Over the course of the final days of summer vacation, l have found myself gaining new perspective at seemingly every turn. The St. Anne’s Alumni Magazine arrived in my mailbox recently, offering diverse reflections from alumni in a kaleidoscope of years. During our in-service this past week, all of our faculty and staff waded through self-study documents on curriculum and programming from seven years ago. Both have helped widen my understanding of our school’s history. At the same time, I’ve enjoyed hearing questions and ideas from our new faculty members who are and will be seeing the school with a fresh set of eyes. And, on a personal level, my son is beginning to walk, so all sorts of new perils are beginning to reveal themselves around the house to this inexperienced dad!
Heading into what I know will be a great school year for our students, faculty, parents, and community, I thought I’d share my perspectives on both the perspectives of our kids and our own as adults that care for and work with them every day. As is the case when we have discussions about decisions at St. Anne’s, I will start with our kids.
Given their age, our middle schoolers are in a rather unique position. They’ve had a full decade plus of life experience (which apparently entitles them at times to the perspective of an expert :-)). At the same time, they are constantly being put into new situations that shape and reshape that perspective. Every positive and challenging experience they have from victories on the athletic field, to facing a consequence for forgetting their homework, is vital in constructing their view. The powerful impact of experience in shaping perspective is a big reason we are so committed to providing a whole child education that not only includes math and social studies but also outreach opportunities to the soup kitchen and outdoor programming at St. Anne’s in the Hills, amongst other places.
In addition to experience, relationships and peers clearly play a significant role in shaping perspective, a sentiment that will always be particularly true for young adults. Our students learn a lot from the vast life experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives from our dynamic faculty both in the classroom, but also on trips, the athletic field and in the halls. Peers will always be an important influence and measuring stick as well. As a parent, you have invariably heard “Everybody is going” or “Everyone had a hard time with that test.” In some cases, this comment is merely a guilt trip ploy, but often it does reflect what a middle schooler may genuinely be feeling. The experience or perspective of their peers is that powerful and impactful on their own view, and it is constantly used as a means to understand themselves and their experience.
For today’s kids, technology can also play a major role in the building of an adolescent’s perspective. The ability to Face Time a relative in another state, or being able to watch a live video newstream from across the globe, enables access to myriad perspectives and cultures with mere clicks of a button. At the same time, our kids are also exposed to Instagram and other social media accounts where a curation of photos and experiences can give off perceptions that everyone is always having a good time, looking their best and rarely facing adversity or staying idle. As adults we know that isn’t the case, but it isn’t always as easy for our kids to believe or see it that way.
So, as adults who are invested in the daily growth of our middle schoolers, what can we do in our interactions with them to help build perspective?
1) Invite their perspective on challenges or decisions when appropriate and reasonable: Whether it’s planning the itinerary for a road trip, asking how a new routine at home has been going for them or sharing a problem you’re trying to solve at home or work, the act of asking what kids think sends a powerful message to them. Plus, who knows what raw and piercing insights, you may gain from them? It’s unlikely they will filter their thoughts for us, and what they lack in experience, they make up for in a newness and a difference in vantage point that we cannot get from other adults.
2) Defer judgment and listen first when they are sharing their perspective on a situation: This is easier said than done I realize, but there are several important reasons for this practice. When we listen first, it sends the message that we value other perspectives than our own, an important habit to model. It also helps fill a well you may want to draw from later for them. We don’t have to agree necessarily, but we can be present and listen.
3) Remember that because of their thirst for independence, they may not want to hear our perspective: Middle schoolers desperately want to prove that they are able to make decisions for themselves. So, it can be difficult for them to hear anything that runs counter to the way they see things. This does not mean we shouldn’t share our perspective because they do value and need our opinion (they just might not show it at first). Deep down, they usually hear it and are grateful to have another perspective to weigh and fall back on. As I have shared in an earlier blog post, inserting our perspective by asking them a question that helps them consider alternatives or previously overlooked factors, can be an effective approach.
4) Use the “switch roles” approach to foster empathy in cases of conflict or frustration with a peer, friend, sibling, teacher, etc.: This is a great exercise I’ve used with students at school when they are facing a challenge with another community member. Encourage them to take on the role and vantage point of a person they are having difficulty with, asking them to recount the situation from the other side’s perspective. "What might they be feeling?" You can still empathize with them, but this exercise can help them consider what role, if any, they may have played. More importantly, it will foster empathy and help them practice seeing things from a perspective other than their own.
5) Finally, as adults, we must remember the bumps and bruises our kids experience along the way do not represent a straying from a path, but rather an important and necessary portion of the overall journey. When we accept this notion, our kids will be more apt to see failure as part of the process and a learning experience, rather than something to run from, hide or deny to avoid disappointing someone. Teaching from success is easy, but how we help guide our students through challenge and failure is what defines our work as a school.