kind and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, it's sort of nice over here; albeit a bit smelly and messy. On this side of the bridge, I am the parent of a young man, not a young boy, and I get to start taking a step back to let him take some risks on his own.
One of the first big events on this side of the bridge happened today: the first day of middle school. Or, as my son's new principal told the parents last week, Day 1 of the 540 school days of his middle school career.
In some areas of our life, 540 seems like a lot.
But, when we are talking about time in middle school, 540 days is nothing. It's half the length of time he spent from Kindergarten through 5th grade (1080 school days for math dorks like myself). That period of time went by in the blink of an eye. Surely these next 540 days are going to fly by even quicker!
So, how do we, as new middle school parents, survive these next 540 days?
Well, I know how I spent the days leading up to Day 1 - letting the middle school version of me find her way to the surface. I color coded binders, folders and schedules, circled rooms on maps, plotted out the best way to organize his backpack, role played some scenarios, and had a nightmare that I was him and I couldn't find my math class on Day 1. I just wanted his middle school experience to not be awful like my own.
But, then I stopped myself. (Because, seriously, a nightmare??)
Adolescence is messy and painful. It's supposed to be awkward. It's supposed to be emotional. It's supposed to be challenging. Some days are supposed to feel awful. And, aren't middle school and adolescence synonymous?
Like most challenging, uncomfortable and unpleasant things in life, when we look back on them later, we can see the good they brought to our lives. They are the catalytic events and change agents that shape our lives. Although I would never want to relive my own 540 days, I do see how they helped to shape me into who I am today. I see how some of the people I still care deeply for today are friends I made during those 540 days. I can see that in those 540 days were where many of my interests were born. My 540 days were certainly not filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, but maybe I should be thankful that they weren't.
As my middle schooler hugged me goodbye today, I tried to tell the middle school version of myself to settle down. I know many of his 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments. I know there will be lots of times where he feels just as I did during my 540 days. His 540 days will not be filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies.
So, how am I going to navigate my own 540 day journey as a parent? I am going to realize that in many ways the parental journey of 540 days mirrors the student's journey. These 540 days will be challenging for me as a parent. If adolescence is awkward and painful, so to is parenting an adolescent. For parents, many of our 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments too.
It has been suggested that the most influential people in a teen's life are not his teachers, coaches, parents or professional athletes. It turns out that for many teens, their peers are the most influential presence. Middle schoolers need each other. I suspect that this holds true for middle school parents as well. Parents need other parents.
My plan for surviving the next 540 school days is simple: lean on my peers, be kind when mistakes are made, learn lessons where they can be learned and remember that this time is going to fly by. While I am not in any rush, I look forward to seeing who we all are on Day 540.
Only 539 more days to go...
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How did we get here?
Weren't we just filling out beginning of the school year forms, buying and labeling folders and school supplies, picking out first day of school outfits and gleefully sending our kids off to a new school year?
Now here we are, thickly in the midst of end of the school year activities. Concerts. Plays. Performances. Field Days. Graduations. Field Trips. Summer camp registrations.
This year is different, though. This year is my oldest baby's last year of elementary school. As this school year comes to an end, this chapter in his life is closing.
I thought the only way I would make it to this point would be by someone dragging me unwillingly as I clung desperately to the thought of my baby staying in elementary school. Just 9 months ago I watched him get on the bus for his first day of 5th grade and I couldn't believe middle school was coming. This point in time seemed so far away then. It was completely on the other side of The Bridge. But now, when I send him off to school each day, I think "He's totally outgrown elementary school." He's ready. His friends are ready. I'm ready.
Or so I thought,
Last week he took the stage in his final elementary school talent show in a group number with over 40 of his 5th grade classmates. When at the end of the performance, the students grouped themselves together so that their shirts spelled out "THESE WERE THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES." I let out an audible gasp and then cried for the first time about him leaving elementary school.
It hit me in that moment - not only were these the best years of his life (so far), they also have been the most influential. It was there, in classrooms, recess playgrounds, cafeterias and hallways that he learned how to build solid friendships, how to be himself, how to learn, how to play, how to manage independence, how to ask for help and how to give help. It was here that he transitioned from a short, squishy, shy, self-conscious 6 year old to the tall, athletic, outgoing and confident 11 year old he is today.
As I tried to see through my tear-filled eyes, I looked around the stage at our 5th graders and then at some of my fellow 5th grade parents. From here on out, we start letting them go a bit more and trusting that the foundation they built during their elementary school years is strong enough for them...for us.
Recently my Timehop showed me a picture of my current 5th grader as a 5 year old, preparing to transition into kindergarten. We were at a "Touch a Truck" event and he had excitedly climbed onto a big yellow school bus with me. There on my Timehop was a photo of me and my baby, peering out the school bus window, both of us filled with excitement about the years to come in elementary school. If I could go back in time and interview that version of us, I don't think either of us really had any idea what the elementary school years would bring us - moments of pure joy, fear, laughter, sadness, new friendships born, old friendship broken and mended and immense amounts of growth.
These years of elementary school weren't always easy.
But, you know what?
They truly have been the best years of our lives.
One of the best things that happened to me in my early educational career was that I only had to go to Middle School (or Jr. High as it was known back then) for two years - not the typical three years. I spent a hellish 6th and 7th grade at the Middle School in my home town and then our 8th grade class became the first class to start the 8th grade year in the High School. Woo hoo!
If you were anything like the Middle School version of me, then 6th and 7th grade probably were awful for you too. You couldn't pay me enough money to relive those years: the constant physical, mental, social and emotional changes; teasing, bullying and general drama; boyfriend/girlfriend issues; and overall awkwardness. I'm fairly certain that 8th grade me flipped my Middle School the bird and yelled "Peace Out!" on my last day in that nightmarish period of my life. When they knocked the building down a few years ago, I felt no sadness. None at all.
Thank God we don't have to ever relive those years.
I have come to realize over the past few months that we never really do leave Middle School for good. For those of us that become parents and get to experience the super awesomeness of parenting tweens and teens, it's like going straight back to Middle School. It's like a time machine that sends you back to the worst period of your life. Totally cool.
Middle School is no different the second time around. Actually, I think it might be worse the second time around. Instead of ME being the target and the one going through all of the changes, drama and awkwardness, it's my child going through it and I feel it all. All of it. When he gets made fun of, I feel it. When he struggles with complex emotions and difficult decisions, I'm there with him. When his heart gets broken, so too does mine. (The psychotherapist in me wonders if maybe this means I'm too connected to him. Probably. But, I'm still standing on The Bridge. I need a little more time.)
So, aside from diving head first into a nice bottle of red and some Netflix bingeing, here are some tips to help you survive your second go round with Middle School:
1. Monitor screen time
Today's tweens and teens are growing up in a society where there is instant gratification and complete interconnectedness. While these technological advancements can be exciting and certainly quite useful, they also make it a bit of a challenge for social skill development. Monitor your children's use of social media. Read their texts, tweets and posts. Tweens and teens have become very skilled at bullying over social media and their parents often have no idea that it is happening. Spend some time researching secret apps that teens are using now. In this instance, Google is your friend.
2. Create space for honesty
It's fairly unlikely that your 12 year old is going to come home from school everyday and pour his heart out to you. But, you can consistently send your children the message that you are there for them. You want to hear them. You want to support them. Sometimes the end of the day/bedtime is a good place for these conversations to take place organically. Sometimes, though, it's places like the car where tweens and teens open up with their parents. Something about staring straight ahead at the road and not into their parent's eyes seems to make them more comfortable. So, make some time to just drive around and see what comes up in conversation.
3. Model appropriate behavior
Full disclosure here. Adults acting like Middle School students is one of my pet peeves. It's hard to explain how wrong bullying and teasing is to our children when so many adults in their lives have themselves become skilled at bullying others on social media. Think twice before posting that passive aggressive meme about a peer. Would you condone your child posting such a meme about his peer right now? How would you feel if someone posted it about your child? Watch how you talk about other parents and peers in front of your children. They pick up on way more than you think.
4. Think twice before getting involved
There are many times when I want to march myself into my children's school, bus or sports teams and give one of their peers a piece of my mind or sit them down and mediate a discussion for them. In the vast majority of those situations, getting involved would only be about me and wouldn't do anything to help my children or their peers learn how to successfully and responsibly handle conflict. Take a step back and let your tween and teen figure it out. Role play scenarios and conversations with them and support their efforts to problem solve on their own. And, of course, advocate when needed and consult with other parents when able to do so.
When all else fails and you find yourself cursing these Middle School experiences, take a deep breath and remember that this is temporary. Before we know it, they'll be out of Middle School (and we'll be out of Middle SChool again too!) and they'll be young women and men. Just as quickly as they went from being helpless babies and toddlers to tweens and teens with their own personalities and lives, they'll be out of our house. So, even though it just plain stinks at times (literally and figuratively if you have boys), lean into the discomfort of these times and be grateful that they let us come along for the ride.
P.S. In case you were wondering, we get to experience Middle School one more time in life - when we become residents in nursing homes and long term care settings. Oh boy. It's Middle School all over again. But, that's a whole other Oprah...
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Are you a teacher, school administrator or school support personnel? If so, think back over the past three years. How many times has a student in your school lost a parent, sibling or significant family member? How many times has your school community lost a student or a teacher? Chances are fairly high that every single one of you could think of at least one instance where grief reared its ugly head in your school.
Now, think back to your professional training experiences. How many courses did you take about the psychology of grief, common grief counseling interventions or how to support grief inside the classroom? How many grief courses were required for your professional licensure? For most of you, the answer to both questions is probably "none."
The statistics regarding children's grief in schools are staggering. According to Comfort Zone Camp, one out of every 7 Americans will lose a sibling or a parent before the age of 20. That's 15% of children under age 20. Yet, it's not unusual for teachers to feel completely unprepared when it comes to supporting a grieving child in their classroom. Teachers are with our children 5-6 hours each day, 5 days each week, 9 months a year. They are the frontlines of support in the classroom for grieving children yet we arm them with few resources and guidance on what to do and what not to do.
For many people, things that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel inadequate and unprepared often become things we avoid. It seems like this holds true for many teachers and schools across America. Grief is not discussed in many classrooms. Most classroom libraries probably do not have books on death, loss or grief. Group discussions after a death strikes a classroom are likely a rarity. Teachers surely make referrals to the school social worker (if one exists in the building) and figure that it's probably best to not mention the loss to the grieving child or to their peers. After all, they don't want to make their students hurt even more. But, the silence many grieving children receive from their schools following a loss can be deafening.
Below are some tips to help teachers and districts begin to improve their ability to provide support to grieving children within the classroom. Remember, nearly 15% of your students are likely to experience a significant loss before they reach the age of 20.
How to Support Children’s Grief in the Classroom
1. Reach out
Perhaps the most important suggestion I can offer is to take an active role. When you hear of a child's loss, reach out. You will not be inconveniencing the family. You will not be a bother to them. Your genuine concern and offer of support could be something that is remembered forever. While you cannot take away that student's loss, by reaching out you are telling them and their family that they are important to you and that they are valued members of the school community. You don't have to offer anything - just your acknowledgement of their loss and validation of their worth is important enough.
2. Share accurate information
In today's super connected society, news travels at lightening fast speeds. One Facebook or Twitter post can notify a whole community of a death in just a few moments. Sometimes the information that gets circulated is based on speculation and is inaccurate. One of the best ways to address this issue is to formally share the information with the correct details. Ask the student's family what information they would like shared and if they would like someone from the school to share it with the school community. Imagine the stress a student may feel returning to school but not knowing who knows about their father's death. Who do they have to tell? What do they need to say? When someone from the school takes that pressure away from the family and child, they take away what can be a very heavy burden.
3. Involve peers
No matter the grade, one of the most important aspects of any child's school experience is their relationship with their peers. When a student loses a family member, it is important for their peers to not just be notified but to be provided with an opportunity to explore the loss themselves. Perhaps their friend's now deceased parent used to volunteer on Field Day or helped out in a carpool or came to school on the student's birthday each year. For many children, seeing a peer lose an important family member can also trigger worries about the possibility of losing their own loved one. That math unit can wait a day while classrooms take an hour to allow the peers to ask questions, support each other and perhaps even identify a way to help their peer.
4. Formally commemorate
Most schools value formal ceremonies. School concerts, school plays, pep rallies, academic assemblies, holiday gatherings and graduations are common occurrences in schools. Why? Because they bring the community together, reinforce the concept of interconnectedness and allow for shared experiences. Schools should not be saving these formal gatherings only for positive moments. During times of grief, schools can find a way to bring everyone together to commemorate the loss of a member of their own community. Some schools plant a tree, install a bench or hold a naming ceremony when the community experiences a significant loss. Formal commemoration activities can also be done on a smaller scale. Perhaps the student's classmates could put together a book of poems, cards or pictures that the students create and then give the book to the grieving child and family (teachers and parents should proof it first though!).
5. Be flexible
For many children, returning to school provides them with security, structure and safety. It is not uncommon or abnormal for a child to want to go to school the very next day after they have had a loss. School can provide grieving children with an opportunity to be distracted from the loss and sadness for short periods of time. It can allow them to feel normal and feel a connection to the life had prior to the loss. But, for many students, there are moments in the school day when they may find it challenging to focus, attend to a task or even sit still. Be flexible with children, regardless of their age, when it comes to their coursework after the loss. Accommodations such as extending deadlines and allowing extra bathroom breaks will probably not ruin the child academically. However, setting rigid standards, being inflexible or accusing children of taking advantage of their grief situation may set children back academically, socially and emotionally. Yes, I am even suggesting applying this same flexibility to teens.
6. Resist the urge to share and compare
While you may have had a similar loss as a child, it is not always helpful to share such experiences with a grieving child. It can potentially minimize their experience and loss. The same holds true to statements like "I lost my Dad too. I know how it feels." The truth is that no two people experience loss and grief in the same way. Avoid sharing and comparing your own experiences and focus instead on providing genuine support.
7. Anticipate re-grieving
Many adults who have experienced a loss can appreciate that there are certain times of the year where their grief gets re-triggered. Anniversaries of the death, certain holidays and birthdays are all common events that can cause a surge in grief. Children experience this same phenomenon but they also have an added layer of complexity in their grief. As children develop cognitively, emotionally and socially, they begin to understand and view their world differently. They start to apply different questions and interpretations to their world and to any losses they may have had. So, while your 6th grade student may have lost their sister in the 2nd grade, they may re-grieve that loss in completely new terms as they begin to see the world through 6th grade eyes. For them, it could feel as if the loss is brand new.
8. Track community losses
Schools and school districts should consider tracking data around grieving children - even if it is only for certain losses such as parents or siblings. Tracking this data will allow districts and schools to identify patterns that are out of the ordinary. For example, if your small elementary school has 9 students who have lost a parent in a span of 2 years, your school may want to explore the possibility of offering more specific resources for those students and families as well as the rest of the school community. That's a lot of grief to be experiencing for one school in one short period of time.
9. Support the staff
Let's face it, being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs out there. Teachers are tasked with an immense amount of goals, objectives and responsibilities without an immense amount of funding or resources. While grief can enter the classroom through the experiences of the students, it can also enter the classroom through the experiences of the school staff. Teachers, administrators and staff members all also encounter loss and may be actively grieving alongside the grieving children in the school. Explore ways to come together to support each other as professionals.
10. Provide support over time
There is no timeline for grief. There is no such thing as closure. When people lose someone important to them to death they don't ever get over it. Grief is with them forever and while sometimes it's a silent companion, other times it's a loud, unruly, disruptive companion who is difficult to manage. Just as grief will exist over a long time frame, so too should the support from the school. Check in frequently with the student to see what they need, not just in the days and weeks immediately following the loss but in the months and years after the loss as well.
If you are interested in receiving additional training and education on the topic of supporting children's grief in the schools, be sure to visit Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources from Scholastic/New York Life for helpful resources such as lesson plans, handouts and training modules. Also explore the website for the National Alliance for Grieving Children for additional training resources and to identify children's grief centers in your area. If you are in the Massachusetts area and would like to arrange for a grief/bereavement in-service in your school, please send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!