Brains, Brains, Brains! How the Mind of a Middle Schooler Works


OCTOBER 24, 2013

Image credit: Veer

In honor of October’s most awesome of holidays, I am going to begin a three-part series about the gentlemen zombie’s choice of cuisine: the ‘tween brain. However, I need to be frank. I’m not going to be able to teach you deeply about the ‘tween brain here. I’m not a neurologist. What I am going to do is make an argument, hopefully a darn good one, as to why you should educate yourself further about it.

Imagine that this is the CliffNotes of ‘tween brain research, but your research should not stop at this because, frankly, the more you know about how they learn, the more you can pass on to them the secrets of how they process and embed knowledge. In the end, this leads to greater achievement.

The following is an edited excerpt from my book on middle schoolers: ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. The chapter goes into more detail about how the tween brain works, but I thought I’d encapsulate it in this series of posts. So, in honor of Halloween, I present, The ‘Tween Brain.

What are ‘tweens most interested in? Please circle the correct response:


A. ancient history between the years of 400 BC and 1400 AD

B. how to write a literary analysis essay on the theme of Number the Stars

C. the definition of the term “quadratic equation”

D. themselves

Answer: D. It should come as no surprise that the most intriguing topic to a middle schooler is middle schoolers. I can’t blame them. Their bodies are changing. Their priorities are changing. Their identities are mutating as fast as their bone structure, and they want to know about where they are going to land after their morphing is done, both mentally and physically. More importantly, they want to know how what we teach relates to them, not as people, but as tweens.

Tapping into ‘Tweens

Look at it this way: your teaching every year is like a narrative, and …if the A-story is the standards-based content, then the B-story is the tween-based content, and there is a huge difference between a middle-school classroom run by a teacher who takes on this added curriculum and a middle-school classroom that doesn’t. It’s the difference between silver and gray.

So when I realized this, I began to become a hobbyist in what a ‘tween was and what made them tick. I began infusing my own professional development with brain research on how the ‘tween brain works. I mean, if my job is to teach to it, I felt I should know more about it.

Therefore, my class became focused on not just what to learn, but how best to learn it. It became a class that taught students that they could, through using certain strategies, leave my classroom with greater intelligence than when they entered it, because they could control their own depth of learning.

It’s this concept of “control” that’s so fascinating to middle schoolers. For in every other aspect of their lives they are out of control. They wake up with different faces than the ones they went to sleep with, marked by zits while they slept. They don’t drive but they want to go places. They can’t get a worker’s permit, but they need cash. Meanwhile, many adults tell them that they are too old for this but not old enough for that; so to realize that there is something that they can control, their own level of learning, is empowering. It’s empowering for them to feel their level of intellect is in their hands and isn’t a hand they were just dealt at birth. It’s also empowering for the teachers to know that any student they get in the fall can have the ability to grow by the spring. All is takes is teaching ‘tweens about what makes them tick and how they can tick better.

Changing Perspectives

The best resource I’ve found for brain research in regard to education is by Judy Willis. A neurologist turned teacher, Willis makes understanding all this stuff really relatable to the classroom. One of the most important points she makes is that people are not born at a certain intelligence level and stay that way. Intelligence is not gifted at birth, unalterable; and when students realize that they can alter their brain, it is absolutely empowering.

This myth that the brain is unalterable feeds into the insecure world of a middle schooler. To take from them that false burden of “that’s just the way it is,” is liberating. Anything you can do to help a ‘tween feel more secure in their abilities and possibilities will potentially improve their achievement in your classroom. Anything you can do to make a ‘tween feel more in control becomes a powerful tool for you and for them.

For this machine that is their brain is a tool, and it is one that, while it came to them from the factory all nice and new, can still be modified and souped up.

The ‘tween brain is different developmentally than that of the elementary students and of the high schooler, and it must be treated as such. Even though we teach to the standards, our lessons should still reflect the existing solid science that proves how the brain learns best at this stage of development. If we want what we teach to be embedded into long-term memory instead of being discarded from short-term memory, we need to create lessons that send it to the area of the brain reserved for long term use.

For my next post, I will define some key phrases you should know about the ‘tween brain and follow a memorized fact as it travels from point A to point B. And in the third post, I will offer some advice on activities to embed knowledge more deeply into the fickle and easily distracted middle school noggin.

What have you discovered about the middle schooler’s mind? Please share your experiences and expertise with us in the comment section below.

Anger at Teens (Or is it Worry?)

by Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD
Remember when your toddler wandered off somewhere or ran into the street? Or your elementary school aged son jumped off the highest monkey bar or hid in a department store with no regard for his own safety—or your nerves? For however many seconds it took before you knew that your daughter or son was safe, you were probably terrified. But the moment you knew all was well, your fear probably turned to anger. If you’re like most parents, you may have felt a strong urge to throttle that precious child. You were unbelievably scared about what could have happened! Plus, she made you doubt your ability to keep her safe, which is typically one of the priorities of parenting.

More than likely, although your young child sensed how upset you were, you kept your fury in check. But now that kids are older, these scenarios often become far more complex and emotionally charged. When teens and tweens put themselves in danger or make bad choices, they provoke a whole different level of parental anxiety—which is quickly converted to anger that many mothers and fathers no longer contain. The result? Explosive confrontations, furious parents, indignant kids, and strained parent-teen relationships. With summer’s lack of structure and relaxed rules, many parents and teens are struggling even more. Fortunately, to turn things around all you might need is a better appreciation for what’s causing this dynamic—and some suggestions for responding more mindfully.

Why You’re So Worked Up

It may feel like a cruel trick of nature that just when teens are more mobile and face far greater temptations and dangers, we parents have much less knowledge of their whereabouts and hardly any control over them. It can be quite unnerving, for example, when a son goes off for the weekend with his friend’s family or a daughter is invited to a dance by an older boy. This anxiety probably skyrockets if you don’t hear from your teen or tween and can’t reach them when you try to call—whether cell service is spotty or they forget their cellphones or they can’t be bothered to answer your call.

It’s even worse when you find out about actual transgressions—say, if your son and his friend snuck out of their room and got up to no good or your daughter texted her date a grossly inappropriate photo. Then anxiety can transform instantly into rage. At these moments, you may feel disrespected by kids who seemingly ignore your basic rules, wise advice, and urgent admonitions. In an instant, your mind can go from the present situation to unimaginable tragedies. In the panicky parental mind, cheating on a test, accepting a ride from an underage driver, or skipping school are one step away from fatal auto accidents, teen pregnancy, and drug overdoses.

Why Teens Don’t Get It

You may think your son is purposely causing your constant agitation, sleepless nights, and graying hair. In reality, of course, this is unlikely. Probably your daughter thinks the situation is no big deal and has no idea why you’re so upset: “It’s not like anything happened!” “I’m fine, aren’t I?” In fact, your teen may truly wonder why you “flipped out” or “overreacted.” How could they not? They don’t have the perspective or judgment that come from fully matured brains and about 25 to 35 more years of life experience. In kids’ views, they’ve been unfairly criticized, misunderstood and blamed for circumstances they may view as insignificant or beyond their control. It wasn’t their fault! You just don’t understand them! Not only can teens feel hurt and indignant, but also they may become even more determined to demonstrate you can’t control them. That’s how parental anger can backfire and trigger unproductive, if not harmful, vicious cycles.

First Step: Empathy

Although this suggestion may seem counter-intuitive, your first step may be to muster up some empathy for your teen or tween. First of all, if you’re all worked up, you can’t think clearly enough to see the big picture, much less to have a productive discussion. Empathizing with how they’re thinking and feeling can quickly deflate your rage as well as deposit good will in the parent-teen relationship bank. These reminders may be helpful:

• Developmentally, teens figure out who they are by exploring, experimenting, and discovering. In fact, these pivotal tasks are all but synonymous with adolescence. Testing limits is practically teens’ job.

• Making mistakes is a necessary part of this process. That’s a primary way teens learn about themselves and the world, enabling them to make wiser decisions in the future. Your goal, of course, is to speak to them in ways that discourage minor risk-taking and mistakes from becoming truly dangerous behaviors.

• Your teen didn’t invent rule-bending and risk-taking. Try to recall your own desires for spontaneity, excitement, and freedom when you were that age. Chances are, your goal was to have fun—not to spite your parents or send them to an early grave. Your own teen is probably not so different.

More Strategies

Once you’re calmer, you can probably examine the situation more fairly and flexibly, which will lead to more constructive discussions and resolutions. Here are some ideas:

• Keep an open mind. It’s easy to jump to conclusions. When our brains are activated by fear or anger, the parts that help us think clearly and assess situations accurately are all but shut down. So when the initial anger subsides, consider that you may not have all the facts. Listen carefully to your teen’s explanation of the situation.

• Examine your anxiety. Decide if your reaction was reasonable for the situation. Perhaps it was exaggerated by what else you’re dealing with, such as financial, job-related, marital, or elderly parent issues. If so, the last thing you need is a teen who’s worsening your stress. Regardless, being aware of your anger makes it less likely you’ll be unhelpfully critical or unnecessarily punitive.

• Discuss constructively. Make a genuine effort to hear and understand each other’s positions. If you overreacted, own up to it. If you’re upset with your teen, convey your message in ways that lead to constructive resolutions of the problem. For example, “I’d sleep a whole lot better if you could text me that you arrived safely” usually works better than, “Because of your selfishness, I was up all night!”

• Agree upon solutions. Brainstorm specific, concrete ideas that could (a) significantly lower your anxiety, and (b) be tolerable to your teens. In most situations, as I learned when my own kids were teens, just hearing from them was reassuring. If your teens are too mortified to talk to you in front of their friends, would they agree to text (which is inconspicuous) or call but hang up so you see a missed call on your phone? Rather than waiting up, could you leave a light on in the hallway that they turn off when they come in? Or ask them to slide a piece of paper under your bedroom door? Definitely pre-arrange an SOS signal so you’ll know when they’re in trouble and need your help. When you talk about your apprehension without anger, they’ll be far more likely to negotiate these options with you.


Having said all this, it’s hard to imagine raising teens and tweens today without the occasional night of tossing and turning. No matter how smart and responsible your kids are, they still have immature judgment and hormone-infused impulses. It’s still your job to keep them safe by protecting them—even from themselves. Once in awhile, seeing you upset or worried or even angry conveys to them the depth of your love and concern. Plus, it comforts teens to know you are there to set limits and rein them in if they step over the line. But in general, expressing anger excessively or when you’re really feeling terribly anxious isn’t all that useful—to them or to you. Take a deep breath—it’s summer, after all—and enjoy the increasingly rare time you may have with your teen.

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, But Instagram Is To the Bone

From The Huffington Post: 04/04/2013 1:31 pm

If you are a parent of a tween, stop right now and take this pop quiz.

Don’t worry.

There’s only one question.

Are you ready for it?

Here goes:

Is your kid on Instagram?

a) No freaking way #inserteyeroll

b) Totes! #likeduh

If you answered (a), um… you’re wrong. And I’m sorry to hear about that rock you just crawled out from under.

If you answered (b), congrats! You just earned 10 Insta points! And I so just made that up! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back, but your job is far from over. Because letting your child have an Insta (you knew they called it that, right?) without teaching them how to use it properly is like buying your kid a car without teaching them how to drive.

Or some other metaphor that’s a little less lame. Still. The point I’m trying to make here is an important one so just bear with me, k?

So… Are you on Instagram? Do you follow your child to see what he or she is doing? Is their account set to “private” with geotagging turned off? Have you instructed your children not to accept follower invites from anyone they don’t know? And to never, ever, ever give out any personal information like address, location or phone number? Like, ever?

Well done. You just earned three more Insta points.

But those were only the starter questions. Now take this next set out for a spin:


Are you pissed because I said at the beginning that there would only be one question?

Well, guess what?

I lied.

You have a tween now. Get used to it.

So, have you told them yet how they should never post a picture that will hurt, embarrass or make someone feel left out? Explained to them — really sat down and explained — that any picture they post on Instagram is out there forever? And how that cute bikini pic they posted on vacay is just one screenshot away from landing in front of the wrong, creepy set of eyes?

Sad and hard to talk about, but true nonetheless.

So, did you tell them?

Did you?

If you’re anything like me, your answer falls somewhere between um, I think I did and well… kind of, sort of.

And that’s not enough.

Did you know that there are beauty pageants on Instagram?


Well then you may want to sit down.

Because you know who the participants in these pageants are?

Our children.

Wait. What?

See, right now, as I sit here typing this, there is a tween girl with an iPhone somewhere making a grid out of four pictures of her besties using Instacollage or Mixel or whatever cool new app is making the rounds this week (omg Juxtaposer is sooooo amaze!)

When she’s finished, she will post that grid on Instagram, and then write something along the lines of: BEAUTY CONTEST! VOTE SOMEONE OUT!

Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I know I did when this whole thing blew up here on the Main Line over the weekend.

And I’ll get to that in a minute.

But wait. That’s not even the worst part. Because what happens next is this: People will actually vote for who they think is the least attractive in the comments, and whichever girl’s name is written the most will be awarded a big fat X drawn across her face.

Do you want me to repeat that last part?

Of course you don’t, but I’m going to anyway.

Whichever girl’s name is written the most will be awarded with a big fat X drawn across her face.

Then the question will be repeated two more times, until there is only one gorgeous X-free girl left standing, the fairest of them all!

And you thought you had it tough in middle school because no one had invented Japanese hair straightening yet.

But don’t hate the players. They’re just kids.

And don’t hate the game. Instagram was designed to be an online photo-sharing app that let users pimp-out their pics with cool filters and then share them.

So, who do we hate?

We hate the coaches.

Because we are the coaches.

And we are failing our children by not giving them the tools they need to properly navigate this scary new world, and by not monitoring their interactions in this world closely enough once we do.

I had heard about the beauty pageants from a friend in New York a few months ago. But I didn’t realize it was going on in my own town until late Saturday night, when, after five days of being on vacay in Mexico, I finally got in bed with my iPhone and signed onto my daughter’s account to see what was going on.

Because part of the deal I have with my daughter is that until she turns 13, I can access her account any time. And if there are any followers, posts, comments or people she is following that I think are inappropriate, she will delete them, no questions asked. True story, except for the “no questions asked” part. Because she usually does have questions and/or arguments, but I am her mom and I said so.

So I started scrolling down her news feed.

And that’s when I saw them.

The beauty contest grids.

About a half dozen of them.

And there, smiling out from one of the squares, was my kid.

Holy freaking @!*&!

But when I asked her about it the next day, she said she knew someone had put her picture in a contest, but that she didn’t really care.

Impressive, I guess.

Then again, she hadn’t been voted out yet.

There were other girls who weren’t so lucky. And they were devastated, which is a ridiculous understatement, to say the least.

My first instinct was to block all the girls who had posted the grids from my daughter’s account.

But here’s the thing.

These girls were friends of my daughter’s who had been in my car, at my parties, in my house. They liked to dance, and sing camp songs and bake brownies. They weren’t Heathers. Or Reginas. Or even Monas. And if you don’t know who Mona is, you need to go watch an ep of PLL like, now.

These were good, sweet, funny girls who I knew and who I liked.

Yes, what they were doing was wrong.

But how could I blame them when they were playing a game they had never been given the rules to? My own daughter waved the grids off as all in good fun until I actually explained to her what made them so offensive and vile. In the wake of events like what took place in Steubenville, it’s becoming more important than ever for us to empower our kids with the tools they need to decipher right from wrong — both online and IRL.

And so instead of banishing the girls, I did this:

At first, nothing much happened.

But then I noticed that the beauty grids were slowly starting to disappear from my daughter’s news feed. And in their place were things like this:

And this:

And this:

Slowly but surely, this little posse of fourth and fifth grade girls — who had just spent hours feeling bad about themselves — picked themselves up and took to Instagram to post inspirational messages of their own.

Did you just get chills?

I know I did. Because if this is not just the most amazing show of tween girl power, then I don’t know what is.

Clearly, when it comes to social media, a little guidance goes a long way.

Which is why it’s time for us to take our collective blinders off and really pay attention. Because the minute we give our kids an iPhone or iPod or any other gadget that puts technology quite literally in the palms of their hands, we become responsible for whatever happens next.

So, when my kids get home tonight — they are 7 and 10 and yes, they are both on Instagram — I’m going to take a few moments before all the after-school craziness begins to really sit down and talk to them about what it means to use social media correctly and responsibly.

This is something we should ALL be doing. We potty train our kids, teach them good table manners and spend 10 minutes deciphering the food label on a candy bar. And yet, we set our kids up on social media, and then for all intents and purposes, we hang them out to dry.

Checking our kids’ news feeds to see what they are viewing, scrolling through their profiles to see what they’re posting, investigating the people who want to follow them, finding out who they’ve given their password to and monitoring all of their accounts (because most kids have more than one Instagram account, in case you didn’t know) doesn’t make us helicopter parents.

It makes us smart parents.

And there is nothing more beautiful than being smart.