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middle_school_bullying-644x429.jpgThe Urban Dictionary defines middle school as: “A place where your parents drop you off to be ripped apart by your equals.”

Unfortunately, that's not too far from the truth.

According to developmental psychologist Dr. Wendy Craig, who is also co-director of PREVNet, a national bullying prevention network, bullying peaks in grades six and seven, and impacts both boys and girls equally.

Why does bullying escalate when adolescence hits?

“A couple of things are happening,” says Craig. “There’s an increasing importance of peers and there’s a need to belong to popular groups."

Peter Atkinson, the Superintendent of Safe Schools at the Ottawa Catholic School Board, says middle school is also the time when kids become very reluctant to tell any adult about the bullying they either witnessed or endured.

"In elementary school, there's willingness to report, but something happens when they reach middle school," Atkinson says. "There's a culture of silence in middle school."

Many adults may think the reluctance to report has to do with fear, but Atkinson says that's not true. "What we hear isn't about being afraid, we hear, 'it's not cool.'"

That does not surprise Craig because of the type of kids who do the bullying: "Fifty percent of children who bully are popular children."

bullying_tweens.jpgAccording to Craig, these bullies are a bit advanced in terms of cognitive development, so they understand the impact of their behaviour, they can spot vulnerability and they target that vulnerability.

But why do the popular kids want to bully?

A UCLA psychology study points to the peer reward system that develops during these grades: kids who bully, both through physical aggression and spreading rumours, are considered “cool” by their peers. And the more they bully, the cooler they get.

To figure out why seemingly normal nice kids get mean, it is important to look at how the brain develops during adolescence. This is the time when cognitive skills like impulse control, reasoning, problem-solving and planning are still developing.

There’s also a dip in empathy during the teen years, says Craig.

All of this means adolescent kids, especially boys, do not consider the long-term impact of their actions, have problems with impulse control, do not recognize the feelings of others, and make risky decisions.

Middle school is also the time when teaching soft skills like friendliness and good relationship building falls by the wayside in order to focus on more academic skills.

But Craig says kids in middle school still need instruction in those soft skills both at school and at home-- and it is never too late.  “One adult in a child’s life can change the way they behave in relationships.”

gossiping_teens.jpgSchools are beginning to change focus, but the strategies for reaching middle school children are different than for younger grades. "It needs to be a comprehensive approach that involves everyone in the school," Atkinson says. "Kids need to get used to the idea that bringing in an adult brings positive change."

School Climate Surveys are conducted every two years as part of Ontario's Safe Schools strategy. These surveys are anonymous and they provide schools with a good understanding of what is going on in the minds of students. These surveys are essential to the development of bullying prevention strategies.

For instance, Atkinson has used these surveys and other studies like the CPHA Safe School Study to develop some of the strategies used by the Ottawa Catholic School Board, such as OCSBconnect, an anonymous reporting system, and Samaritans on the Digital Road, a five lesson plan developed as a way to "use the technologies that engage them to solve the problem," Atkinson says.

To know what your school is doing to prevent bullying, ask to see the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan followed by your school. Every school should also have a social worker and trained professionals to help in bullying situations.

social_media_bullying.jpgWhat can parents do to help prevent a child from bullying or address a bullying situation?

Both Craig and Atkinson recommend:

  • Look at yourself. Kids will follow your lead so be aware of your own behaviour. This video from NAPCAN in Australia is a graphic but powerful reminder of that.
  • Praise them. Look for opportunities to praise what your child is doing right, rather than what he or she is doing wrong.
  • Give them time to calm down. If the discussion becomes heated, do not let it escalate. Your child will not hear you if he or she is emotionally out of control. Give your child time to calm down and then revisit the discussion.
  • Create time to be together. It can be hard to win a popularity contest with friends but your child still does value time with you and needs that time to reconnect. Make open-ended statements, like: "Tell me more about..."
  • Do not take away social media.Taking away the portal he or she uses to socialize only works to create more isolation and can make a bully want to bully more. Atkinson says one of the main reasons kids say they will not report bullying is because they are afraid of having the cell phone taken away. Instead, teach skills on how to engage in healthy relationships online. 25 percent of kids now have cell phones by Grade 4 so it is more important than ever to address cyber-bullying.
  • Don't jump to conclusions. Remember there are two sides to every story and children will often paint themselves in the best light. Do not go to the school ready for a fight. Recognize that you may not be hearing the whole story and seek out further information.

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The number of kids in Canada playing organized sports is on the decline. Experts say this is reason for concern and they blame the allure of technology for keeping kids on the couch.

 

But just what are kids who don't participate in sport missing out on? Why is it important in kids' lives?

 

Below are some thoughts from experts Carl James, director of the York Centre for Education and Community, Ted Temertzoglou, a Health and Physical Education Publisher at Thompson Educational Publishing and Sheilagh Croxon, an Olympic medal-winning coach and advocate for women in sport.

 

They shared their insights with TVO in a panel discussion called "The Value of the Game: What Kids Learn from Sport".

 

What Do Kids Get Out of Sport?

 

  • Improved self-esteem;
  • Improved confidence;
  • Knowing  that you can do things you thought you couldn’t;
  • Healthier bodies and healthier minds;
  • Fun.

 

race_291x236.jpgWhat Can Kids Learn?

 

  • How to deal with competition and what healthy competition looks like.
  • How to work in a group.
  • How to get along with people you might not like.
  • Leadership skills.
  • Time management (e.g. planning homework around practice).
  • Sharing and fair play.
  • How to keep winning in perspective.
  • How to deal with adversity.
  • How to get over the hump when you’re down.
  • Improved grades and a stronger commitment to school.

 

yay-14157346.jpgWhat If Your Kid Doesn’t Like Sports?
  • While kids can still get most of the benefits of sports in other ways, experts warn kids still need to find a way to have a healthy, active lifestyle.
  • Find out why your kid does not like sports, suggests James. Did they have a negative experience? You need to assess why before concluding your child doesn’t like sports.

 

How Can You Get Reluctant Kids Moving?

 

  • There are many options for ways kids can move their bodies, the experts say.
  • Suggest yoga, Pilates, geocaching, dancing.
  • Focus on the positive by-products of sport when encouraging your kids to participate.
  • Be active yourselves; be a role model for your kids in attitude and action.
  • Kick the ball with your kids, play catch, go cycling.

 

Are There Any Downsides to Sports?

 

  • Team selection/not being chosen can be upsetting for kids, Croxon says.
  • Kids in individual sports can feel a lot of pressure when the spotlight is on them alone, says Temertzoglou.
  • Kids not taught how to properly deal with competition can end up being overly aggressive in other areas of their lives, Temertzoglou says.
  • Parents can put too much pressure on kids, with some pushing their child to make the big leagues.

 

How Can Parents Help Kids Avoid the Pitfalls?

 

  • It’s important to teach kids that it’s not about winning; it’s about pushing yourself to do better. Parents should encourage kids to focus on the self-improvement and team goals, Croxon says.
  • Make sure you are giving encouragement not putting on pressure. Croxon says parents needs to be unconditionally supportive, shouldn’t get too involved, and need to keep their own egos out of the mix.
  • Take the lead from the child. Don’t push; let kids push for what they love.

starting_middle_school_644x362.jpg

If your child is starting middle school this year, he or she is tumbling from the top of the student hierarchy back down to the bottom.

 

Some kids take this tumble in stride while others struggle. This difference may be because of your child's temperament, or the circumstances. Maybe your child is moving to a new school with new friends or maybe your child is moving with the same old peers who bring with them the same old troubles.

 

 

Dealing with the emotions:

 

Middle school is an emotional time anyway, add in major change and kids can have trouble coping. Christie Hayos, a clinical social worker at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, offers these tips:

 

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    • Validate nervous feelings. “It’s really important to first validate children’s feelings by acknowledging that it’s okay that they have certain uncomfortable feelings,” says Hayos. Let them know that these feelings are normal and probably other kids are feeling the same way.

 

    • Trust your child to make good decisions. If your child is changing to a different middle school than most of his or her friends, and would prefer to follow friends to the feeder school, examine your reasons. If your child is generally good at making decisions and the reason for the change is not because of anything other than your preference, sometimes it makes sense to let your child follow his or her friends instead.

 

    • Know your child. Some level of anxiety is normal.  But “if you have a child that is typically not anxious about going back to school or has low levels of anxiety about going back to school, and all of a sudden this looks much different and the levels of anxiety are much higher than before, you may want to investigate more and ask the child more questions,” says Hayos.

 

    • Empathize with your child. Let your child know you understand how he or she feels and you want to help. Do not get entangled in an argument about going to school. Listen to what your child has to say.

 

    • Name the problem. Identify the specific problem your child is having. If your child doesn’t want to go to school, why? After you know the problem, you can better help plan a solution. Try to keep your own anxiety out of the discussion.

 

    • If the anxiety is linked to the past, reassure your child. Did your child struggle academically last year, was there a bullying situation, or did your child feel like he or she didn’t fit in? “It’s important to let children know that there’s a plan in place or that there will be a plan in place to address those very real issues for them to help this year be a more successful and positive year,” says Hayos.  This plan could include:

 

        • Meeting with the school administration before school starts.

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        • Having your child reconnect with supportive friends and have them walk to school together.

 

        • Connecting with the teachers and letting them know about your concerns and include them in the plan.

 

        • Working with your child to put a plan in place. “Often kids have really great ideas about how they could get support,” says Hayos. Children like to feel that they are actively a part of, and have some kind of control over, the future. “When they know the plan, when they are part of it, they are likely to feel more successful and to buy into the plan,” says Hayos.

 

    • Chunk the day into bite-sized pieces. If your child doesn’t want to go to school because the anxiety is too much, explain that as a parent, it is your job to keep your child safe but it is also your job to make sure he or she goes to school. So break the day down into manageable chunks. Get your child to call you at lunch for reassurance and check anxiety levels. If your child still wants to come home, reach out to the school for help.

 

    • Work with the teacher. The teacher works with your child on a daily basis and probably has experienced similar issues with other children. The teacher will often have very helpful ideas to rectify the situation.

 

    • Get help elsewhere. If none of the above works, contact your family doctor.

 

 

Supporting your child’s learning:

 

Patrick Boulos is currently a secondary school Vice-Principal but he has worked as an elementary school Vice-Principal and has taught grade 7 and 8 math.

His top 5 tips for parents with a child starting middle school are:

 

        1. Communicate with the school. If parents/guardians, the school, and the student are all “on the same page”, there will be a better chance for success.

        2. Assess often. Check-in with your child and the teacher.  Requesting regular updates goes a long way.

        3. Be positive. Encourage and build resilience.  Parents/guardians must prepare the child for new experiences, and reinforce that every experience can be learned from.

        4. Accountability. As kids age, they inherently are more accountable for their learning.  While parents/guardians should monitor and assess progress regularly, encouraging your child to “own” the responsibility for being as successful as possible is key.

        5. Have resources ready. Parents know their kids!  Be ready and have the necessary resources available if required.

tweens_569x309.jpgBelow is a brief summary of some key milestones for youth aged 12-14 outlined in the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Service’s Stepping Stones: A Resource on Youth Development.

 

It's important to note that while these milestones represent what is common for kids in this age group, a child's development is also affected by individual factors. Some kids will reach milestones at an early age, while others may need more time to develop, and some may not reach that milestone at all.

 

Visit the Ministry’s website to read the resource in its entirety.

 

Cognitive Development:
  • Dramatic changes in the brain continue;
  • Brain function becomes increasingly efficient and specialized;
  • By the onset of puberty the human brain has reached adult size;
  • Once the brain has reached its full size, the amount of grey matter (neurons or brain cells) begins to decrease as neurons are eliminated in a ‘use it or lose it’ process;
  • The amount of white matter (myelin and axons) begins to increase;
  • These changes result in an increasing ability to process complex information and learn new concepts;
  • Processing speed (how quickly new information is absorbed) increases.

 

Emotional Development:
  • Adolescents often feel emotions more intensely, are more sensitive to pleasure and reward and are particularly vulnerable to stress;
  • Can be more likely to participate in risky behaviour;
  • The adolescent’s capacity for self-regulation and for decision making lags behind the ability to feel emotions;
  • The ability to feel empathy for another person begins to move beyond the rudimentary form which began in childhood;
  • Motivation for behavior begins to become more intrinsic (as a result of interests or desires) and less extrinsic (desire to gain rewards or avoid punishments).

 

Social Development:
  • A sense of self-identity begins to develop (may include many components, including gender identity, social group identity, and spiritual identity);
  • Self-concepts developed in childhood (I am Canadian, I have a dog, etc.) become more abstract and specific to the individual in early adolescence (I am a leader, I am ambitious, etc.);
  • A person’s ability to self-appraise begins to improve (they become more realistic) and they begin to engage in social comparison; this can result, particularly among girls, in becoming less certain of their ability to achieve their goals;
  • Self-esteem begins to decrease in early adolescence (particularly among girls) and often continues to decline into adulthood at which point it rises again on an upward trend into old age;
  • Early adolescents (particularly those from minority groups) begin to show an increase in social group-esteem (show increasing pride in belonging to their social group);
  • An interest in romantic relationships begins to emerge along with passionate feelings; they may begin to form mixed-gender friendship groups (time spent with romantic interests usually happens in group settings);
  • Relationships with parents may start to suffer as adolescents choose to spend more time with their friends and find themselves more often in conflict with their parents.

 

Physical Development:
  • Adolescents will notice changes in their cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength and endurance, and flexibility, all depending largely on their levels of physical activity; in general there is a decline in physical activity beginning around age 13 and continuing into adulthood;
  • Puberty affects sleep patterns, often causes young people to feel wide awake and alert until late at night and have difficulty getting up in the morning, often resulting in sleep deprivation;
  • Boys typically have a growth spurt at around age 12 (girls at age 10);
  • These changes to body and mind have significant impact on how young people feel about the appearance of their body (females, whose body mass tends to increase during puberty, may develop negative body image, affecting mood, eating habits and mental well-being; males, on the other hand, put on muscle mass, start to develop a masculine shape and generally become more satisfied with their physical appearance);
  • Caloric intake, especially around a growth spurt, can skyrocket. The body’s need for protein and calcium to build muscle and bones also increase.