Margaret McDonnell was leading a conference call for work when her seven-year-old daughter Mickey needed help submitting her digital assignment. But the Takoma Park, Maryland, mom wasn’t any better at navigating the virtual school’s portals and platforms, and they were both becoming frustrated.
Luckily, nine-year-old brother James jumped in and taught his younger sister how to find what she was looking for. “What’s amazing is that it worked well for both of them,” McDonnell says. “It made my older child feel like the leader, and my daughter was grateful to have her brother’s help.”
Younger kids have always looked to their older counterparts for advice, often instead of relying on parents or other trusted adults. “Because children use similar language and communication styles, they have a way of relating to one another that helps them learn better,” says Montessori educator Elenore Pfefferman, who teaches in a mixed-age Washington, D.C., classroom. “The children quickly learn to seek help from classmates, and that benefits everyone.”
In these pandemic times—when adults definitely don’t always have all the answers to children’s many questions—who better than middle schoolers to help bridge the gap? We reached out to these “experts” about the life advice they’d give to kids during the pandemic. Here’s what they had to say.
Do what you love: Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean they’re not stressed out. Eighth grader Alex Ingvoldstad quickly found this out—and came up with a very grown-up solution.
“I’ve been very stressed out this year,” says the 14-year-old from Omaha. “I was forgetting to take time out for myself.”
She noticed right away that she felt better after setting aside her schoolwork to do things she loves. “I’ve been calling my friends and practicing the instruments I play— saxophone and ukulele. And I’ve been reading too,” she says. That’s advice any kid can take.
Have a plan and ask for help. Eighth grader Bilal Williamson has advice for kids who will start in-person school soon: “It’s going to be hard, but do as much as you can to get ready,” says the 13-year-old from Hagerstown, Maryland. It’s what he told his two younger sisters when they started back a few weeks after he did.
Though every school will be different, Bilal says that preparing mentally for a different way of going to school will help the transition. “In [my] cafeteria, there are X’s on the seats where you can sit,” he says. “During lunch you have to stay six feet apart and talk with your mask on and don’t touch anything.”
And once you are back in school, embrace the support that teachers and counselors are offering. “They’re there to help us,” he says.
Get creative. Mirabelle DeAngelis is diligent about following her school’s rules for in-person learning—staying at least six feet apart from others, washing her hands often, and, of course, wearing a mask. But for the seventh grader from Davie, Florida, wearing a mask is more than a safety rule—it’s also an outlet for problem solving and creativity.
“When you take off your mask to drink water, you don't really have anywhere to put it. You don’t want to put it on the table because that's dirty,” she says. “I made myself a ‘mask-lace.’ It’s a chain with beads that clips on the straps of my mask. When I take it off, it hangs like a necklace so I don’t lose it.”
It was perfect advice for Mirabelle’s nine-year-old sister, Astrid, who will be headed back to school in person next month wearing one of her sister’s creations.
OMG, don’t h8 typing: Like most middle schoolers, Dior Kiler isn’t a stickler for proper spelling and punctuation when it comes to texting. She admits that before the pandemic, her improper grammar would sometimes show up in her schoolwork.
But virtual school means the 12-year-old from the Bronx is communicating by keyboard much more often—and she soon realized that she needed to improve her skills. “I’ve gotten better at typing on my phone and on my laptop, and now I know where all the keys are.”
Her advice to newbie texters: “Don’t shorten your sentences with the abbreviations,” she says. “Spell out what you’re going to say so you don’t develop bad habits.”
Take breaks. Alexa Jackson, a 13-year-old seventh grader from Takoma Park, Maryland, was overwhelmed when she first faced the challenge of a totally virtual classroom. Without mental breaks—like changing classes or teacher-led interruptions—she worried that she'd feel pressure to always be doing schoolwork. That made her feel exhausted, and she soon fell behind.
After negotiating a compromise with her mom, Alexa learned to pace herself. “I used to not like being on Zoom calls, so my mom would say, ‘I'll let you watch TV for 20 minutes, if you get on your Zoom call.’”
Once she built in time in her schedule for both schoolwork and fun breaks, she quickly caught up.
“Try to think on the good side, and don’t just go straight to, ‘I don't want to do this,’” she advises. “Think of it like you’re eating pizza: You have so many more pieces left, but you’re starting to get tired of eating pizza. Wait a few minutes, then when you get hungry again, eat some more pizza. Don't give up halfway.”
Make your own fun: Heading outside for recess is the highlight of the day for 12-year-old Matteo Valiante. But the social distancing rules can sometimes make playing with friends challenging. That’s why the sixth grader from Norwalk, Connecticut, advises kids to get creative when it comes to fun.
“We make paper darts and pretend they're footballs and throw them around,” says Matteo, who’s in physical school part of the week. “And we roll down the hill and get grass all over ourselves because we don’t know what else do to.”