I was wildly impressed by education entrepreneur Chris Balme
when he was the founder of Spark
, which is why I agreed to support bringing the program to Chicago as a regional board member, and ultimately, to join the national board. Years later, Chris has started a micro-school program that fascinates me- and has written a book distilling 20 years of learnings about middle schoolers into actionable insights.
Given that Audrey enters 5th grade this year (and in Winnetka, middle school is technically 5/6 and 7/8th grades), we can use all the insights that we can get. :)
Please find below my exclusive Q&A with Chris- and you can find Finding the Magic in Middle School
now on Amazon
AJR: Chris, why do you coin middle schoolers "The ultimate underdogs?"
: Middle schoolers have a rough deal. We don't give them much help around the topics they really care about, like sorting out their identity or social dynamics. Instead, we call them "hormonal" and make comments about how their brains aren't fully formed. Look up middle school on Amazon and your first result is likely "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life". This is what young people hear. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But here's the good news: since we made the middle school years harder than they need to be, we can also make them better. They aren't inherently bad. They're actually magical years of transformation, when our kids burst out of childhood and start taking on parts of their adult identity and mindsets. The more we understand how they're changing, the more we can parent and teach in ways that support their growth.
AJR: What inspired you to distill 20 years of insights from working with middle schoolers into a book?
: When you first became a parent, chances are you read at least some articles, maybe even whole books, about what to expect developmentally for your newborn or toddler. Without these, parenting a young one would be exponentially harder. Fast forward to middle school. It's the second most rapid time of brain growth in life, after early childhood. All that brain growth means that it's difficult terrain, because you're parenting or teaching someone who is changing incredibly quickly. If we're going to navigate that terrain well, we need to understand them developmentally.
But while there are shelves of developmentally-based books for early childhood, there are far, far fewer about middle schoolers. That's why I wrote this book. It's all about what's happening developmentally during the middle school years, starting with brain science, and how we can use that knowledge to understand them better, love them through their ups and downs, and be better companions to them on the adventure of adolescence.
AJR: If you have one or two tips for parents like us with their eldest child entering middle school at the start of the school year, what would those tips be?
: Start with belonging. It's the key to both mental health and academic growth in middle school. They need to feel secure in at least one friendship, better yet one group of friends, to feel safe enough to take positive risks for their own growth.
Second: Remember what they're most driven to do — and it's probably not academics. Middle schoolers are on three quests: for identity, connection, and contribution. If they don't seem motivated by what you want, remember that they're almost always motivated by these quests. They're trying to figure out their identity, how to connect with peers, and how to feel a sense of contribution to their community. Help them meet those needs and you'll get their full motivation.
AJR: If we could do one thing in America to improve the middle school experience for all children, what would that be?
: Advisory. Most middle schools have a time in the schedule called "advisory," but usually it turns into something like a study hall. With the right support, teachers can make advisory something amazing. High-quality advisories are groups where students feel psychologically safe and able to have honest conversations about what's most on their minds with peers and an adult facilitator. They feel like they have company on the adventure of adolescence. They realize they share similar challenges — like navigating intense emotions, changing relationships with friends or family, and more challenging academics — and feel far less alone in facing them. This kind of advisory is the ideal place for social-emotional learning, which will help middle schoolers learn how to collaborate well with others, manage their focus, and understand their emotions—extremely useful skills for success in the real world.
Again, you can find Finding the Magic in Middle School