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Kindred Spirits: Middle Schoolers and Toddlers

Kindred Spirits: Middle Schoolers and Toddlers


Their limbs are disproportionate to their bodies making them look and seem somewhat awkward. Their brains are developing rapidly. They are questioning everything you say-why, why, why? They are hungry all the time. They are easily cranky. One moment they want to be held, the next they want total independence. They have little tolerance with authority. They are independent know-it-alls, who are easily bored and easily distracted. They play hard, work hard and sleep hard. They are tornadoes of energy who suddenly crash and become exhausted. They are overly emotional, feel misunderstood and tend to over-react. They adore older siblings and have no patience for younger ones.

Am I referring to a thirteen month old or a thirteen year old?
Frankly, I am referring to both.

People laugh when those of us in education compare middle schoolers to toddlers. However, the truth is your adolescent has more in common with a toddler than she does an eight or nine-year-old child. Not since the early years has your middle school child gone through such rapid growth, change and development.

The adolescent brain looks different than the brain of a child. The amygdala, that almond shaped control center for emotions, doubles in size during the adolescent years. Because of this teens often think via emotion, rather than via logic. Pat Wolfe author and founder of Mind Matters Inc. suggests that, “When we realize that the prefrontal cortex allows reflection while the amygdala is designed for reaction, we can begin to understand the often irrational and overly emotional reactions of teens. Our oft-asked question when teens engage in irrational behavior, ‘What were you thinking?’ is difficult for teens to answer because in many cases they weren’t thinking reflectively; they were reacting impulsively.”

In the teen brain, the prefrontal cortex, where good decision making happens is overrun by a growing amygdala. The amygdala will go back to its original size around age twenty-four. It is also worth mentioning that the prefrontal cortex itself is going through another growth and re-wiring process. Interestingly enough, the average human’s prefrontal cortex isn’t even done developing until around age four or five. So, guess what, neither toddlers nor middle schoolers are thinking logically!

However, there is a lot to love about toddlers and middle schoolers. A LOT. Their ability to move from one emotion to the next gives those of us who are watching carefully a window into their busy minds. They are funny, sarcastic, witty and adventurous. Their rapid brain growth allows them to surprise us with their growing intelligence. And when they are passionate about something, watch out world! There’s no one more persistent than a toddler or an adolescent who wants to prove a point. Both middle schoolers and toddlers experience moments of complete and utter concentration. When they are committed they are “all in.”

When you find yourself in times of utter frustration with your middle schooler or toddler, it’s important to remember just where their brains are. Some of the tried and true methods you used when they were toddlers, might be the perfect fix right now. In an article found on the North American Montessori Council’s website, the author suggests that both toddlers and adolescents do best with the following conditions:

– Reassurance
– Active listening
– Adequate nourishment – often
– Physical attention (hugs, pats on the back)
– Limits. (They will push the limits and want to know they are consistent.)
– A safe place where they can feel free to fall apart/lose control/have a tantrum or just be themselves.
– Freedom to explore new things/new friendships/new places, with the knowledge that there is a home “base”, a place of normalcy, to return to.
– Help making wise choices
– Positive role models
– Freedom to make and learn from their mistakes
– And most importantly, unconditional love and acceptance

We are not perfect and no one can press our buttons quite like a toddler or an adolescent. Sometimes we need to really dig deep to retrieve the right amount of patience. The toddlers have an edge in this category, as it is likely easier to find a sense of calm because their behavior is accepted as developmentally appropriate. We should also remember that this behavior is developmentally appropriate in our adolescents, as well.  Toddlers also have the benefit of being so darn cute.

Our Middle Schoolers do have an edge in other ways. We as adults have stronger memories of what it means to be an awkward adolescent than we do a clumsy toddler. When our patience are in tact, our empathy for adolescence soars, as we picture our own discomfort in a body that was too big, too unpredictable and too foreign to the body we knew for years before.

The next time your middle schooler or toddler is being unreasonable, challenging or just plain goofy, dig deep and remember where they are developmentally. Your understanding and acceptance will go a long way.

Joann Deak
NMAC Montessori Teacher Training Blog
Pat Wolfe Mind Matters

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