This week’s guest blogger is Shikma Geffon, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in parenting and in the treatment of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic syndrome in children and teenagers. She has worked as a public school counselor, with mental health agencies and is currently is in private practice.
The Problem with Isolation in Middle and High School
Growing up in Israel, I remember middle school as a challenging time in my life. I moved from the comfort zone of elementary school to a completely different place. If academics were very easy for me in the past, now I had to work hard to keep pace with my teachers and classmates. Middle school was bigger and looked less inviting than my elementary school. I definitely felt like a newbie, all over again.
Middle school is a time of physical and emotional changes, when we step further away from the influence of our parents to that of our peer groups. At this time of abrupt transitions, academic pressures and confusion – all I wanted was to feel like I belonged. My 7th grade class was one of eight sections. Every student’s schedule was identical. Just like in elementary school, we shared the same classes and learned the same subjects year-round. During these challenging middle school years, my class was the place where I felt most belonged. My classmates and I greeted each other every morning and hung out throughout the day. We stressed together about tests, we studied together and had our inside jokes. Not everything was perfect. Subgroups emerged, but even being a part of a subgroup was comforting for me in times of multi-layered changes.
After graduating 8th grade and moving to high school, I would spend half a day devoted to general studies, and then in the afternoon I would separate into a smaller group per academic focus. This scheme allowed me the privilege of spending my four high school years with my close friends. We continued to support each other, and went through ups and down together.
After moving to the U.S. as an adult and talking with friends about their children’s school experience here, I realized that in the U.S. middle and high school students do not belong to a cohesive class. Just like in college, they need to select their own schedule and move from class to class, studying with different groups of students during the course of the day. Although this might sound like an invitation to earn a sense of independence, I wonder if our children are ready for such a shift in that moment of their life.
Abraham Maslow, the well-known American psychologist, suggested that immediately after we satisfy our basic survival needs for water, food and shelter, we next ache for a sense of belonging, friendship and love. According to Maslow, if these needs are not met, the individual will experience anxiety. In addition, the individual will struggle meeting the next hierarchical need: developing a positive self–esteem and obtaining a sense of self-fulfillment.
Just when the feeling of belonging is so critical, the cohesive classroom that could provide a sense of a community is taken away from students in U.S schools. Feelings of isolation, combined with academic pressure and all the other stressors that define puberty, can lead to real emotional distress. We hear more and more about the prevalence of drug and alcohol use amongst middle and high schoolers. “Kids sell drugs in the restrooms,” my friend told me about her 6th grader’s classmates. The U.S. Department of Education reports that every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day! According to a federal report, incidents of theft and violence of students against other students and faculty are on the rise in America’s schools. We are all shaken by news of acts of homicide done by a student or a previous student in high schools or colleges. It is true that student crimes (especially in extreme cases) are the product of many psychological and environmental factors. However, I think that as a society, we need to ask ourselves if fostering a sense of belonging in schools during adolescence can keep our students emotionally healthier.
Here are some ideas for fostering that critical sense of connection for your child during middle school and high school, on the home front:
- Acknowledgment. Acknowledge with your teen the differences between elementary, middle and high school. Speak openly about the challenges, and ask broad questions to understand how your teen feels at school.
- Maintain and strengthen family ties. While many times teenagers clearly pull away from their parents, deep down they all want to feel secure and that they belong to their family. Do activities together, eat at least one meal a day as a family and, encourage open conversations. Due to divorce or separation, not all nuclear families are intact. In this case, it is also possible to give a child a sense of connection by keeping respectful and cooperative relations between parents.
- Actively support your teen’s interest in having friends at school. After making sure these friends are good influences, consider having them over and/or take your child to see them after school or on the weekends.
- Encourage your teen to have an extracurricular activity in school. Joining the school band, writing for the yearbook or joining a school sports team can be a great way to provide a sense of community. If your child is not interested, look into other fun, social activities outside of school.
- Be available. Let your teen know he can come to you in times of trouble. Be non-judgmental and open to hear things without solving them in the moment. Work with your teen on sorting things out and finding a good solution that works for him.
Middle and high school should be a time of learning and growth. Let’s help our children to have a sense of community, belonging and support all the way through to their high school graduation.
Shikma Geffon, MA, MFT# 82192