Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Terrible Twos...and Elevens...and Twelves… and Thirteens...and Fourteens…

The Terrible Twos...and Elevens...and Twelves…
and Thirteens...and Fourteens…
By Janie Wallace Slavens

Picture this: ripped paper all over the floor, a group of barefoot children jumping, screaming and laughing while they throw it in the air, chipper music blasting over the stereo while two start pushing each other and need teacher redirection to play safely again. You would not be surprised if I told you I am the mom of a toddler and this was a scene from our community playgroup. But in fact, this describes my most recent 8th grade dance class. 

Toddlers and middle school students have a lot in common. Hear me out: rapid developmental changes, new bodies with new abilities and limited physical control, boundary pushing and challenging authority, mysterious smells, unpredictable volume, extreme mood swings, post-lunch exhaustion to the point of tears, a love of bland and familiar foods, and bad taste in music. I spend my work hours these days with 6th, 7th and 8th grade students right in the throes of adolescence and my off-time with a not-very-terrible two-year-old. The parallels are shocking and often overwhelming, but I’m lucky to be learning things from one group I can take to the other.

The human brain grows at an incredible rate during the first 3-5 years of life. It transforms children from infants, also known as 24-hour poop-milk-sleep-cry machines who can’t do anything for themselves, into functional little people who can run, jump and climb and are full of language, opinions, and emotions. Our brains are literally built during this time. In adolescence, the brain has another amazing growth period forging neural pathways and connecting dots. The size doesn’t change, but the abilities and control begin to take shape in new ways. Sweet little grade-schoolers become hormone-fueled gangly, emotional, sweaty creatures just starting on the long road to adulthood. Turns out, transformation is usually messy.

Both of these periods in the life of a child change the entire reality of the world around them and how they function within it. They test their newly formed abilities and strange new bodies. Their opinion of authority changes and they push on the boundaries to see how far the rules will bend. They have trouble regulating their emotions and may experience wild mood swings. As a parent and a teacher, children in both of these phases may love me one minute and loathe me the next. It all comes with the territory of rapid growth and change. 
Due to all this newness, both toddlers and middle schoolers require extreme patience and self-regulation from the adult in the room. When I’m with my daughter, I understand it would be absurd to take her emotional outbursts about the wrong fruit in her yogurt personally. When my moody 6th grade student says something rude to me in the midst of a warm-up game, I remind myself of this lesson, take a deep breath, and respond with patience and an eye on the student’s growth. My middle school students are often able to verbalize why a certain day feels overwhelming and they need some downtime instead of doing something really active. I try to remember this when my toddler crawls up on my lap for some silent mommy-cuddles the moment I get home from work. I delay our impending grocery store run to give her that recharge time and ask her questions about her emotions to help give them names. I know that both my daughter and my students are constantly watching me and others their own age to learn how to behave and what is acceptable, so I try to model kindness. I acknowledge my own emotions to help model that it’s okay to fee
big feelings. I also look for the silly wherever I can.

As a performing arts teacher, I am most struck by the need for play in both populations. Toddlers will turn anything into a game. Middle schoolers do this too if you’re really paying attention. The rules are more complex and the reactions to winning and losing may be a bit hidden, but they still love to play. When I can get my classes to put down their social obsessions and fears of judgement to embrace silliness and exploration, I see tremendous growth in them. I get home from a long day of creative play with my students and am greeted with a little girl holding a glitter purse and a face covered in stickers asking me to help her put her toy trucks “night-night.” I remind myself what I saw my students learn through some vigorous play during the day and I dig up the energy to help my daughter explore big ideas through quality silly time. 

In each of my worlds, I am often thinking about the other. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I recognize this season of my life, teaching middle school kids with a toddler at home, is just that: a season. I ask myself what my life is conspiring to teach me with these two tricky populations at once. The answer that comes ringing back every time I ask is simple: patience and play. I navigate my day at a slower pace, relishing my time in this messy world of changing kids. I thank my toddler and my students silently for the lessons while I take another sip of my 3rd coffee of the day and get back to the important work of playing to learn.


No comments:

Post a Comment