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Inclusivity Comes with Challenges in Young Adolescents

Inclusivity Comes with Challenges in Young Adolescents
Corinna Crafton

Middle school-aged students crave two things seemingly to be at odds with each other. They want ardently to be seen as and recognized as individuals yet fear being perceived as different. 

Inclusivity Comes with Challenges in Young Adolescents

Middle school-aged students crave two things seemingly to be at odds with each other. They want ardently to be seen as and recognized as individuals yet fear being perceived as different. 

Yes, middle schoolers are a bit contradictory. It comes with the territory. We expect that dichotomy to inform much of their decision making processes as they move through these tricky years of “tweendom.” 

This struggle between their need for independence and the belief that peers are watching and critiquing their every move can make young adolescents at once both risk takers and risk avoiders. It is wonderful to know that the young adolescent sense of self is malleable and evolving. During these years, children have not become fixed in any one mindset, stance, identity, or world view. Encountering a wide range of beliefs, outlooks, perspectives and ideas helps them to slowly form a nuanced and informed understanding of the world and their place in it. This wonderful openness is especially valuable here at Wardlaw+Hartridge.

Immersed as we are in an incredibly diverse school community, our young people encounter peers from a multitude of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, races, and experiences. They are indeed fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this confluence of cultures and backgrounds. We know, however, that without intention and deliberate action, diversity does not necessarily lead to inclusion. It is through daily interaction, guided activities in advisory, bold conversations in classrooms, active and engaged listening that we invite everyone into full participation in our community. Through this intentionality, we can come to better understand one another.

This is not to suggest that we have it all figured out or that we do not sometimes encounter struggles with one another. Our 10-14-year-olds sometimes make poor choices in their behavior toward one another. An impulsive comment, a careless word, a hurtful moment of name-calling also come with the territory. Let us be reminded of those still developing frontal lobes and the need for consistency in our messages to students. Being clear and steady in our behaviors solidifies the community norms of integrity, open communication, respect, opportunity and civility. Forgiveness and offering second and third chances is also part of the process. As a team of educators, we continue to learn ourselves how we can better support our young people. 

Part of our effort requires staying current with emerging research into adolescent development, cognitive neuroscience, social media and technology. Late last month, I attended a meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools. Of many workshops and several keynote addresses, I was struck by two in particular and for quite different reasons.

At the opening keynote address, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, spoke to us about his recent work studying what he argues is a mismatch between intentions and outcomes in how we are preparing young people for college and life beyond. Professor Haidt discusses the concept of “antifragility” at great length in his latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind, and he spoke to us about how good intentions meant to protect young people can, when taken to an extreme, result in children who distort and catastrophize even the most mundane events, focusing almost exclusively on the possibility of negative feedback or outcomes. This stance can paralyze a child or an adult, leaving them feeling that every move is risky and danger or failure lurks around each corner. Haidt explains that “when students are reacting to real problems, they are more likely than previous generations to engage in thought patterns that make those problems seem more threatening, which makes them harder to solve.” 

Rather than avoiding risk and potentially negative experiences, he suggests we confront both the possibility of failure, danger, risk, in order to build capacity and skill in tackling these inevitabilities. Haidt’s argument, when extended to the idea of relationships and developing inclusive communities, holds a reminder for us. A fear of those different from ourselves in some way is cultivated by the very distortion of reality Haidt discusses. Such anxiety about “the other” can intrude upon a child’s willingness to step into another person’s shoes, the very action necessary to develop empathy. One of our mission skills, empathy is a trait that requires nurturing over time and that can only happen throughout consistently acknowledging the realities of others.

The closing speaker at last month’s NAIS conference was writer and civil rights activist Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give). She shared two examples from her childhood which place into stark contrast the power that adults have to instill in children either the courage and tenacity to confront challenges or the negative, success-stealing demon of self-doubt. Both examples were teachers she had while in elementary school. Thomas overhead one teacher speaking in racially derogatory terms about her students, including Thomas herself. The other teacher inspired Thomas to believe that anything she wished for herself was within reach by encouraging and believing in her. 

Fortunately for Thomas and for us, she listened to that second teacher and became the writer and advocate for young people who has motivated and mobilized young people to expect and demand better from their leaders and from themselves. Building agency and empowering young people is a mission for Thomas, and one we share with her. 

Providing tweens and teens with the tools to interrogate their world and examine their own choices is more necessary now than ever. One of the workshops I attended at the NAIS conference was led by Linda Burch, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Common Sense Media. The workshop was devoted to better understanding the degree to which social media is impacting children and their development. She advocates not for removing all devices or banning access to social media but for a reasoned and thoughtful approach, one which includes the child in the conversation. Again, the themes of empowerment, building agency and fostering “antifragility” where echoed in her presentation. It was perhaps a bit disappointing, but not surprising, to learn that there has been a 40% increase over the four years in smartphone ownership by children. In 2019, 25% of 9-year-olds and 70% of 12-year-olds had a smartphone. 

The scenario that has been created through the best of intentions puts in the hands of children a device that introduces them to the wide open world of the internet and all its opportunity and danger, yet we have instilled in them a fear of so much (fragility) they are not prepared to navigate the terrain. Burch suggests we must be much more open, frank and inviting in our discussions with students about the temptations and pitfalls they will confront online in order to prepare them to make wise choices. No parent or teacher can monitor every moment online, so the idea of exploring the law of logical consequences can foster ownership of actions, in person and online. She suggests we model the type of reflective and deliberate behavior we wish to see in our children by slowing down ourselves, seeking facts and evidence in decision making, and considering the perspectives of others. 

After spring break, we return to advisory, grade level and full division meetings. These, in addition to class meetings, will be opportunities to explore the ways in which we are being deliberately inclusive, thoughtful in our choices and selective in our uses of screen time!