By Melina O'Grady, Quality Coach and facilitator at Agenda for Children
As a facilitator of youth development training for the past two years, I’ve noticed a few things. My own middle school years were a chaotic battle for self and a search for place in school and the social realm. I saw most adults as barriers rather than allies in my journey. That was many (so many!) years ago.
In the Youth Development Middle Years training, we examine current research and strive to understand the experience of 10-13 year-olds today. We discuss common developmental pathways, and how out-of-school time (OST) professionals can best meet youth needs. We weave in some of our own stories and the struggles of young people we’ve worked with to make the research real and deepen our understanding and insight. And we find ways to use our superpowers.
Before I run a Youth Development training, I check in with my daughter, who just turned 14: “What matters to you most right now?” “How do you see the world?” “How are you different today than you were when you were 8 or 9?” This time, she replied – “I wish I were 9 again. It was so much better then.”
When I ask why, she explains: "It’s all too much, too much stress and pressure at school, too many social expectations, too much media, too much puberty, too much to know, to manage". She longs for simplicity.
It’s a good reminder of what we can do in the circles we form around young people, particularly at this age. Remind them of their power, and how they can be actors in their own lives. Let them know they are not alone in navigating the complexities of life. And give them space to breathe.
Photo courtesy of Russell Youth Center
I know the messages youth get from adults, and the ones they don’t, are critical to youth development. At one of our recent Agenda for Children OST training sessions, we got into a healthy debate about how to respond to youth who share their wildest hopes and dreams.
Middle school youth, still forming their prefrontal cortex and higher order thinking skills, can be open to everything. They believe they will be in the NBA, or famous musicians, or actors, or millionaires.
In our debate, some youth workers said they saw their role as being the wake-up call for unrealistic expectations. Others said that when young people came to them with fantastical ideas, they embraced their ideas and asked for more. Oh, what if you could fly, what would your wings look like? What would they be made of? Could you just lift off or would you need to get up to speed first? Where would you fly to? Lately, my daughter said she thinks about the world as a movie all the time. She started writing scripts, taking pictures and videos, and taught herself how to edit. She found a friend with an idea for a TV show about ghosts that take over a town. Some of their ideas are outrageous, impossible to film. She wants to work on the movie instead of her homework. I can see the spark in her, her mind opening, and I want to light it without her getting burned.
At a goodbye party for a departing OST program director last spring, some young people took the mic to talk about the person who was leaving:
"She believed in me. She could see things in me that I couldn't see."
I think that is our superpower as grown-ups in middle schoolers’ lives. We can see glimpses of who they are and who they could become. Young people are in the midst of constant physical, emotional and cognitive upheaval. They’re a jumbled combination of disparate parts lightly strung together but we can see through that, we can imagine where they are going.
We can feed those fantasies, ask them to say more about them, go further, and support them to turn their ideas into reality. Or we can also be the voice of reason, helping them see the parameters around their lives so they can make real choices and understand what it actually takes to get to the NBA or the WNBA, the bright lights of Broadway, or even the high school team.
Melina is a Quality Coach and facilitator, where she is responsible for the Front Line Communities of Practice and supporting OST programs through the Quality Improvement System. She is also an independent education consultant with roots as a counselor and teacher and a vision for creating and supporting dynamic learning environments in and outside of schools that fully engage both teacher and student.