Posts Tagged health education

Puberty, The Elephant in the Middle School Classroom

Published by — Early adolescents are roiling in a whitewater transition, but the ed industry isn’t talking about it.

In 1989, a Carnegie Foundation report dared to boldly go where every man has gone before, but had hoped to forget — puberty.

Turning Points was a rare exploration of those morphing from little kid into budding adult.  Historically, middle-school kids held little interest for researchers.  And lo, over time, Turning Points (TP) also faded from view.  No new seminal work replaced it.  No innovative discussion eclipsed TP’s passionate efforts to focus attention on these kids.  No, the ed industry has reverted to operating as though gawky, spacey, changing adolescents are midway on some unbroken continuum.

Of course, everyone knows they’re roiling in a whitewater transition, letting go of childhood and grabbing for adult independence.  They’re betwixt and between.  But we’re not talking about it.

Turning Points begged educators to face the uncomfortable realities of pubescents, between 10 and 15 years old.  They might be bellowing their objections to being “treated like babies,” while secretly playing with old toys.  Most famously, they’re moody, unpredictable and easily distracted by the minutia of social clues.  He looked at me wrong.  She doesn’t like me anymore.  Am I wearing something dorky? 

Their problems are not confined to the onset of sexuality, a mind-blow of its own.  The brain itself changes.  TP says, “Cognitive growth is equally dramatic for many youth, bringing the new capacity to think in more abstract and complex ways than they could as children.  Increased sense of self and enhanced capacity for intimate relationships can also emerge in early adolescence.”

Since 1989, scientists have determined that the brain’s “executive function,” the part making good choices, doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, long after this “middle” period.  Even so, “young people enter a society that at once denounces and glorifies sexual promiscuity and the use of illicit drugs.  They live in urban neighborhoods and even in some rural towns where the stability of close-knit relationships is rare, where the sense of community that shapes their identity has eroded.”

Never mind that the educational requirements of the workforce have changed so radically, poor educations predict dismal economic prospects.

But, “all too often the guidance they needed as children and need no less as adolescents is withdrawn.  Freed from the dependency of childhood, but not yet able to find their own path to adulthood, many young people feel a desperate sense of isolation.  Surrounded only by their equally confused peers, too many make poor decisions with harmful or lethal consequences.”

In other worlds, human puberty is a huge big deal.  We can be there for them and help out.  Or we can stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and sing loudly.

Turning Points strongly recommends “personalization,” a horribly impersonal word that means nurturing kids’ relationships with adults.  TP launched the practice of “advisories,” whereby each school professional takes, say, an hour a week to get to know 12 -15 students personally.  The idea was to avoid replicating fragmented homes and communities with impersonal school experiences.  Sadly, many teachers felt that they already “knew” their students and that the time spent discussing kids’ hopes, dreams, and fears was “a waste.”

Turning Points was influential during the 1990s.  Philanthropic organizations helped systems adopt its “middle-school model.”  Some schools became more pleasant places to be and learn.  For those of us who cared about these kids, it was a hopeful time.

Ironically, the 1990s was also when educational technology exploded.  Suddenly, researchers could collect and crunch data in volumes never previously imagined.  Excited geeks developed powerful diagnostic tools for schools, systems, and even individual kids.  The data collected for Turning Points was intended to monitor and perfect the practices with solid research — a proper use of data.

However.  Congress’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law turned educational technology into a weapon of Mass Criticism.  Researchers were sent like hunting dogs to find data proving educational failure of all kinds.  Cheating scandals erupted nationally because school personnel wanted to avoid getting beaten up by test-score data.  I’m all for assessments and data.  But these days nearly everyone admits that our country’s testing mania is full-on toxic to kids, teachers and education.  No one has any idea how to stop, slow, or better deploy this speeding data train.

So here we are, arguing with one other about teacher evaluations, Common Core, and massive new assessment and curriculum initiatives.  The plan is to put third-graders in front of computers to test the bejesus out of them.

All schools should be held accountable, whatever that means.  But Big Accountability buried Turning Points.  Empathetic values do not jive with heavy breathing about tests.

So once again, my darling, awkward, pimply, smelly, goofy middle schoolers get totally left behind.  “Puberty is one of the most far-reaching biological upheavals in the life span.”  But sorry, kids, we can’t help you with that.  You’re on your own.  Good luck with that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Put Kids’ Mental Health at the Center of Education

Published by — Kids’ mental health is at least as important as their physical health.

For me, it’s all about mental health.  And by “it,” I mean improving education, and a thousand other aspects of kids’ lives.

What does a kid learn with?  Well, that would be her brain.  And if you’re thinking that such a statement is a total “well-duh,” why aren’t we talking a lot about kids’ brains, since that’s where their mental health resides?

Consider:  Kids (or adults for that matter) who are asthmatic, obese or constipated don’t shine on the local sports team or dance floor.  Their conditions undermine their performance of common physical feats.  Furthermore, social handicaps brought on by poor physical health make them feel emotionally crummy.  They’re short of breath, picked last for teams and teased.  Many act out or search for escape.

But somehow we expect that kids (or adults for that matter) who are worried, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, sad or in a jealous rage to meet high performance standards.  If they don’t, they’re vulnerable to disapproval.  After a while, vicious cycles of feeling crummy develop, which is to say, poor mental health.

One problem is that when people refer to “mental health,” they usually mean mental illness.  The discussion about mental health now raging in the press centers around Adam Lanza, whose massacre of 27 people and himself clearly indicates mental illness in excelsis.  “Mental health” is associated with extreme illness, which still carries stigma, alas.  But no wonder no one wants to get caught asking questions about their own mental health.

For a clear, positive definition, the Search Institute offers a set of characteristics they call the 40 “developmental assets.”  Interestingly, most researchers tend to call mental health something else; you’ll also encounter “resilience” and “social-and-emotional skill.”

But even more simply, for our purposes today, the mentally healthy are those people who feel able to identify their own needs and issues, and can negotiate for themselves civilly, within the context of a community.  Kids and adults alike must learn to take responsibility for their daily moods, feelings and the nasty messages they allow their heads to tell them.  (Like:  “I’m too weird to have friends.”)  Those who can’t manage feelings on their own need to talk to a friend, a mom, a professional.

But talking takes time.  And to professionals, time is money.

When kids aren’t using pro-social ways to meet their needs, doctors often prescribe psychoactive drugs to manage the unwanted behavior.  While I generally hate the impulse to pass laws to legislate every little thing, giving a kid psychoactive drugs without talk therapy really should be illegal.  Drugs can’t get to the bottom of a problem or teach a kid pro-social skills.  Drugs can be hugely helpful by supporting people in the throes of therapy, unpacking painful experiences.  But too often drugs are just excuses to avoid the harder issue of helping kids form the strong, caring relationships that are an everyday safety net.

I am no paragon of mental health.  On my desk is a list of people to call when I feel overwhelmed, which the voice in my head calls “crazy” or “stupid.”  Sometimes I pick up the list and keep calling until someone has a minute to hear my story and give perspective.  I reciprocate, of course.  But I don’t have time to be lost in such mild forms of mental illness, like a mood cold, anger constipation, or a paranoid flu.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups also have lists and strongly encourage their members to call their sponsor or someone else, rather than act out, or take up drinking again.  Talk.  Make connection.  Get perspective.  Learn to listen well.

Sad fact:  21.4 percent of our youth 13-18 have a “severe mental disorder.”  That’s a huge portion of our teenagers.  The way we treat our kids is adversely affecting their mental health.

Every kid in the world deserves to have at least one person in their lives who gives them the message:  “I’m right here.  I’ve got your back.  Your interests are mine, and whatever goes wrong, we’ll work it out together.  No, you may not indulge yourself in anti-social behavior; you will learn to be civilized.  I will help you.  You’re not alone.  I am interested in your issues.  I care.”

But if you think such a message is normally pumped into kids’ lives nowadays, you’re crazy.

So my wish for the new years is that we move mental health to the center of our concerns for kids.  Leaving it at the fringes is doing none of us any favors, but least of all the young people we’re supposed to protect.  Even if it’s only the sniffles, we attend to illness.  Why put up with so little attention to feelings?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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