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To understand the pandemic’s impact on middle schoolers, picture the pain of lunchtime. A bunch of uncomfortable adolescents are navigating social distancing rules while figuring out when and if to take down their masks. It’s not going well.

Some have given up eating lunch entirely, which worries Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of the book Middle School Matters. She knows this age group. And she knows all this anxiety is not just about masks.

It’s everything.

“They feel really self-conscious and vulnerable,” said Fagell, who has observed a spike in eating disorders since students returned full-time this fall — one of many reentry issues educators are concerned about.

If being isolated at home last year was tough, it turns out being back full-time is also filled with challenges for our eye-rolling, head-shaking, serial-texting middle schoolers, who are enduring a time of life I once deemed “the age of embarrassment.” 

The pandemic left many of them behind, both academically and socially, at a most unfortunate phase: an awkward time when they are separating from parents and figuring out who they are and want to be. Their bodies and voices may feel as unfamiliar as their friend groups, after so much time apart or under strict pandemic limitations.

Related: How four middle schoolers are getting through the pandemic

Middle schoolers, studies confirm, are experiencing more trauma and mental health issues than ever before — something I heard plenty about during a recent virtual conference of the world’s largest association of middle school educators, at a time when major pediatric groups say the state of children’s mental health should be considered a national emergency.

“We should spend more time listening to them, and asking them [middle-schoolers] for insights,” said Lisa Harrison, an associate professor of teacher education at Ohio University, who spoke on a panel about what a successful middle school of the future might look like. “They are spot on with so many levels of what we should be doing.”

Many of the panelists underscored what The Hechinger Report has observed after many months of reporting on this age group: There’s a lot of work ahead to figure out how to help middle schoolers heal, and their voices must be part of the discussion.

“Between 11 and 14 is when young men really start shaping who they are. Middle school years are tough years. Kids are lonely. They are letting technology raise them…there are a lot of our young people in pain.”

 Robert Jackson, education consultant

Students who spoke during the conference had plenty to say. They asked for more course choices, including classes in engineering, coding and additional languages like Arabic. They want a warm, welcoming environment, a space so safe and cozy they don’t want to leave. One wanted evidence that Black and Hispanic lives matter, another wanted more life lessons and career training. Another said they do not appreciate being yelled at.

Middle school should be a place where “we can talk about struggles at home like depression and anxiety,” said Sudikshya Dhaurali a 13-year-old student at Western Middle School for the Arts in Louisville, Kentucky.

Several emphasized what became a main conference theme: They want relationships with adults they trust.

Here’s proof of how mixed up middle schoolers are: As students came back to their school buildings this year, more were acting out; some principals discovered acts of vandalism like ripping up soap dispensers, said Joseph Mazza, principal of Seven Bridges Middle School in suburban Westchester County, New York.

And even though his school’s sports and clubs are back in action and students have been able to eat lunch outside — the school’s PTA bought picnic tables for outdoor dining — personal losses and general anxiety related to the pandemic keeps school from feeling back to normal. With the virus still circulating, a student who has been exposed, on any given day, may be sent home.

Related: Middle school is difficult. Try experiencing it under quarantine

Amid such confusion and uncertainty, opportunities for leadership for this age group have become particularly important, said Mazza, who along with Fagell hosts a podcast on middle schoolers. These kids want “activities that put them in the driver’s seat,” he said, along with time to speak about what’s on their minds.

I reached out to other educators in search of solutions and heard many that made enormous sense, such as small advisory group meetings, and rooms staffed with counselors where students can come in, get a glass of water, chat with an adult or simply draw and paint.

Casey Siddons, the assistant principal at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac, Maryland, said the school has added morning mindfulness sessions, a space where students can practice breathing for 15 minutes and talk to a counselor who is leading sessions. “The staff has been really attuned to the fact that there is a lot of emotional support needed,” Siddons told me.

 Middle school should be a place where “we can talk about struggles at home like depression and anxiety.”

Sudikshya Dhaurali a 13-year-old student at Western Middle School for the Arts in Louisville, Kentucky.

Schoolwide lessons on topics like bullying and identity have helped students; Fagell and other educators shared tips — from establishing comforting routines to dressing up alongside students for spirit week and playing funny music or YouTube videos during that fraught and uncomfortable lunch hour.

Sage Smith, a middle school teacher and motivational speaker in Cleveland, Tennessee, also urged middle-school teachers to take care of themselves, so they “can fully be there” for students, and help them “create a world where they can feel some peace.”

That means also being aware of the toll the pandemic has taken on them, as well as their students. “I have come to realize that if great teachers are going to stay in their classrooms, they need support,” Smith said.

The raging of hormones, the wearing of masks, the loneliness of the pandemic are all making re-entry difficult for middle schoolers. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Others noted the need to pay particular attention to students of color, in particular Black and Hispanic boys. They are often unfairly stigmatized and remain the most misunderstood, suspended and expelled of all K-12 students, said Robert Jackson, a national education consultant and speaker. He urged educators to recognize how these groups are affected by both historical injustices and more recent traumatic events like the killing of George Floyd and other Black men in police custody.

“We can’t be scared to talk about things that matter if we are working with this population of young men,” Jackson said. “Between 11 and 14 is when young men really start shaping who they are. Middle school years are tough years. Kids are lonely. There are a lot of our young people in pain.”

A few panelists spoke of the success they are having exposing their students to career opportunities, noting that it has given them more self-confidence navigating both the uncertainty of the pandemic along with the ups and downs of growing up. Getting to know passions and interests of students is one way of helping them plan their future and close equity gaps, said Julie DiPilato, a sixth-grade teacher at Barnstable Intermediate School on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Related: Middle school minds: figuring out who you are in the midst of covid

Listening to all that middle school pain reminded me why U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is urging educators to “go beyond literacy, math, history, science, and other core subjects to include helping students to build the social, emotional, and behavioral skills” that will help them recover from the pandemic.

He would likely hear no argument from Tyrese Hutchinson, a seventh grader at Plantation Middle School in Florida. The pandemic was a hard time, he recalled: “First you had Covid where you had to be quarantined and then a lot of people were losing their jobs and couldn’t feed their families.” Last year, Hutchinson participated in a leadership project to feed the homeless. And now that all his classmates are back in class, he said he wants middle schoolers to also learn about jobs and insurance and other life lessons beyond academics.

“I would make the school more welcoming, make kids want to go to school and say, ‘That’s my favorite school,’ ” Hutchinson said.

This story about middle school struggles was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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