Eighth Grade Is a Movie About Middle School That Will Leave Adults in Tears

Slate

Bo Burnham’s funny, original debut feature is astonishingly mature.

A teenage girl in a swimming pool.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.
A24

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” stammers 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of the self-recorded advice videos she periodically posts to her YouTube channel. It’s hard to imagine any topic on which this insecure, awkward girl, with her apologetically slumped shoulders and digitally airbrushed-out acne, would make for a less convincing expert. As her generally unhappy middle school experience enters its final excruciating week, Kayla contends with some standardly bad teenage experiences: being awarded the superlative of “Most Quiet” at an end-of-year ceremony, being invisible to the “Best Eyes”–winning classmate she’s crushed out on (Luke Prael), and being pestered by her loving, hovering single dad (Josh Hamilton) to—get this—stop looking at Instagram over dinner and talk to him.

Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth.

Kayla will later deal with scarier and dodgier situations than these run-of-the-mill indignities, even if Eighth Grade mercifully never goes as dark as first-time writer-director Bo Burnham sometimes seem to hint it will. The funny, heartfelt, and utterly original Eighth Grade is a movie about middle school starring real middle school–age kids, to which one might enjoyably take actual middle schoolers—so long as they and their parents are willing to tolerate a reasonably high degree of shared comic embarrassment. Whether or not you currently have a preteen child, every adult has been one, and it’s almost neurologically impossible not to avert your face in burning-cheeked sympathy when Kayla, face to face with the popular girls she both longs to impress and fears like the ego-destroying monsters they can be, can only summon the emptiest sycophantic banter. “By the way, I like your shirt a lot. It’s, like, so cool.” Long pause. “I have a … shirt … too.”

Eighth Grade alternates such moments of hyperreal cringe comedy with more stylized scenes filmed from Kayla’s point of view. A visit to her boorish beloved’s Instagram feed sends her down a social media spiral, captured in a montage of Snapchat selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes set to Enya’s hypnotic New Age classic “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” These dreamlike passages often end abruptly with the forced removal of headphones from Kayla’s ears, emphasizing the break between banal everyday reality and the curated fantasy space of social media. But Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth: There’s a lightness and simplicity to this affectionate portrait of a girl dipping a first toe in the rushing waters of 21st-century teenagerdom.

Kayla’s omnipresent iPhone can be a vector of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but, like the YouTube videos she posts into the apparent void, it can also serve as a medium of connection. After she’s paired with a high school student (Emily Robinson) for a daylong tour of the school she’s about to move on to, the two become unexpectedly friendly, and a dazzled Kayla gets a glimpse of the only good thing about her current phase of life: Eventually, it ends. “Now I can’t wait to grow up,” she confides to her trusty webcam. But her newfound faith in the future is tested, heartstoppingly, by an encounter with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who tries to pressure Kayla into a too-much-too-soon round of truth or dare.

A scene toward the end will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way in to the theater.

The 27-year-old Burnham, making a graceful and assured debut as a writer-director, already has a devoted following as a stand-up comedian. In fact, his career began at age 16 in exactly the place we first see Kayla: YouTube. In his most recent Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham uses his considerable versatility—he can sing, dance, take to the keyboard to pound out his own satirical pop ballads, and generally shift genres and tones on a dime—to mount a protest against stand-up comedy as a form. By the end of the hour, he’s exposed both the raw desire for approval that drives him to perform in the first place and the need for mass catharsis via entertainment that fills seats at comedy shows. At first glance, this kind of confrontational virtuosity would seem at odds with the emotional directness of Eighth Grade, which, though it showcases many acts of intentional and unintentional cruelty, is a deeply kind movie, curious and nonjudgmental even about the characters who in most coming-of-age films would be hissable villains. But some of the same themes that animate Burnham’s stand-up—his willingness to look at aspects of the modern experience that tend to be omitted from the stories we tell, his glee at subverting audience expectations—are also at play in his first feature.

Impressive as Burnham’s achievement is, Eighth Grade could never hit the heights it does without the right actress in the demanding lead role. Elsie Fisher—who was only 14 when the movie premiered at Sundance, with experience as a child voice actor in the Despicable Me franchise—delivers her “like”-heavy dialogue with such naturalism you might think the lines are improvised. But Burnham has said in interviews that the film is more scripted than it appears, and the story beats that it hits in its brisk 90-minute runtime are too precisely timed to be the result of adolescent ad-libbing. Though they get less screen time than Fisher, the rest of the teen actors, especially Jake Ryan as an earnest, geeky boy who takes a shine to Kayla at a pool party, are uniformly wonderful. And as Kayla’s devoted but confounded father, who’s alternately commanded to talk more, smile less, “stop looking weird and sad,” and just shut up and drive her to the mall, Josh Hamilton gives an exemplary performance, funny and sensitive and quietly soul-baring. A late scene by a campfire, in which Kayla’s dad struggles to articulate what watching her grow from babyhood has meant to him, will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way into the theater.

Eighth Grade doesn’t overstay its welcome or beg for the viewer’s approval. As Kayla records her last advice video of the school year, mortifying catchphrase and all, you’re sad to see her go, glad for the gains in self-confidence she’s made, and curious to know what she’ll do next. The same is true of Bo Burnham, who, unlike his tentative protagonist, arrives on the big screen already fully grown.

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What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.

“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.

What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.

“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.

“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”

Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.

Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.

“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.

A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.

“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.

“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.

Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.

“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.

“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”

That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.

“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.

For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”

One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.

The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.

“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.

It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.

Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.

“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”

Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.

“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”

Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

Control your own stress

Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.

However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.

“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”

Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.

“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”

Give them autonomy, not independence

At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.

They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.

“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.

Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.

“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”

Don’t try to fix everything

With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.

“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”

“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.

“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.

Practice what you preach

Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.

Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.

“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.

Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”

Organization helps

At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.

Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.

Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.

Talk less, listen more

Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.

“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”

Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?

Finland is really good at stopping bullying. Here’s how they’re doing it.

July 1, 2016

By James Gaines
Imagine you’re back in middle school or high school. The bell just rang, so you’re walking to your next class, minding your own business.

Then you walk around the corner and see this:

 

What would you do?

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common scene.

About a fourth to a third of all students report that they’ve been bullied in school.

And while a single bad encounter might be easy to brush off, bullying often doesn’t happen just once. For many kids, it’s a long, awful campaign of continual harassment, injury, and exhaustion.

Even the most resilient kids can have trouble dealing with that. And bullying can also cause depression, anxiety, health complaints, and even dropping out of school. It’s not great.

So back to that question: If you saw bullying, what would you do?

Finland has been asking folks this question for a while, and they found that the answer people give is really important.

 

Finland has one of the most successful education systems in the world, so it’s not surprising that they’ve used this question about bullying to pioneer a brand new and super effective bullying prevention program in schools.

Finland’s anti-bullying program is called KiVa, short for “kiusaamista vastaan,” which means “against bullying.”
KiVa includes many different resources, like tools for teachers and parents and in-classroom lessons. But one of the most interesting aspects is how the program focuses on teaching bystanders what to do if they see bullying. Teachers are not always around, so they can’t always help. But other students often are.

“Our findings are the first to show that the most tormented children — those facing bullying several times a week — can be helped by teaching bystanders to be more supportive,” UCLA professor Jaana Juvonen, said in a press release about a recent analysis of KiVa’s efficacy.

One of the most interesting ways KiVa teaches this bystander empathy is through computer games and simulations.

In one of the games, the kids take control of cartoon avatars that are put in a variety of bullying situations they might encounter in school.

“For instance, they might witness a bullying incident and they have to decide what to do; whether to defend the victim or do something else,” Johanna Alanen, KiVa’s International Project Manager, told Upworthy in an email.

“There are different options on how to defend the victim,” Alanen explained. “Their choices have consequences and lead to new situations.

Basically, the programs are kind of like choose-you-own-adventure stories for bullying, allowing the kids to see what consequences might come from certain actions, all in a virtual setting.

The students are also given advice and feedback about what to say to someone who has been bullied.

“In the game, students can practice how to be nice to someone and what kind of nice things you can say to someone who would like to be included in the group or is new in the school,” said Alanen.

By asking the kids what they would do in certain situations and giving feedback and advice about it, the program can help teach the students to be more empathetic and supportive of bullying victims.

And the data shows that the program works too.

Juvonen’s analysis found that KiVa reduced the odds of a given student being bullied by about one-third to one-half.

That’s huge. And not only that, but early data shows that the program might also help reduce depression and increase self-esteem for kids who have already been bullied.

Now that Finland has adopted KiVa as their national anti-bullying program, it’s being tested other countries too — Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K. — and it’s being evaluated in the United States.

Bullying is a perennial, awful problem that’s tough to eliminate. And there’s probably never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But programs like KiVa show that even at a young age, empathy is one of the best tools we have to make the world a better place.

Moms’ Middle School Blues

The Wall Street Journal
Mothers feel most stressed about parenting when their children are in middle school, new research shows
All mothers have their ups and downs, but their children’s middle-school years are when they feel most empty and unfulfilled, a large new study shows. WSJ columnist Sue Shellenbarger joins Tanya Rivero to discuss.

By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Updated May 17, 2016

Mothers feel more anxious, dissatisfied and doubtful about their own parenting skills when their children are in middle school than at any other stage, new research shows.
The turbulence that hits sixth- through eighth-graders often begins with the onset of puberty, bringing physical changes and mood swings. Also, many students transfer from close-knit elementary schools to larger middle schools. Childhood friends may be separated, classes are often tracked by ability and teachers are more demanding.

Mothers often lose touch with other elementary-school parents who became friends. School officials often press them to back off and give students a longer leash. As a result, some parents may withdraw from others and bottle up the stress and sadness they feel if their children rebel at home or hit a rough patch at school.

The finding that moms of middle-schoolers have greater distress and lower well-being comes from the most ambitious and carefully targeted look yet at mothers’ well-being from childbirth until their children’s adulthood. The study of more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers was published in January. Those with infants and grown children are happiest, says the study, led by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mothers were recruited for an online survey by word-of-mouth, fliers, media reports and lectures. Researchers asked them to respond to validated scales measuring anxiety, depression, stress, emptiness, loneliness, parental guilt, overload and perceptions of their children’s behavior. Researchers took pains to compare only mothers whose oldest and youngest children were in the same age group. This avoided any distortion that might result if there was also a happy baby or successful young adult in the household to mitigate the depressing impact of a rebellious teen.
Researchers expected to find that mothers of infants were almost as stressed as mothers of middle-schoolers, and were surprised by the result, Dr. Luthar says. “Infancy is of course trying, with the physical exhaustion and the nights up, but it’s also very rewarding to hold that baby. It’s magical and sweet,” she says. Fewer offsetting rewards come in middle school.

Mothers’ and fathers’ confidence in their ability to be good parents, including disciplining, influencing and communicating with their child, falls precipitously in middle school, says another study, a three-year look at 398 parents of children ages 11 to 15, published last year by researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Jeff and Jennifer Grosman of Washington, D.C., with their children Max, now 11, and Hannah, now 14. Dr. Grosman felt isolated at first after Hannah began pushing for more independence last year. PHOTO: LISA RAYMAN GOLDFARB
Researchers knew from previous studies that parents of teens have less confidence in their parenting ability than parents of younger children. To explore when and why those declines occurred, they recruited parents of 11- and 12-year-olds from two middle schools and had them complete interviews and written questionnaires at three one-year intervals. Among triggers for parents’ loss of confidence, the study says, were puberty-related physical changes in the children, a decline in the quality of parent-child communication and a parental belief in negative stereotypes about teenagers.

“Middle school is a gray zone—that difficult time when you don’t feel like you have the skills to handle the challenge” of parenting, says Patti Cancellier, education director for the Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md.,-based parent-training nonprofit.

Jennifer Grosman felt isolated after her daughter Hannah, now 14, began pushing for more independence last year. In middle school, “parents aren’t hanging out and bonding at the kids’ birthday parties anymore, so there isn’t an informal opportunity for conversations about parenting,” says Dr. Grosman, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. It is easy to assume your child is the only one struggling, she says. “And when people say, ‘How’s your kid doing?’ you feel like you have to say, ‘Uh, fine.’ ”
She and her husband Jeff took a 10-week class on parenting teens at the Parent Encouragement Program. They learned that other parents were having similar struggles and that much of what their daughter was going through was normal.

Dr. Grosman and two other parents also started an informal discussion group for parents of sixth-grade classmates of her younger child, Max, who is 11, to give parents a chance to build trusting friendships early in middle school. About 10 to 15 participants have met monthly since last fall to discuss topics suggested by group members, Dr. Grosman says. The group has gone so well that she plans to start a similar one for parents in her daughter’s ninth-grade class.

While worry and guilt about a child’s behavior are factors in the middle-school blues, personal needs for close friends and acceptance and comfort from others are often a more powerful predictor of mothers’ distress, Dr. Luthar says.

Having close friends you see often is a potent antidote, Dr. Luthar says, but many parents lack time for friendship “because their kids are in 10,000 activities and they’re busy ferrying them across town, worrying about college admissions” and other stressors, she says.

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Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. ENLARGE
Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. PHOTO: STEVEN DYMOWSKI

Dr. Luthar is testing a workplace program for employed mothers that encourages them to build close friendships. Participants must find at least two people who will agree to be their “go-to committee,” meeting with them weekly to listen and provide mutual support, she says. “The premise is basically that the same love we give to our kids, we all need for ourselves. That’s what the women are encouraged to do for each other.”

Kimberly Hicks began feeling isolated, sad and ineffective as a parent last year after her daughter withdrew from the family emotionally during middle school, arguing and criticizing family members and spending more time in her room alone, says Ms. Hicks, of Burtonsville, Md. She enrolled in a parenting class and learned that stepping back and letting her daughter make more decisions for herself might ease her rebellion.

Ms. Hicks, who is trained as a counselor, battled the urge to bottle up the stress. When she told a friend that “deep down, I’m afraid I’m not doing everything I’m supposed to do as a parent,” Ms. Hicks says, she took comfort in the friend’s empathetic reassurance that she’d felt the same way with her own children.

Ms. Hicks also fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. She attends a weekly women’s group at her church. She also gets together every week or two with a friend, another middle-school parent who has similar views on child-rearing. As they work for two or three hours together on household projects, such as cleaning the garage, “we’re talking the whole time,” she says.

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Al Watts, a dad in South Elgin, Ill., has found his kids’ middle-school years harder than he expected. He doesn’t talk about the challenges with other dads as often as he suspects a mother would, he says, but he calls other dads or joins message boards to share problems. Left to right, Anna, 13; Ben, 9; Macy, 11; Rachel, 7; Shirley and Al Watts. PHOTO: KATHY ELKEY
Men share parenting problems, but they tend to be “much more direct and to the point,” says Al Watts, an author in South Elgin, Ill., who stays home to care for his four children, ages 7 to 13.

Mr. Watts says he worries about keeping communication open with his two oldest children—Anna, 13, and Macy, 11. “I thought middle school would be easier, and I was totally wrong,” he says. “The problems are much more complicated.”

When a boy asked Macy out on a date, Mr. Watts called his brother, who has a son in sixth grade, for advice. His brother’s response: “I’m glad I don’t have that problem.” Still, Mr. Watts says, talking it over helped him stay calm.

He enrolls in parenting classes offered by his school district. He also logs onto a Facebook group run by the National At-Home Dad Network, a fathers’ group, frequently, to read others’ posts and comments.

Mr. Watts has trouble finding time to see friends. When a close friend from Nebraska recently came through town, however, he made a point of meeting. “Dads need that connection too,” he says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Middle School: The New High School for Moms

(CNN) If you had to guess what are the most difficult years for a mother, what might you say?

Infancy? Sure, dealing with a newborn is beyond stressful, as you try to figure out how to care for an infant and adjust to a new role all on zero sleep. It would be no surprise if those years were the most taxing. But I — and probably many of you reading this — would guess adolescence, namely the high school years, which I might add I am already dreading.

But it turns out the most stressful time for moms is middle school, at least according to a new study by Arizona State University researchers published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

Suniya Luthar is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

“I was a little taken aback to see that apparently preadolescence is the new adolescence or junior high school or middle school is the new high school,” said Suniya Luthar, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

The study involved analyzing surveys from more than 2,200 well-educated moms across the country (more than 80% had a college or graduate degree), with children ranging in age from infant to adult. Researchers then compared how mothers who only have children in one age group (infant, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and adult) rated their feelings about their lives.

Across the board, mothers of only middle-school-age children reported the highest levels of stress, loneliness and emptiness, and also the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment. Mothers of infants and adults were found to be the most satisfied, Luthar said.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Think about what’s happening to children in middle school: raging hormones, changing bodies and brains, exposure to peer pressure and risky behaviors like experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and a clash between a desire to be independent, but still feeling dependent on Mom and Dad.

“You see this person who is almost but not quite grown-up physically, saying at one moment, ‘Leave me alone. I’ve got this figured out. Let me do it my way,’ or ‘Don’t ask me questions,’ and so on, and on the other hand, they (are) crushed in tears, and looking to you for comfort just like a child. They might cry like the children they used to be, but being able to actually comfort them is nowhere near as easy,” said Luthar, who is also professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

‘IT’S LIKE I WOKE UP WITH AN ALIEN’

What makes this so hard for parents is that the changes often happen so quickly, said Cynthia Tobias, co-author of the book “Middle School: The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us, But Don’t Tell You.” which involved interviews with hundreds of middle school students across the country.

“For a lot of parents, it’s just almost overnight. You hear a lot of times, they’ll say, ‘It’s like I woke up with an alien this morning. Yesterday I had a child who loved to snuggle. Today I have a kid who can’t even stand to be around me,’ ” said Tobias.

The biggest conflicts come when parents don’t realize their children are starting to see themselves as young adults and don’t respond accordingly, said Sue Acuña, who co-wrote “Middle School: The Inside Story” with Tobias, and who has been teaching middle school for more than 20 years.

“When the parents try to treat them as if they’re still 8 or 9 years old, there’s pushback … and that catches the parents off guard and then sometimes they panic, ‘Oh no. This is what I’ve always feared in adolescence,’ and they come down harder instead of softer,” said Acuña, who also writes a blog on middle school.

Michelle Icard has been working with middle school children and teachers for over 10 years and developed a special middle school curriculum targeting boys and one targeting girls that is used at schools around the country.

Michelle Icard is author of "Middle School Makeover."

“I see these moms … you can read it on their face,” said Icard, who is also author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.” “They’re highly stressed. They’re nervous. They don’t know what to do.”

Icard said parents would benefit by knowing the facts about middle school, how children are going through what she calls “the middle school construction project” as they start to develop a new body, new brain and new identity around age 11.

“If you know that, for example, your kid has to create an identity apart from you when they are in middle school so that they can form healthy relationships with people in the future, it makes it a little easier to bear so it’s not for nothing that your kid is separating and relying on their peers. That’s how they figure out their way in the world,” said Icard, founder of the blog Michelle in the Middle.

At the same time our children are going through this “perfect storm” of changes, said Icard, many moms are kind of going through “a middle age construction project.”

For moms who chose to stay at home during the elementary school years, this might be the time when they consider going back into the work force, which can be stressful. Mothers are also adjusting to getting older themselves and feeling a bit superfluous, no longer being the center of their child’s lives. Some research also shows that marital satisfaction is lower during the teenage years versus the years after a child is born.

For all these reasons, Icard suggested moms make sure they have a passion, hobby or something that they enjoy for themselves when their children are in middle school. “You’ll be modeling good self-care for your kid and when things get really tumultuous and they’re illogical and they’re unpredictable, you have something to dive into that makes you happy and that does a lot for stress reduction.”

THE ‘BOTOX BROW’

What parents might not realize is that their children may act like they don’t want a relationship with them during the middle school years but they really do, said Tobias and Acuña, who heard over and over again from children who wanted their parents to be involved in their lives.

Cynthia Tobias (left) and Sue Acuña, co-authors of "Middle School: The Inside Story"

The quandary is that on the one hand, kids will say their mom is always asking them questions such as who are they texting, but on the other hand, they’ll say their mom never wants to know what’s going on in their lives and never listens, said Acuña.

“I say to them, ‘Well, do you want your parents asking questions or not?’ ” she said. Their reply? “Well, they just have to know when it’s a good time to ask a question.”

I can hear mothers of middle school children screaming at this very moment: How are we supposed to know when it’s a good time to ask a question?

Acuña, who has three sons, all now in their 20s, described how she would find one of her sons during the middle school years slumped in his bedroom with the door open. She’d walk by and ask if he was OK. Then she’d say, “Is this where I’m supposed to be concerned parent and talk to you or is there where I’m supposed to give you your space?”

Her son would usually say he was alright, but then as soon as she started to walk away, he’d say something like, “It’s just that I don’t understand why people act the way they do,” she said. That was her cue to slink back into his room, sit on the floor and be prepared to listen.

Icard, who has an eighth-grader and a sophomore in high school, said mothers should learn how to listen and become more neutral in their responses by adopting what she called a “Botox brow.”

“I say to parents. You don’t actually have to get Botox. … but you have to have that look like your brow doesn’t wrinkle,” she said.

“Studies show that kids cannot read facial expressions and their default is thinking you’re angry when you’re not,” she said. “So adopt a ‘Botox brow’ and have a really neutral face when you’re talking to your kid. You’ll be surprised how much your kid opens up to you and starts coming to talk to you more.”

Middle-schoolers often feel their parents don’t take them seriously and sometimes we, as parents, don’t, said Tobias, who along with Acuña put together free guides for parents, including “The No-No List” for talking to kids in middle school.

“We’ll catch ourselves saying, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, wait until you’re old enough and you have to pay a mortgage and then you’re going to think it’s no big deal,’ but to them, their whole world right now is middle school so they can’t even think in terms of what we’re talking to them about sometimes,” said Tobias, who taught high school for eight years and has written 13 books about learning styles and strong-willed children. “So I think they just want a little chance to be heard. They want to be understood and listened to and they want to make sure that we do take them seriously.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT GIVING UP

Acuña, who teaches eighth grade, said parents should also realize other communication mistakes they often make with their middle-schoolers, such as interrupting them or finishing their stories. Think how you would feel if someone did that to you as an adult, she said. That is how a child will feel.

The most successful kids, she said, in her experience, are the kids who feel their parents have their back no matter what and that even if they mess up, their parents will be supportive.

She described her parent-teacher conferences, which are led by the student presenting his or her work to the parent. “The successful kids, they’ll tell their parents, ‘Yes, I messed up here. This is what I’m going to do to work on it’ and their parents are very supportive,” she said. “The anxious kids are the ones who when they say to their parents, ‘Well, here’s a test I didn’t do well on,’ the parents go off on them. … The parents are upset and critical and (say), ‘Well you are going to be grounded for that.’ These are the kids who are afraid to take risks because they don’t feel that their parents will support them.”

Figuring out how to talk to your tween or teen and how involved to be could make even the most relaxed parent a tad crazy, but the bottom line from the middle school experts I talked with is that parents should do everything in their power to resist the urge to toss up their hands and give up.

“The parents have this tendency to just (say), ‘Fine. You don’t want to talk. Just don’t talk,’ and walk away,” said Tobias, who has twin 24-year-old sons. “But the kids themselves, they told us over and over, ‘We do want to keep a relationship with our parents. There’s so much going on we just can’t do it. We hope that they don’t walk away.’ “

Middle school is not a time to “tread water and wait out until they go through it,” said Acuña. “It’s not just a phase they’re going through. There are some key things happening and it’s a really important time to develop a relationship that will carry you through the teen years and into young adulthood.”

Luthar, the researcher and psychology professor who has two kids of her own, ages 21 and 25, agreed and also urged mothers to reach out to other moms of middle-schoolers for support.

“If ever there were truth to the saying, ‘It takes a village,’ it’s now,” she said. “It’s not it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise a preteen.”

Why do you think middle school is the most stressful time for mothers? Share your thoughts withKelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Health on Twitter or Facebook.