The middle school mind might not be so mysterious

PTO speaker says there's a whole lot of growing going on


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Susy Schultz, One view

Do you ever find yourself looking at your middle school child and wondering: What is going on in that brain?

It's actually a very busy place during middle school, according to Dr. Theresa Thorkildsen, who is with the departments of Education and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was the guest speaker at Julian's October PTO meeting.

"It's not fair and accurate to say it is all about raging hormones," she said, it's more about the brain than the hormones. "In fact, there is a whole new spurt of brain growth during the middle school years. It is the beginning of a long-winded growth period."

During that time, a child is literally, "rewiring themselves." And what you see as a parent is that they are "flip-flopping back and forth" between the little child you once knew and the adult they are trying to become. This rewiring, which can start as young as fifth grade, parallels the physical changes that are going on in a child's body during adolescence.

Thorkildsen, who teaches middle school teachers, spoke and took questions from a group of more than 30 people for an hour and a half during her talk, "How do their brains work: A parent's guide to the mind of middle schoolers."

And sometimes, because of that rewiring, kids may not be able to do some of the things they used to do when they were younger, such as staying organized.

"These kids need help with organization?#34;that's a fact," Thorkildsen said. "You need to hold them accountable for organization, but you need to remember they need coaching."

She said probably the worst stereotype made about this group of kids is that they don't know what is good for them.

Another misconception is that they do not want to spend time with adults. "They want more time with their parents," she said. "And they would like rituals in their household to be able to share with their parents what they are learning."

As for those volatile moments, when a child gets angry, Thorkildsen said, "It's hard to imagine this, but you have to remember, it's probably not about you." In fact, it's a credit to your relationship as a family that your child feels safe enough to get angry with you.

Thorkildsen suggested parents can best support kids at this age with:

 Sleep They need it. In fact, most middle schoolers are seriously sleep deprived. Research shows they need about 9 hours a night. Brain growth is actually physically tiring.

 Stimulation They need to be busy doing a variety of things, including reading, writing, physical activities and emotional activities as well.

 Time Make time to be with them and talk with them, not at them. Ask questions. Even loaded and leading questions will sit better with your middle schooler than telling them what to do. If you set up small conversations every day on simple things, it will be easier to discuss the difficult things.

 Routine Establish one in the home. It is helpful for them to have a routine and to know what is expected of them and when.

This is the first of several lectures the Julian PTO will sponsor. The next will be a discussion of bullying in early 2006. If you would like us to consider a topic or be on the e-mail list for notices, please e-mail Susy Schultz at and put "Julian speaker" in the subject line.

This article originally appeared in the PTO's Julian Journal. Susy Schultz is associate publisher and editor of Chicago Parent Magazine.

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