Stressed Out 7th Graders: Adjusting Instruction and Support


The weeks following History Fair have been tumultuous and jam-packed. While I think my classroom has been well-suited to engaged learning, the reality of a PARCC testing schedule, spring sports, cabin fever and high expectations have masked some important clues we need to read. Our kids are stressed. Even our social worker says she hasn’t seen this many kids seek her services. I think the lessons I design are standards-based and rigorous, but that probably doesn’t matter. At a time when we should be starting to reflect and celebrate a successful year, “school” is too stressful and too difficult; our kids want nothing to do with it. Combine this with a growing sense of student anxiety everywhere around us, and it’s clear we need to do something drastic.

On Friday I asked students to honestly share their thoughts. My colleagues and I had grown frustrated that our lessons hadn’t brought the high-level of engagement and enthusiasm they once had. So this survey was designed to recalibrate and design lessons to correct that. The first question alone brought some heartbreaking responses:

This wasn’t typical “middle school stuff.” The overwhelming vibe of student results: fear, frustration, and anxiety. My colleagues and I take this all very seriously, if not personally. A few of our takeaways:

  1. We have a “crisis” list and will immediately reach out to students who represented a concern about a potentially dangerous or harmful situation.
  2. Homework probably needs to be revisited. If we can’t avoid it, we need students to understand the rationale. (Alas, homework and students will never be a perfect marriage).
  3. In general, kids like group work, research, to be challenged, to move around, and to feel safe at school. Not shocking, but clearly we’ve had tunnel vision, especially around PARCC time.

Short term solution: Our instructional strategies might be rigorous and difficult but we’ve missed the boat on learning styles by not varying our activities. I’ll be changing that immediately.

Long term solution: There’s a LOT of drama with these 7th graders. The impact is distracting and students associate school with bullying, anxiety, or the otherwise awful consequences of the “drama.” This suggests we’re not hitting on Maslow’s most basic needs of a Physiological secure and Safe environment. This is a huge one that can’t be solved tomorrow.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs: While some references are not developmentally appropriate for middle school students, his research is fundamental to understanding student needs. Students cannot learn, let alone function maturely, without their most basic needs met.

While it’s silly to think Lakeview isn’t safe, the perception of a student is important. Issues such as bullying, low self-esteem, fear of punitive punishments, and so on all contribute to a feeling of insecurity. With this, a school can feel like a place that students are always looking over their shoulder. While we’ve done a number of things as a team to solve that issue, we’re not there yet. And, our kids are gassed. They’re overworked in sports, school, and activities, and have devices which distract them until late hours. They are physically and cognitively exhausted, then throw in the social-emotional impact of the safety issues… it’s easy to see how students are a mess right now. We can’t learn the causes of the Civil War, no matter what the instructional style, with these issues.

The 7th grade team has a long-term solution to address this and will roll it out soon. We only have 7 weeks left, so I admire my colleagues for trying to solve this problem in our most ambitious and creative way yet. We have a lot to finalize but spent two hours planning today and will immediately reconvene tomorrow morning. We can’t fix this issue in one day or with one change, but we need kids to know we hear them. Our plan will, over time, build their capacity to both see the positive things we’ve done, and equip them to build a positive environment to learn in.