“Kids Need Social Practice”: An Interview with Phyllis Fagell

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As we near the end of another COVID-impacted school year, I sat down with Phyllis Fagell, school counselor and author of Middle School Matters. I wanted to know what she is seeing in the halls of her school and in her work with parents, students, and teachers, as we all search for ways to recover from the countless challenges the last two years have brought our way. Take a look at highlights from our conversation below.

“On the surface, things may seem more normal, but most kids (and adults) are still reeling from all the disruption.”

As we think about our own wellness, and that of our children, we need to remember two years in a pandemic takes a toll on every part of our lives. In particular, adolescents and teens have not had a chance to engage in the growth experiences that would typically anchor their middle and high school experiences. Fagell explains,

“The outsides don’t match the insides.”

That 8th grader in your home currently preparing for high school? They look like an 8th grader, and you probably see flashes of their insight that appear to demonstrate some long-awaited maturity finally showing up. But remember: they haven’t lived through a typical 7th grade for social development. Fagell noted that,

“The rhythm and routine today may resemble pre-pandemic normalcy, but we can’t forget the leakage in terms of sensitivity, social interactions, and executive functioning … For most students these days, how kids present in relation to their chronological age is mismatched.”

If you are noticing that your teen isn’t acting the way you’d expect, if you’re worried they seem too childish or immature, don’t worry. Right now, that is absolutely normal. There is nothing wrong with our children — they need to grow, just like humans have always needed to grow. They lost important time and missed milestones. They need to have those experiences and acquire those skills. Fagell says, more succinctly than I could,

“Kids need social practice.”

And here’s the key: Despite our national worries about learning loss, we need to prepare students socially before they will be prepared to excel academically. Kids learn relationally. (In fact, we pretty much all learn relationally). If we can offer students practice in social interactions, practice in having fun together, practice in overcoming obstacles together, then they will be far more willing to take the risks you need to take in order to excel academically. No one becomes fluent in Spanish if they are afraid to speak out loud in class in a language they are just starting to know. But speaking out loud in class requires that you trust your classmates, that you trust your teacher, that you feel psychologically safe and comfortable.

In the best of times, teenage years are awkward. COVID has ramped up the awkwardness without giving students the time to develop and practice relational skills. They all need that time.

As adults, we probably want to help. We try to anticipate our children’s needs, our students’ needs. But one word of caution Fagell shared is to remember that we probably don’t think like 11-year olds. With the best of intentions, we may be assigning emotions to our kids or misinterpreting the emotions they are feeling.

How do we avoid that pitfall? Take a step back and work on reminding the young people in your life how to cope overall with the “onslaught of emotions” they’ve probably been feeling with the return to school. New emotions likely also just popped up as we started to remove masks in the classroom.

Fagell calls this “building the coping toolbox.” One key issue to remember in developing this toolbox is that while adults tend to go big picture, kids tend to go granular. We’re thinking, “how will they get into college if they can’t remember to hand in assignments and don’t have many extracurriculars?” Meanwhile, kids are thinking, “How am I going to do this presentation when I’m nervous that my class can see my whole face for the first time in two years?”

Listen to your children. Help them identify what they’re feeling and think about ways to address those feelings. We’ve lost a lot. And we still feel anxious. But we don’t want to rob kids of the time they have finally gained back by worrying too much about the future. Let’s let them have the time that they have and let them worry about the dumb stuff. It’s big stuff to them.

As Fagell puts it, “They’ve lost enough moments.”

Once their relational needs are met and they have the tools they need to manage emotions, they start to self-regulate, and after that, they really start to learn.

Fagell also points out that there’s good news too!

Kids are soooo happy to be back in school. Most students thrive with routine, and school, ideally, provides a safe, consistent structure for their lives. That’s why losing school in 2020 was so discombobulating for our students. For the most part, the return to school is a genuinely transformative experience in terms of them seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

And as the cherry blossoms bloom and the sunshine peeks out, we start to believe that summer is coming. Summer is a perfect time just to practice social skills and play. Breathe. Boost the sense of optimism. Bring your family to have experiences in nature. Summer can be an opportunity to help kids feel rooted in their bodies and their present. For the first time in a while, perhaps kids can experience life in a more 3D way.

Here’s to hoping we all have months ahead of sunshine, breathing, smiling, and lots and lots of social practice.

Interested in hearing more from Phyllis? Check out her interview on our podcast, PrepTalks, where she discusses Middle School Matters.

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