There’s No Handbook for this Stuff...Or is There?

Often when I meet with families around middle school academic, social, or emotional issues, inevitably the conversation includes “there’s no handbook or roadmap for this” or “they didn’t tell us this when we signed-up for parenthood.” Providing context, every child has a different set of circumstances requiring each conversation to be personal and unique. Adolescent life is characterized by physical, emotional, social, and mental change, and although scenarios may be similar, each child is experiencing change in his or her own way. This dynamic creates an exciting and often unpredictable energy surrounding middle schoolers, sometimes leading to a tongue-in-cheek wish for a roadmap to follow during these times.

Well, believe it or not, a document actually exists titled Middle School Handbook. In 1990, a middle school educator named Mr. Harry Finks wrote and published a 64-page manual for middle school teachers, administrators, and families. This Handbook was updated in 2008 (co-authored by Mark Stanek), and both documents were published by NAIS. Harry Finks, since retired, spent his career primarily as a middle school director at several different independent schools across the country.
So, what does this Handbook tell us about middle schoolers?
They are the ones playing comfortably with toy cars at one moment and dreaming of real ones at the next; the ones with the control of the family phone or the ones painfully longing for someone to call; the ones you can tell to “grow up and act your age” and “slow down and look your age” during the same day.
Times have indeed changed in 25 years regarding family phones, but this description of middle schoolers is timeless. We see it all the time: students wanting independence yet not yet ready for the freedom they so desire. Aptly named the ‘tween’ years, middle schoolers are indeed living in a time of transition that requires the right blend of calmness, nurture, directness and support.
What does the Handbook tell us about middle schools?
Successful schools for this age group are always described as positive environments that afford, in the words of [author] David Elkind, “as much consideration for who the student is and becomes—his and her self-concept, self-responsibility, attitudes toward school and personal happiness—as for how much and what he or she knows!
The Handbook offers this for parents:
Applaud lots of things—dreaming, playing, running, painting, befriending, caring for a pet—as well as academic achievement.
Learn all you can about the developmental aspects of this age group, and then enjoy your child. Move with the energy instead of fighting it.
Key words that describe the middle school environment: imaginative, zany, unique, unflappable, multidimensional, frazzled, diverse, bold, witty, project-oriented, adaptable…
25 years later, the advice scattered through this document is still relevant. Times have changed, programs have adjusted, and teaching has evolved, but understanding the heart of the middle school has not.
There can never be a 10-step, foolproof guide for raising adolescents—such a thing does not exist. In fact, it’s the beauty of life that each person is unique and diverse, requiring an awareness that values humanness above all. The Handbook simply provides us with some important reminders about the nature of middle schoolers. So, the next time you tackle a middle school issue, keep the above phrases, quotes, and words in-mind…and, tackle it with a bit of zaniness, energy, love, and absolute fun!
My best for a wonderful winter season—

Movie Recommendation: The Peanuts Movie
I recently watched this movie with my five-year-old, and it was fantastically refreshing to see the ageless Schultz humor embraced by a new generation. Filled with imagination, optimism, integrity, and good will, the story of the Peanuts gang is appropriate for the young, old, and even for those hard to please middle schoolers!
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.