By the time Catie, 14, stormed out of her last class of the day, she felt disconnected from her emotions. She had no idea how deeply she'd been impacted by a minor fight with her mother on the way to school. In homeroom, she took offense when her friend Trevor made an innocuous comment about her weekend plans. At lunch, she felt rejected when friends turned her away from their full table. As the day went on, she was increasingly irritable. When her teacher chastised her for being chatty during seventh period, she yelled out to no one in particular that she always got blamed for everything, then ran out of class.
I counseled Catie that evening, and it took a while for her to identify the precipitating event. It's easy for middle schoolers to get derailed by an argument, rescinded invitation, or ambiguous comment, but hard for them to connect the dots between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Tweens may think bad feelings stick around forever, struggle to interpret feedback, or have no idea how to make themselves feel better. All of this can interfere with their functioning at school, but educators can use the following eight counseling techniques to help kids navigate the highs and lows.
Perfect the artful reframe.
Middle schoolers think in polarities. There's nothing more humiliating than making a mistake in class or clocking the slowest time in a relay. Getting disinvited from a sleepover, bombing a test, or getting excluded from a gift exchange all can feel like catastrophes. If you're able to reframe a situation—to help a child see it from a different angle—they'll experience it differently. Maybe that student who got disinvited from the sleepover knows deep down that they were spared discomfort and drama. Maybe no one intended to leave that kid out of the gift swap. Ask them how they'd reframe the situation for a friend or encourage them to pretend they're in a hot air balloon looking down on the situation. Do they see it any differently from that vantage point? Consider asking them to play it out. What's the evidence that the worst will happen? What's the evidence it won't happen? What would they need to cope with the worst-case scenario?
Challenge distorted thinking.
Students think they wouldn't lie to themselves, but they do. They catastrophize, think in black and white, overgeneralize, and discount the positive. For instance, they may get dozens of compliments on their presentation, but fixate on one snide comment about their voice cracking. If they bomb a quiz, they may conclude they'll fail at life. If they don't know the answer to #7 on the worksheet, they may feel they might as well bag the whole assignment. If a teacher changes their seat because they're disruptive, they may believe the relationship is irreparably damaged. Point out their faulty thinking and ask them to come up with alternative possibilities.
When a student makes a comment like, "I'm the worst writer," or "You never call on me," or "No one ever wants to be my lab partner," your instinct will be to refute the comment. Instead, validate it. That doesn't mean you agree or approve, it simply means you understand and empathize. You might say, "If I thought no one wanted to be my lab partner, I'd be pretty upset too. What makes you feel that way?" Consider sharing a time you felt similarly. Once a child feels heard, they'll be more open to problem-solving. Even if they behave inappropriately, start with validation. After saying, "If I thought everyone was laughing at me, I'd want to throw a chair, too," follow up with, "But here's why it's not okay."
Be an active and reflective listener.
Active listening is hard; it requires concentrating, matching a student's body language, turning toward them, eliminating distractions, making eye contact, and ensuring your tone, gestures and words are all in alignment. You'll lose credibility if there's inconsistency between what you say and what they perceive. It's tempting to multi-task when time is limited, but resist the urge to organize papers or glance at your computer. Make sure you listen reflectively, which requires repeating back what the student has just told you. That eliminates the potential for misunderstanding and increases the odds they'll feel heard. Bonus points if you reference any of their comments in a future conversation.
Counselor-to-student ratios are absurdly high; students don't necessarily relate to their counselor, if they know them at all; and mental illness is skyrocketing among middle schoolers. Educators can help by taking the time once a semester to define depression and anxiety and explain the difference between mental illness and the normal mood fluctuations associated with puberty. You don't need to be a therapist or school counselor to self-identify as someone who wants to help. If you need to involve the student's counselor, consider walking them there to help them tell their story.
Extinguish phobias with small exposures.
You don't want to shield students from all anxiety, but you don't want to traumatize them either. If a kid is anxious taking tests and has been taking them in another room, for example, focus on incremental progress. The next step might be having them take the test in the classroom, but with their back to peers. Similarly, if a student fears public speaking, try to avoid having them opt out altogether. Instead, scaffold the risk-taking. Perhaps they start by presenting to a few trusted friends or read from a script. Collaborate on any solutions.
Ask open-ended questions and make time to relate.
Lead with curiosity and open-ended questions. You'll improve the relationship if you use any one-on-one time to focus on learning about your student rather than delivering content or hammering home behavioral expectations. Even if you only can carve out five minutes a week, ask them how they learn best or what excites them. What progress do they hope to make in your class? If you notice a sports logo on their shirt, ask if they're a fan. Solicit their opinions, treat them as the expert in their lives and speak above their maturity level to convey respect.
Connect thoughts to feelings and behaviors.
Students concentrate better when you help them label feelings. Some teachers ask kids to fill out charts to indicate their mood or have them hang their nametag on a "mood clothesline" in the spot that best corresponds to their emotions. You can have your students share why they're in a bad mood, then exchange ideas with classmates about what they can proactively do to feel better. Don't forget to acknowledge their joy as well. If a student seems exuberantly happy, encourage them to savor the pleasant feeling for as long as possible. Tweens experience intense lows and are wired to remember the negative, and that makes middle school the perfect time to reinforce positivity and optimism. In fact, that might be one of the most enduring, impactful lessons you can impart.
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of
Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly
Career Confidential column and tweets.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2019.