Distance Learning: Building Confidence in Middle Schoolers

Recently, I’ve noticed that many of my Learn from Home students have hit a wall. It’s been almost a full calendar year since they have attended school in a physical building and regularly interacted face-to-face with a large group of people that love and support them. And for many, it’s been almost a full year since they’ve participated in the activities they love (like sports, academic teams, and regular social gathers) with their peers. Over the last month or so I’ve noticed some changes in motivation and follow-through that don’t necessary feel academic. Instead, my social emotional alarms have been going off.

Once a week, I meet with my students in small groups for time that is completely unrelated to academics. This time I spend with them is a privilege that I can afford because of my unique role and flexible schedule – I am the Coordinator of Distance Learning for my school, which means that my entire job is making learning from home easier for kids, families, and teachers, whether they are learning from home for full year or a two week quarantine. (While the time is a privilege, the attention to social emotional development and mental health is a necessity. Kids around the globe are experiencing a mental health crisis. While I do not support the idea that empty school buildings equal “closed schools” – teachers are incredibly active and working harder than ever, and many schools are arguably more flexible, responsive, and student-centered than they have ever been – it’s undeniable that kids of all ages miss the warm, welcoming, and supportive environments that school communities work tirelessly to create. Schools are critical to kids for so many reasons, and the pandemic has proved more than ever that strong, well-funded, and well-respected school communities are critical cornerstones to American society. I could talk about that for ages – but let’s be real, that’s not why you’re here!) Keeping kids laughing, engaged, and feeling like they’re a part of the community is one of the most difficult and important parts of my job. So when I noticed confidence dropping, I decided to try a targeted check-in to see what I could learn.

We use the Wheel of Names to keep our check-ins exciting, fun, and equitable. The kids know to expect a “game show check-in” each week for our Morning Meetings, so they’re used to the format: everyone gets a spin, everyone has a chance to talk, and no one gets to snag the easy questions (believe me, they’ve tried!). They always have the option to pass – forcing a child to answer a question that makes them uncomfortable will backfire in a million different ways – but I’ve found that if you go out of your way to make the meeting a safe place to share and gently call in any sarcasm or meanness in real time, it sets a positive tone pretty quickly. When they know they can share and will be accepted, my students tend to want to open up, and they don’t pass very often.

This week, I added a specific sentence-starter to the wheel: “I am great at…
And wow, did it teach me a lot.

I wanted each student to finish this sentence, out loud. Spoiler alert: They hated it. Every single one of them was super uncomfortable. The avoidance behaviors popped up immediately: Shoving pets in front of the camera, muting and turning video streams off, crying conveniently-timed internet connectivity issues. One 7th grader actually said, “I have no idea how to come up with something great about myself. Can I tell you about something that I suck at? That’s way easier.” And he’s right – that is easier. We’re trained to notice and communicate the things that we don’t like about ourselves much more regularly than the things that we do. But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s healthy. And patterns don’t change unless we make a decision to change them.

I realized pretty quickly that this activity was going to require some scaffolding. So I called a time out and started a conversation. We talked about how learning and working virtually can make you feel isolated, and make your confidence drop. I noticed more and more students turning their cameras back on, nodding, showing the “me too” signal. I shared how for me, personally, it can be hard to recognize my strengths when I’m by myself all the time. Slowly, the microphones unmuted and they started chiming in. We talked about how, if you haven’t been around people for a while, it can be hard to remember exactly what’s likable about you. And how that can impact lots of other things: your schoolwork, your relationship with your family, your motivation to work hard and exercise, even your eating and sleeping.

When it felt like the conversation was in a good place, I brought us back to the prompt and modeled what I hoped to see from them by finishing the sentence sincerely about myself. “I’m great at…” This was uncomfortable for me, too. I’m a human being, and am experiencing the same things that they are! But if I’m not willing put myself out there and show some vulnerability, how can I expect fourteen year olds to do it? With middle schoolers, you reap what you sow, and it’s important to me to try to set the tone and show them that loving and appreciating yourself is okay, normal, and can really make you feel great..

Eventually, the group felt ready to take turns finishing the sentence about themselves. After they spoke, I shared observations about their strengths and ways that I would finish the sentence about them, because I happen to be great at being a hype-man for phenomenal kids. Interestingly enough, each group followed my lead and chimed in finishing the sentence about each other (with a few gentle reminders that this wasn’t a good time for sarcasm). They lifted each other up, and I reminded them that they inspire me all the time and are just so easy to love. It was wonderful to see them cheer for each other. A small moment in the course of their day, I’m sure, but it felt like a big celebration.

Now that I know how hard this exercise hit, we’ll be adding this prompt to the wheel every single week. I warned them that they’d be seeing it again and again, so they should take care to notice things that make them proud as they go about their days. My hope is that over time, it will get easier and easier, until it feels more natural for them to think and say positive things about themselves.

Have you ever tried this kind of question with the young people in your life? How did it go?

What do you do to build confidence in the young people you love?

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