Friday, April 4, 2014

D: Drama (A-Z Blog Challenge: Evocative words)

I teach middle school, so I know a thing or two about drama.

Middle schoolers want everything to be big. They live in a hyperbolic fishbowl where every ripple in the water is amplified to a personal tsunami. Perspective is in short supply when the people are still short, but are struggling with adult emotions, situations and hormones.

I've developed a few theories about what causes the drama and how to deal with it.

Cause: Fear of being ignored: Middle school is a major transitional time of life. The things that made a person feel well-loved in elementary school do not necessarily translate into popularity in middle school. In the middle school mind, it's bad to have bad things happen to you, but it's even worse to have nothing at all happen to you. Attention is good, so good that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Dealing with it: Make a personal connection. Help kids make personal connections with each other. Call positive attention to someone whenever you can. Provide structured opportunities for kids to compliment each other academically and personally. Model empathy and the idea that each person is important and has something to contribute to the group. Do not allow anyone to be left out, even they are trying self-exclude.

Cause: Immature reaction to mature situations: Ever tried to watch a movie with serious adult themes with a child who wasn't ready for it yet? I've taught kids who make barfing noises when two characters kiss onscreen, even if the whole film was a build up to this moment and the kiss is relatively chaste. Mostly, they're not trying to be jerks. They're trying to find a way to diffuse their own discomfort, and they go for humor. To the teacher, this is very frustrating. After all, you chose this particular film or experience for your class to meet specific educational goals, and this clown is clouding the moment.  On the other hand, this child is trying the best he or she can to sort out what a person is supposed to be feeling.

Dealing with it: Watch for potential moments like this and build in a pressure valve. Warn the kids about what's coming--don't let it sneak up and surprise them unpleasantly. Ask them to write and talk about their reactions. Include suggestions of what to do if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Talk about why you chose the particular material and what you want your class to get from it.

Cause: Lack of Perspective: Even though some of these people appear to be adults, in size and shape, they are assuredly not adults inside. They don't have a wealth of experience to call upon when badness comes their way.  It might really be the first time someone has targeted them for insults or rudely turned them away when they tried to be part of a social situation. They may not have healthy models for dealing with conflict at home. Telling them that "you'll understand someday" or "this too will pass" will only add to the feelings of isolation and distance.

Dealing with it: Perspective is a slow building thing. So, this is a long, slow struggle. Exposure is key. Anything that helps kids get a view into someone else's life, lets them walk in someone else's shoes can be helpful. Movies. Books. Personal stories. Guest speakers. Given that the kids are young, they are most interested by stories of young people. They don't really believe they will ever be old, but they believe that they will be older. Mentoring programs with high school students are highly effective for this reason.

Overall, the most important way to help a young person through drama is not to become part of the drama yourself. This isn't always easy. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers are under a lot of stress. Kids can get under your skin and piss you off, but you can't let it become personal and about you. Be the adult. Model reasonable behavior. Too many adults try to control this sort of thing as an act of will. "I will make you stop this!" That won't work. You'll just create a whole whirlwind of drama. Now besides being upset at whatever the first problem was, they'll get worked up about you and how adults treat them. It will escalate exponentially.

That said, you also can't ignore it. A summer program I once worked for at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University had a policy that I've always thought was brilliant: Zero Indifference. This is so much better than the idea of Zero Tolerance which is all about top-down force of will.  Zero Indifference asks the adults to engage with anything they see around them that is in appropriate.

Don't walk by the child in tears or punching a wall just because you don't know them. Gather information, offer advice, seek support as needed. But don't pretend you don't see it. Remember point one: fear of being ignored? Thus starts a vicious cycle anew.

This post is part of the Blogging from A-Z Challenge.


  1. The middle grade years are certainly dramatic! Love the advice.

  2. Not being a part of the drama, yet being there to offer advice and guidance is a tight rope walk. I guess that's what parenting is all about!

  3. It's all a tightrope act, isn't it? That's why I chose the image I did for my blog.

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