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Fighting the Distractions of
7th Grade Life

Seventh graders are magnets for distractions and unforgiving when it comes to others' mistakes. Bennet Middle School staff members offer their explanations for these conditions, and how they cope. Included: Strategies for dealing with distractible seventh graders.

A common trait among seventh graders is that they are an age group in search of diversions. There are few places other than a middle school where unsharpened pencils, paper clips on the floor, a stray line on a white board, or a misspoken word, even if it's obviously inadvertent, would warrant the scrutiny of an archaeological dig or the interrogation of a grand jury.

Rarely does a period go by for the Royal 7's at Bennet Middle School without a small forest of unsharpened pencils rising in the air at the beginning of the period and marching to the sharpener, several students seeking to borrow a pen or pencil, and one or two asking to go to the bathroom or to the nurse.

On the first day of school, one teacher noted that four students came to class without pens or pencils, and they had stacks of forms to fill out.

When students do get their hands on pencils and pens, the writing instruments vanish at physics-defying rates in the few hundred feet between classrooms, sucked into some black hole, like the one in the dryer that claims one sock.

The obliviousness to everyday life is not confined to classroom supplies. On a sub-zero day when the wind made eyes water and skin ache, some students sauntered between buildings without coats, despite the pleas of teachers, insisting, "I don't need one." And yes, a few were wearing shorts.


Teachers have learned to cope with middle schoolers' quirks. In the cases of bathroom and nurse requests, teachers stall. They ask students to try to wait until the end of the period, or if they say they are not feeling well, and there are no obvious signs of illness or injury, teachers suggest they sit down for a few minutes and see if their head, stomach, or whatever still hurts. Sometimes it works.

As to why 12-and 13-year-olds are distraction magnets oblivious to everyday necessities (like pencils and coats) Royal 7 team members and Bennet's principal had different views, some involving physiology, society, or both.

"The distractibility and lack of organization are partially due to an underdeveloped frontal lobe [in the brain]," says principal Dr. Ann Richardson. "The sense of organization is not yet there. Their priorities are not yet developed. I've seen it at all three schools I've worked in. It can be frustrating to work with this age level. They need constant, daily reminders."

To help train those developing frontal lobes, Dr. Richardson recommends stressing to students that it is important and fun to be organized. "In the beginning, you give them the pencil. But you also help them develop skills and find ways to help them remember the pencil. There needs to be a reason for kids to remember."

In terms of nit picking about mistakes and zeroing in on distractions, Dr. Richardson notes, "They are unforgiving."


Science teacher David Sutherland agrees that youngsters this age may be more susceptible to distractions because they have not yet developed sufficient self-control.

"I think it's because they are self-focused," continues social studies teacher Gary Tracey. "They don't often see how the things they do affect other people."

Mr. Tracey adds he can't explain how students lose pens and pencils so quickly. "When I see pens or pencils on the floor, I pick them up and put them in a cup on my desk," he says. "I can't tell you how many kids come in and look at the cup and say, 'Hey, that's my pencil!'"

To make sure she gets her pens and pencils back, team leader Jenna Brohinsky insists that those who borrow pens or pencils from her list their names on the board and return them before the end of the period.

The forces pulling at youngsters in society and at home also can contribute to their distractibility, some said.

"They are just so overwhelmed with life; the clothes, the video games, and the music, that they have a hard time taking it down a notch," observes math teacher Taryn Kutniewski. "There are just too many distractions."

Ms. Brohinsky adds that all the electronic devices available to students have brought new diversions. "They are multi-tasking at a younger age. I could never listen to music and type, but they have no problem doing that. They have the attention span of about a 30-minute program."

Combine those with expanding social lives, and schools can become a low priority. "Keeping track of pens is just not important to them," says language arts teacher Brandon Kienle. "They are more concerned about having cool shoes. Learning is just not that important."

Some, though, wonder if adults help students too much. "Adult expectations have been lowered," says special education teacher Jack Crockwell. "Kids are the same. Adult expectations of them have been lowered. We do too much and not enough well."

Mr. Sutherland sees the need for balance. "We do enable them a little; we supply them with pencils, but at the same time, they need the tools to do their job," he says. "I give them the ones I pick up from the floor and put on a box on my desk. It's a progression of becoming responsible.

"Some of the high school teachers, though, have complained. They say we shouldn't give them pencils. Then they expect that when they get to high school."

Persistence can make all the difference for this age group, says Dr. Richardson. "It [the forgetful behavior] could be belligerence, but you can't let it get to you at this grade level," she says. "You have to do what it takes to make them learn."

Education World Goes Back to School

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending several days a month this school year with the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team at Bennet Middle School, a grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut. She is observing and participating in students' learning, and talking with staff about their strategies and perspectives on improving student performance. She is a graduate of W. Tresper Clarke Junior-Senior High School in Westbury, N.Y.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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