Where in-between kids belong

July 07, 1998|By Susan Reimer

NOBODY WANTS to baby-sit middle-school kids because they are no longer cute, which isn't a problem for middle-school kids because they don't want to be baby-sat. They find the idea insulting.

While little kids have day-care centers and latch-key programs and high school kids have sports teams and rehearsals and jobs, middle-school kids have nothing to do after school except exercise their still-unformed decision- making abilities.

The result is often trouble, but even when it is not, it is a great waste and a greater disservice to this age group. They are percolating with energy, they are searching for who they are and what they can do well and where they belong, but their community sets them loose on the afternoon breeze like dandelion seeds.

"Kids this age are hungry to learn skills and connect with the world and be safe and find alternatives to the scariness that is all around them," says Michelle Seligson, executive director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College. "But middle-school kids have been neglected."

For 20 years, Seligson has worked to understand this age group and to help communities design the kinds of after-school programs that will attract them, nurture them and keep them safe.

"Nobody ever asks them what they want," she says.

Shocked into attention by school-yard shootings and government reports that say younger and younger teens are fooling around with sex, drugs, alcohol and crime while mom and dad are at work, parents and educators and community leaders finally may be ready to listen.

But middle-schoolers are at a tough age to please, and they change their minds instantly. What was cool one minute is for dorks the next.

"Middle-schoolers vote with their feet," says Seligson. "It has to be their idea. But we have to be there right away to catch it."

She calls this "the creative process of listening," designing activities around what kids are saying they want to do.

There are no formulas, no prescriptions, for this mercurial age, but Seligson can identify some elements that must be there for an after-school program to attract this age.

First, you can't hire a bunch of adults at minimum wage and lock them in the school cafeteria with the kids until dinner time. The staff has to understand the ages and the stages. They must be role-model material because relationships are everything for these kids. They can't have a thin skin or a weak will because the kids will test and push.

"And the staff has to understand that this is not a school," said Seligson. "They have to serve as facilitators. They can't impose an experience on the kids."

It has to be an emotionally safe place. That means there must be ways to handle problems and everyone has to agree, because if the kids don't help write the social contract, they won't abide by it.

The kids need unstructured time for socializing. More than anything, this age wants to be with its own kind to talk. Talk. Talk. Adults have to let go of the notion that nothing constructive is happening when kids are talking.

"How else do you learn who you are except by testing yourself against someone else?" asks Seligson.

But there must also be homework help available. Parents will demand it. Even kids will ask for it, because they are old enough to know when they need help.

And there must be physical activity. These kids have been sitting for perhaps eight hours and they need a chance to let the steam out of their pipes. Intramural sports, which the kids organize themselves and write their own rules -- within boundaries loosely set by an adult -- have tremendous appeal to children this age. Finally, they are in charge of their own games.

An after-school program can also introduce this group to the community, in which it will be moving with increasing freedom, Seligson says. To public transportation, to museums and galleries and other community resources. "Community service is a real possibility with this age, too," she says.

And there must be food. Lots of it. This age group is growing at a rate unmatched since birth. They are always hungry, and by 3 p.m. they are starving. But they aren't going to show up for carrot sticks and raisins. Face it, they want pizza or burgers or KFC.

Seligson's checklist seems manageable until she adds the final item: a sense of belonging.

"That is the single most important element," she says. "A sense that the people you are going to spend time with care that you are there. That they know who you are. That they are there to take you in."

Any after-school program is competing with a TV or a computer, a refrigerator or the food court in the mall. Its adults are competing with freedom from all adults. There has to be a reason for kids to attend, and it is going to be a different reason for every child. Any program for middle-schoolers is going to have to be that flexible, that intuitive, that loving, that wise, that strong.

It will not be easy. It will not be cheap. And parents will not pay because they don't believe they have to pay for child care any- more. That means the community must do this for its children, its future citizens, or the educational system must realize that its work is not finished at 3 p.m.

We cannot continue to let middle-schoolers, in the middle of the most explosive developmental stage of their lives, float away from us like dandelion seeds on the afternoon breeze.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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