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The film Mean Girls is a lesson for anybody teaching, living with, or raising teenage girls. It’s no doubt that the line between being “popular” and being “Plastic,” as the 4 main characters are satirized, is a fine one. And, without some adult intervention, it can become an everlasting gobstopper that chokes out the functioning of the classroom.
Certainly when famed psychologist Erik Erickson was developing his psychosocial stages, he hardly had the dastardly deeds between the “mean girls” in mind. What he did say, though, was that “the adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult.”
To break it down a bit more, Grammarist defines morals as “right and wrong judgments” and ethics “the principles of proper conduct.”
Nowhere is this distance between morality and ethics evident than in a teenager’s use of technology. Especially in an age of the disappearing messages on Snapchat and sexting, the idea of knowing what is wrong (from childhood) and applying it through actions are a chasm that many struggle to cross. The students’ cognitive ability just hasn’t caught up with their hormones and mixed emotions. And as if the school environment doesn’t complicate things enough, the digital world exponentially raises (or lowers) the bar.
As a 7th grade teacher, I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of this difficulty. That “moratorium” – as Erickson named it – is the space between his fifth stage of development, the one all of us secondary teachers explore – the inner-teen-conflict between identity (“Who am I?“) and role confusion (“Where do I belong?“)
In answering these questions, a child can be haunted by discomfort, uncertainty, fear, misconceptions, and downright viciousness and vindictiveness. As these teens learn to become more independent, they also acquire a level of selfishness and self-righteousness. What they are doing isn’t necessarily wrong because they have applied their own sense of reason, cause, and justification to what has been done. And often in doing, they are stepping on toes.
While boys tend to experience this stage just as much as girls do, the problems tend to linger for the young ladies. A fight and a quick “make-up” don’t necessarily settle in as quickly as they do their male counterparts. While I know there are plenty of holes to poke in my analysis, especially as I have no scientific evidence to this claim other than my 11 years in the classroom, I’m learning that the girl drama is no longer just for their “mamas.” It’s pervaded and paraded its way into our schools.
And educators need to be equipped with a few tools to alleviate the stress on these young ladies. Here are some tips:
- Don’t escalate the situation – pacify it. Kay Ireland references this as the first step in an article she wrote for Livestrong. It’s very for parents and teachers alike to get swirled into the tornado of emotions, and the first instinct is to rush in and defend the child. I notice how my wife interacts with my 16-month-old son, and I’m fascinated at the impact of a calming hand, voice, and attention can do for a child.
- Let them talk. When any of us face an issue, the first thing we want to do is share the difficulties that are stirring inside our stomachs. They need to be heard. Listen.
- Empathize. Maybe you have a story to connect to what they’re experiencing. Share it when the time is right. But talk only about half as much as the troubled young lady talks. If they ask more questions, feel free to proceed.
- Help the child define what a positive and negative relationship look like. Nancy Drew of Parenting Guide Media really hammers home this point: loyalty will be blind unless we learn who and what we’re actually supporting. And this hardly applies to only children.
- Note how social hierarchy is taking root. In Mean Girls, the “Plastics” rise up into power. PBS notes that “cliques get cliquier” in the early teen years, and that will often leave certain young adults out of their former “in group.”
- Ask her to take onus for her actions. I have come a long way in dealing with my problems once I admit that I can only control my own actions, and that – minus my ability to persuade and engage – is about as far as my locus of control extends. Many teens haven’t matured into this mindset yet.
- Try to locate the root of the problem. We’re all icebergs. The real reason for conflict is as varied as the colors in the rainbow or the days in the year. Getting to the cause of the weed can smother its presence.
- Re-teach the importance of respect. Certainly the children don’t need to like one another. We don’t like everybody we meet. But it’s our responsibility to teach them to teach them the Golden Rule, and re-teach it as necessary.
- Help the young lady decide when it’s time to call it quits. Rachel Simmons, in a guest article for Time Magazine, noted that sometimes bygones just need to be bygones, and we need to move on with our lives, call a truce, and act like passersby on a busy New York City street. Easier said than done, yes, but not impossible.
- Be “all-hands-on-deck.” This is not just the job of the school counselor, the principal, or the school psychologist. This is a team effort with the teachers, the parents, with the girls, and with the bystanders to put things in their place, even if it’s a new one, that makes things at least tolerable.
This is an important stage in the young ladies’ development, so the ability to work through these problems is of utter importance. However, educators need to practice calm, patience, and permit things to work themselves out with the teens. Anything that seems like a forced truce will only last as long as the school day. In time, things will work themselves out. We just need to help the girls arrive there and to spit out the everlasting gobstopper of “mean girl.”