Middle School Redesign: A How To Guide from Educational Stakeholders

By: Ashlee Sjogren, Detajha Woodson & Faith Zabek

In this inaugural post of our Middle School Redesign series, we introduce you to the themes uncovered during our RMS Listening Tour by focusing on descriptions of a dream middle school.

Highlights:

  • The Remaking Middle School initiative is re-envisioning the middle school years as positive and transformative educational experiences for all young adults, and has been conducting a Listening Tour.
  • During the Listening Tour, educators, parents, and community members shared what they thought is key to middle school redesign efforts, and these findings have been organized into themes. 
  • Highlighted in this introduction blog are those themes around student voice and collaboration, developmentally supportive curricula, a whole child approach that supports social-emotional development, and the physical environment of the school. 
Source: Canva

Imagine that you had the opportunity to completely redesign the middle school experience. What would your dream school look like? How would it support the unique needs of early adolescents? We posed this question to over 100 middle school educators, parents, and community partners during our nationwide Remaking Middle School (RMS) Listening Tour. This is what we heard. 

Student Voice/Collaboration in Decision Making

Educators and parents alike highlighted the importance of centering middle school redesign work with students’ voices. They discussed how students need to be consulted before any redesign work begins. One administrator explained this, noting: 

“We’ve always thought, well, if the kid had the choice whether or not they would come to your classroom … would they? And we saw in the last few years, the answer to that for some kids was, no. They wouldn’t. So, how do we change that? I think we change that …by asking kids. So, that question that you just asked me, I wouldn’t answer it. I would pose that question to 615 adolescents.”

Our data suggests that the voices of adolescents should be the first and the loudest. However, eliciting student voices did not go far enough. Instead we must bring students into the conversation as equal collaborators in decision making. Another administrator exemplified this narrative stating, “the governance of the place needs to be… in such a way that there are student representatives in school boards, students who are on the admin team. … Don’t talk about them, talk with them…”. Taken together, this suggests that design work should both begin and end with students, fostering opportunities for continued collaboration and idea sharing throughout the entire process. 

Developmentally Supportive Curriculum

Educators and parents also voiced a desire to redesign the middle school curriculum, opting for curricula that are developmentally responsive to the needs and assets of middle school students. For example, many highlighted developmentally supportive strategies such as fostering failure-safe educational contexts, teaching content with real world applications, emphasizing cross-curricular connections, and assigning experiential / project-based learning activities. Underlying all of these suggestions is a focus on getting students away from the traditional siloed approaches to learning out of context. One youth development worker highlighted their desire for: “more project-based, community-based learning opportunities, where it’s integrative — you know, it’s not a singular subject matter but it’s integrated subjects working… all connected together on topics and exploration.” Strategies of this sort foster more opportunities for students to engage in a curriculum that is both supportive of their developmental needs (e.g., autonomy, socialization, risk taking,) and fosters more opportunities for critical thinking. 

SEL/Whole Child Approach

Many of the parents and educators that we spoke with envisioned redesigning middle school so that it prepares students not only to excel academically but also to thrive personally. Their dream middle school cultivates a climate that supports whole-child development and equips students with the social-emotional skills necessary to succeed in school, work, and life. One school administrator described, “I think there’s this aspect of social-emotional learning and creating safety and spaces for, honestly, particularly middle schoolers to just learn how to be little humans.” Stakeholders also spoke of the need for educators to establish meaningful and healthy relationships with each student and to acknowledge their students’ unique strengths. One parent described:

They treat each child as an individual, like, human being, who is celebrated for all their weirdness. There are so many weird, happy, wonderful kids. That’s what middle school should be, right? That to me is the basic difference of the [ideal middle] school and everything kind of builds from there. The teachers are focused on the kids as individuals. They’re helping them interact [and] grow.

Respondents highlighted specific strategies to support social-emotional development (e.g., restorative justice approaches, mental health services, school-home-community partnerships) and emphasized the importance of centering equity in redesign efforts: “there’s got to be a principle of equity and universal human value that can’t be compromised.”

Physical Space

Several participants believe that a traditional classroom layout simply “doesn’t work for middle schoolers because it’s completely counter to the way their bodies are growing.” In many traditional school settings, students are confined to their desks with the exception of transitioning to and from classes, lunch periods, and bathroom breaks, not providing adequate time to socialize with peers or exert energy outside of designated recess and physical education periods. One middle grade administrator stated that he would combat this by creating “a common area that was a place where students can sit, and hang out, and talk” as well as “a big outdoor learning area, an interactive garden.” While several participants focused on the significance of including opportunities for social interaction amongst students and outdoor learning, others spotlighted the importance of making learning spaces visually appealing to students. One middle grade parent shared his ideal classroom“would be bright, definitely bright. I hate the white walls. The kids hate the light walls, the fluorescent lights, and just the plain floors. It would be just brightly colored, because that’s the middle school personality.” Adolescent years are known for being a time of transition and self-discovery. They are anything but boring, “so why are we putting them in boring classrooms?


Interested in learning more about these ideas? In future Middle School Redesign posts, we will dive deeper into each theme, exploring stakeholders’ perspectives on what is and is not working in middle school education as well as how research aligns with their observations. We are currently discussing these ideas with youth to add their essential perspectives to this work. Are you a middle grades student or know one who might be interested? Have them reach out to us: Youth-Nex@virginia.edu.

The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Ashlee Sjogren, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral research associate at Youth-Nex: Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, University of Virginia. Her research is broadly focused on equitable education both in- and out-of-school. Most recently, Dr. Sjogren has investigated student access and engagement in out-of-school contexts. As an educational psychologist, Dr. Sjogren often brings both a social context and motivation lens to understanding questions of equity, access, and motivation.


Author Bio: Detajha Woodson is the Program & Outreach Associate at Youth-Nex: the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. Detajha contributes a practitioner lens which stems from her professional experience working in education-focused nonprofits.


Author Bio: Faith Zabek, PhD, NCSP, is a postdoctoral research associate with the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health (VPSMH) and the Remaking Middle School (RMS) project at the University of Virginia. Her research investigates youth wellbeing through a bioecological lens, with a focus on school mental health and school climate. She is interested in exploring the ways in which contexts and interactions impact student and school outcomes as well as how research-practice partnerships can facilitate youth success.

Race, Racism, and Relationships: What Matters for Teens’ Mental Health?

By: Jessica Stern

Highlights:

  • Attachment styles have been shown to shape mental health, but almost no research has examined the experiences of Black teens (this is especially important in light of BIPOC Mental Health Month).
  • Our new research reveals that Black teens experience more racism in their neighborhoods, and those experiences of racism are associated with greater attachment avoidance (discomfort with emotional closeness) and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years.
  • We also explore other findings, including how attachment avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms over time, but only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black.
Source: Canva

Think back to your teenage years: Was it a happy time in your life, or did you struggle with feelings of depression? Did you lean on your close friends or family members for support, or did you deal with your feelings by yourself? And did you ever experience racial discrimination in your neighborhood?

We put these questions to teens themselves to uncover how race, racism, and attachment style — or how we feel and behave in close relationships — shape mental health during adolescence. Our new study, published in a special issue of Attachment and Human Development, explored pathways to mental health for teens with different racial-ethnic identities and experiences of discrimination in their neighborhood.

Teens’ Relationship Styles

We focused on two styles of behavior in close relationships:

  • Attachment avoidance – teens’ reluctance to trust others, discomfort with vulnerability, and tendency to deal with emotions alone.
  • Attachment anxiety – teens’ worries about their relationships and fears of abandonment.

Previous studies had shown that both attachment avoidance and anxiety foreshadow increased risk for depression— but these studies overwhelmingly focused on White college students. Almost no studies had examined the unique experiences of Black teens, for whom some aspects of avoidance (like being able to suppress vulnerable emotions when necessary) may be understandable —or even protective— in the context of dealing with racism in their daily lives.

We followed 171 teens from Prince George’s County, MD from age 14 to age 18, focusing on teens who identified as Black or as White. Each year, we asked them to report their attachment style, experiences of racism in their neighborhood, and symptoms of depression. We tested a simple but novel question:

Do the well-established links between attachment and depression differ depending on teens’ racial identity and perceptions of neighborhood racism?

Racial Identity & Racism Findings

When we looked at our sample of teens all together, attachment anxiety and avoidance predicted increasing risk for depressive symptoms— replicating most previous studies. But the story was more complex when considering race.

First, Black teens perceived significantly more racism in their neighborhoods than White teens (unsurprisingly), and those experiences of racism were associated with greater attachment avoidance and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years. Second, avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms from age 14 to 18 only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black. These effects of racial context were unique to avoidance, and not attachment anxiety.

This suggests that Black teens may cope with racism in their communities by adopting avoidant strategies to manage vulnerable emotions.

Rather than assuming that avoidance is universally “bad” for teens, we can see it instead as an understandable strategy for Black youth dealing with racism that may be protective, at least in the short term. Even so, all Black teens need and deserve close relationships in which they feel safe, secure, and supported in expressing their full range of emotion.

The findings reveal how the pathways linking experiences in close relationships to mental health outcomes can vary by racial context— highlighting the importance of considering diversity in adolescent development. Future research is needed to understand how attachment might interact with racial identity to shape other important outcomes, like coping, resilience, critical consciousness, and racial identity development.

How to Support Black Adolescents

As we consider ways to support positive youth development and mental health, it is critical to understand the unique social and emotional experiences of Black youth. Researchers and practitioners can support Black adolescents by:

  1. Advocating for anti-racist policy;
  2. Understanding that moderate levels of avoidance may be a protective strategy for dealing with racism in daily life (that is, not pathologizing teens’ avoidant attachment style); and
  3. Supporting social relationships in which Black youth can safely express their full selves (for instance, relationships with natural mentors).

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Jessica Stern is a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Psychology at University of Virginia. Her research focuses on close relationships, child and adolescent development, empathy, and anti-racist scholarship.

LGBTQ+ Youth Need Your Support

By: Lamont Bryant

Highlights:

  • June is Pride month, and as we celebrate our LGBTQ+IA2+ communities, we should also recognize that this current moment is a turning point from a policy perspective.
  • We need to support LGBTQ+ youth socially and recognize the intersection of youths’ race, sexuality, and gender identity.
  • In this blog, read more about what you can do next to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Source: Canva

Happy Pride!

Watching gravity-defying drag-queens perform acrobats in 6 ½ inch stilettos or stunning ballroom legends voguing as they battle on the dancefloor are some of my favorite moments during Pride. However, every year I spot a group of LGBTQ+ youth sporting their colorful Pride flags like superhero caps, which stirs unfadable joy and the flutter of hope. They are superheroes for daring to live and be their most authentic selves in their own right.

The fact of the matter is, LGBTQ+ youth don’t need another hero, but they need the support to thrive. Their presence is an essential reminder that Pride is not a parade, but a brave protest to proclaim equity and freedom from the normative limits of gender and sexuality at the intersection of infinite social identities. Every year we celebrate Pride during the month of June as an important reminder of resistance against the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other sexual diverse and gender minoritized individuals (LGBTQ+IA2+).

Turning Point

This year, over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ state legislative bills will loom over Pride. More importantly, is the fact that this historic surge of anti-LGBTQ+ bills is made up of 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that adversely affect LGBTQ+ youth. While a quarter of these bills aim to criminalize lifesaving medical care for transgender youth, approximately 75% of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills enable the discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth in schools, particularly transgender youth. [1]

We stand at a curious junction. The introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ school policies threatens decades of youth advocacy and work within the educational system to increase greater protections for LGBTQ+ youth. As such, schools with LGBTQ+ affirming policies have become a refuge of acceptance and empowerment for many LGBTQ+ youth who may face rejection at home or within their community. By and large, most LGBTQ+ youth identify schools as LGBTQ+ affirming (55%) and gender-affirming (51%) spaces in stark comparison to affirming homes (37% and 32%, respectively). [2]

The Importance of Social Support for LGBTQ+ Youth

By addressing the systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ youth, schools can become grounds for fostering social support networks and relationships. Research has found that creating affirming environments through Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) school groups and LGBTQ+-focused school policies impede peer bullying and foster higher levels of support from classmates and teachers. [3]

The association of LGBTQ+ affirming schools with lower rates of attempted suicide is important to preserve, given that 45% of LGBTQ+ considered suicide within the past year.

While student organizations like GSA’s do not guarantee psychological wellbeing, efforts to support and affirm LGBTQ+ youth are interrelated to feeling connected to their school.

Many of the anti-LGBTQ+ efforts in schools will threaten the viable connection LGBTQ+ youth have with their schools. Anti-LGBTQ+ school policies isolate youth by prohibiting transgender youth from competing in student athletics, limiting age-appropriate discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and denying youth access to school facilities that align with their gender identity. Furthermore, many of the anti-LGBTQ+ youth initiatives also include language that will criminalize the discussion of racism within schools. However, discourse around LGBTQ+ youth and school and social support often neglects meaningful discussion at the intersection of race.

The Importance LGBTQ+ Youth at Their Intersections

Let me spill some real tea that may be obvious to many Black folx in the LGBTQ+ community; It is simply impossible to discuss any LGBTQ+ issue without addressing race. Period. However, the discussion of Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults often occurs within the context of sexual-transmitted infections, HIV, and PrEP adherence. It is important that we continue to discuss how systemic barriers to health that target sexual and gender minoritized youth disproportionately affect Black LGBTQ+ youth and youth adults. However, I cannot help but wonder how the historical hyper-sexualization of the Black body may exclude Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults from conversations about social well-being, connectivity, and other forms of positive interpersonal engagement. 

The Intersectional Pride flag was introduced by Danial Quasar in 2018 to underscore the importance of greater inclusion within the LGBTQ+ community. A black and brown chevron was added to the LGBT Rainbow Pride flag to represent racially marginalized LGBTQ+ community members, and the colors pink, light blue, and white-colored chevrons were borrowed from the Transgender Pride Flag. Source: Canva

Black LGBTQ+ youth face discrimination at the intersection of their race, sexuality, and gender identity both at school and at home. I find the complexity of Black LGBTQ+ social support interesting because seeking support from both inside and outside their families can be both beneficial and potentially harmful. For instance, there is a link between LGBTQ+ affirming schools and reduced attempted suicide [4]; however, Black LGBTQ+ students attending majority Black schools were least likely to have a gender and sexuality alliance support group. [5]

In conjunction, Black young adults place great importance in connecting with their family compared to other racial groups; however, Black LGBTQ+ youth continued to experience greater rejection from their family and Black peers. [6] However, dialogue about the social support from their family of origin and close friends (i.e., chosen family, fictive kin) often assumes that these support systems operate independently.

As systemic changes propose a threat to make schools less affirming spaces, it will be increasingly important to understand how to aid Black families in their efforts to support their Black LGBTQ+ youth. My current research seeks to understand the role of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support networks play as they navigate oppression that targets their racialized sexual and gender identity. Furthermore, I hope to shed more light on the interconnectedness of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support network.

What Can We Do Now?

  • For most LGBTQ+  youth, the best way for parents and caregivers to demonstrate their support is by accepting and welcoming their LGBTQ+ friends or partner(s).
  • When LGBTQ+ youth choose a name that better reflects their gender identity, avoid “deadnaming” (the name given at birth).
  • Pronouns are essential tools that validate LGBTQ+ youth and young adults’ gender identity. When in doubt, use their name and ask about their pronouns.
  • We all make mistakes. If you misgender a person, it is important to acknowledge your error and apologize without making it about you.
  • LGBTQ+ youth of color may be more reluctant to report harm or harassment, so be proactive by offering your support while also bolstering their autonomy.
  • Listen, reflect, and talk respectfully with LGBTQ+ youth about their identity. Supporting LGBTQ+ youth may mean finding help and resources to process your personal feelings, expectations you developed as a parent, prejudices (we all have them), and identifying areas of growth with other adults.
  • Keep learning! The GLSEN national network provides resources for students and educators, including research and educational webinars. Also, the LGBT Family Acceptance Project is a great resource for research, training and readings.
  • Race and ethnicity are important to understanding sexual and gender identity. The National Black Justice Coalition provides great resources including a terminology workbook, a gender justice toolkit, and culturally informed dialogue and reports.
  • The Trevor Project LGBTQ+ young people can access free confidential crisis counseling via chat, phone, and text through The Trevor Project.

References

[1] Freedom for all Americans

[2] Trevor Project: 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

[3] Day, J. K., Fish, J. N., Grossman, A. H., & Russell, S. T. (2020). Gay‐straight alliances, inclusive policy, and school climate: LGBTQ+ youths’ experiences of social support and bullying. Journal of Research on Adolescence30, 418-430.

[4] Trevor Project: 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

[5] Truong, N. L., Zongrone, A. D., & Kosciw, J. G. (2020). Erasure and resilience: The experiences of LGBTQ students of color, Black LGBTQ youth in U.S. schools. New York: GLSEN.

[6] Hailey, J., Burton, W., & Arscott, J. (2020). We are family: Chosen and created families as a protective factor against racialized trauma and anti-LGBTQ oppression among African American sexual and gender minority youth. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 16(2), 176-191.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Lamont Bryant (they/them) is a community psychology doctoral student at the University of Virginia. Inspired by Black feminist and queer/quare theory, Lamont seeks to understand the development of psychosocial-informed protective practices. Specifically, their research examines Black women, and sexual and gender minorities’ formation and utility of social support, both in-person and online. Lamont is a first-generation student and the recipient of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department Diversity Recruitment Award and the Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship. Before attending UVA, they lectured for several years at the University of Baltimore and Towson University’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. At the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, they coordinated specialty health educational assistance and professional development for youth and LGBTQ-serving organizations and providers. Additionally, Lamont mentored a team of Black LGBTQ+ young adults through an empowerment framework and utilized community-based participatory research methodologies and systematic tools to gather community input for targeted interventions created for and with LGBTQ+ youth of color.

Vlog: Youth Mental Health & Reshaping Our Culture

By: Daniel Fairley II

This vlog is the second in a series. View the first blog entitled “Youth at the Intersection of the Movement for Racial Justice and the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Highlights:

  • I am the Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement in the City of Charlottesville.
  • In my work, I identify and direct opportunity-youth toward targeted services, and liaison with agencies, schools, special interest groups and organizations serving at-risk youth, especially minority children and youth or any other children who fall within the achievement gap definition, while overseeing policy and program implementation.
  • In this video blog and for Mental Health Awareness month, I share more about mental health changes I’ve seen in the pandemic and how we can support youth going forward.
Source: Youth-Nex Youtube

We have to come to terms with the idea that our mental health needs have changed and will continue to be a large part of the conversation going forward. We as humans were not built to live in isolation, without community and fellowship, or going outside with sunshine. We aren’t built for how we’ve been living the last two years during the pandemic.

The renewed focus on mental health is something that is going to fundamentally change who we are, how we navigate throughout the world, the things we take for granted, what we are looking forward to and more. All these things are changing because we have to come to terms with the idea that what we were doing before was not sustainable. For many, not addressing our mental health and the issues we were facing with our families and in the workforce was really toxic.

There are so many opportunities right now to reshape our culture and that has to start with mental health.

What are we doing to take care of ourselves and our families? How will that permeate throughout the rest of our society?

Youth & Mental Health

For the youth I work with, they are no longer afraid to ask for help. More so in last two years I’ve noticed youth have the ability to:

  1. Understand what is going on with themselves or doing a self-analysis,
  2. Naming what that self-analysis comes up with, and
  3. Being able to act upon it or ask for help.

Youth are not afraid to say “this is an issue I’d like adults to work with me on.” It’s become a part of their culture, in a really healthy way. Oftentimes youth know when something needs to happen for them – they know if they need to ask for medication, talk with someone, work with their friends, or ask someone for help – and that is a really good thing for mental health.

What Adults Can Do

Adults should not dismiss feelings or actions from youth about their mental health. Avoid saying things like “back in my day, this wasn’t an issue or we didn’t have depression or anxiety.” That is just not true. There were these similar issues but there may not have been words to describe or label them. Hopefully now we are starting to share these experiences and in ways that minimize how it affects others in the future.

Be vulnerable youth and share whatever is appropriate with your own experiences around mental health too. Allow them to see you. Once youth see the genuine and authentic you, then they will connect more. Breakdown “I am the teacher, mentor, adult in charge” and “you are the small person that only has the ability to learn from me.” Shift those roles and blend the idea that I, as an adult, can learn from you and you, as a youth, can learn from me. With this shift adults will see a greater impact.


If you need help or are in a mental health crisis, please ask for assistance and use resources available:


Daniel is also a local steering committee member for the University of Virginia Equity Center with which Youth-Nex is affiliated.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Daniel Fairley II received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Richmond and his Master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Vermont (UVM). He was awarded the Kenneth P. Saurman Memorial Award and Richard F. Stevens Outstanding Graduate student in the State of Vermont for his dedication to social justice and stellar academics. Daniel’s professional experience includes interning with the Operations department of The White House under the Obama Administration. He also worked as an Assistant Residence Director in the Department of Residential Life at UVM, and as the Area Coordinator at the University of Virginia in the Department of Housing and Residence Life. Daniel volunteered with the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, which led to his current position as a Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement for the City of Charlottesville. He now serves as the President of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and Board Member for Loaves & Fishes food pantry.

Familial Mentors May Help Promote Close Parent-Adolescent Relationships in Black Families

By: Janelle Billingsley

Highlights:

  • While close parental relationships may promote positive outcomes among Black youth, parents’ ability to support their children may be complicated during adolescence due to increased conflict and strain.
  • However, support from adolescents’ familial mentors has the potential to mitigate strains in the parent-adolescent relationship.
  • In this blog, we highlight ways that familial mentors may support the parent-youth relationship during adolescence.
Source: Pexels

Studies show that a strong sense of connectedness to parents may protect Black youth from experiencing negative outcomes associated with exposure to anti-Black racism and structural inequality. [1,2] However, parents’ ability to support their children may be complicated during adolescence as parents and youth often experience increased conflict and strain while attempting to negotiate youths’ growing autonomy. [3] While scholars studying mentoring have long suggested that mentors may be a key resource for helping youth improve their social relationships with other adults, notably their parents, the question remains:

How are mentors supporting the parent-adolescent relationship?

This question is particularly useful for understanding Black adolescents’ family-based mentoring relationships given that (1) non-parental adult relatives comprise the majority of Black adolescents’ mentoring relationships; and (2) familial mentors are uniquely positioned to mediate parent-child conflict as they are likely to hold personal relationships with both youth and their parents.

Mentors Support of the Parent-Adolescent Relationship

In a recent study, [4] we identified three ways that Black youths’ familial mentors supported the parent-adolescent relationship through both youth- and parent-directed means:

1. Mentors Acting as Sounding Boards – Familial mentors listened to parents and youth discuss challenges they experienced in the parent-adolescent relationship. These mentors provided a space for youth and parents to process their thoughts and emotions when experiencing conflict with one another.

“[She] bring up stuff ‘well momma don’t understand or daddy don’t understand.’ So I said ‘well, tell me your version of it.’ So, we sit down, and I just listen to her talk.” – Grandmother mentor of a 14-year-old girl

By providing youth and parents the space to talk through their emotions, familial mentors were likely helping both to better understand and express their feelings. These practices may have promoted more effective communication between parents and their adolescent children.

2. Mentors Coaching Positive Communication Strategies – Familial mentors suggested positive communication and response strategies to youth and parents to help them navigate conflict in their relationship. For instance, familial mentors advised youth to not argue with their parents when they were upset and also encouraged parents to refrain against harshly disciplining their children.

“you have to be calm and tell [her]in a different way. . . you got to keep a calm voice. You have to calm down and they might get it rather than you screaming at them.” – Grandfather mentor of a 11-year-old girl

By helping parents and youth calibrate their reactions, familial mentors were likely able to promote more effective communication between youth and their parents.

3. Mentors Promoting Understanding – Lastly, familial mentors promoted understanding in the parent-adolescent relationship by advising parents and youth to perspective take. Familial mentors also encouraged youth to share information with their parents and encouraged parents to give their adolescent children appropriate space and autonomy.

“[my mom] reminds me that I cannot protect [my son] from everything. I can give him advice but she’s really the one trying to get me to release a little bit and relax and let him make his own way. . . [she reminds me] that he is a young man and to let him be young man even with all my fears and worries. Not to stifle that.” – Mother of a 14-year-old boy

By advising youth to share information with their parents, and encouraging parents to give their children the space to grow, familial mentors may have helped parents and youth negotiate adolescents’ growing desire for autonomy.


Together this work highlights familial mentoring relationships as a naturally occurring resource in Black families. Even further, by working to strengthen parent-adolescent bonds, familial mentors may help to ensure that parents are well positioned to support their children through the ups and downs of adolescence.

References

[1] Seider et al., 2019

[2] Wilson, 2009

[3] De Geode et al., 2009

[4] Billingsley et al., 2021


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Janelle Billingsley is a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow and a doctoral candidate in the Community Psychology program at the University of Virginia (UVA). She received her B.A. in Psychology from North Carolina Central University and her M.A. in Psychology from UVA. Janelle’s program of research integrates ecological and developmental frameworks to uncover the ways Black adolescents leverage their familial networks to promote their healthy development in the face of contextual risk. Her scholarship primarily focuses on two areas of exploration: 1) identifying factors that promote close and supportive intergenerational relationships between Black adolescents and their parents and adult relatives, and 2) better understanding how Black adolescents’ supportive intergenerational familial relationships facilitate adolescents’ social and emotional development.

Student’s Legacy Art with Historical Representation

Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) in Newport News, VA has a Youth Development Department whose primary goals are promoting student success, student wellness, and creating productive collaborations with stakeholders to implement quality programming that promotes overall wellbeing for all students.

The Youth Development Department operates on the premise that all young people will be successful when offered the right combination of opportunities, supports, and services. NNPS Youth Development is also dedicated to the wellbeing of young people, no matter what circumstances they may face.

Recently, NNPS Youth Development shared art from the walls at one of their High Schools. Shared here is that art in celebration of Youth Art Month

Hallway Artwork

Woodside High School, Center for Arts and Communications Magnet program for Newport News Public Schools, fills their halls with legacy art work pieces. Magnet and AP students have the option to leave a legacy piece that will be rotated in the hall galleries. Legacy pieces have historical representation of the students and talents that have come through the school’s magnet program. The hallway artwork is a unique feature to the building and overall culture of the school. Department Art Teachers include Rick Shelton, Bill Kaoudis, Cathy Hilton and Heidi Bogan.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Art Can Be a Force of Change

By: Maya Koehn-Wu

Maya also took over the Youth-Nex and Equity Center Instagram accounts to talk more about this blog and her experiences with the Sound Justice Lab.

Highlights

  • Maya is a second year undergraduate majoring in Urban and Environmental Planning with a minor in Dance. 
  • In celebration of Youth Art Month, Maya shares more about how she was encouraged to be creative and engaged with her community during her teen years.
  • Now she is bridging art and social justice issues as she continues using her creativity to change the world.

I consider myself an artist across multiple mediums. I draw, I paint, I dance, and more.

I began making art when I was young. In high school, I developed my own style, where my artwork depicted gestural figures in motion, dancing in a time-space continuum of energy. Creating and making such pieces became a way for me to create action in a space of stillness. It was a way in which to communicate the complexity and chaotic dimension of movement within a controversial space, within everyday life, within a dance piece.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

My dancing simultaneously – whether it was within the studio or at community events (where our dance company would put on productions that told Latin folktales in order to share and teach about Latin Culture), became an extension of my art; bringing a shared energy of pastels and color to moving about on a stage. Dancing Flamenco became a passion; where stomping to a rhythm also was a way to tell a story through movement and not words.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

Why Be Creative

Art for me has always been about creating a space for self expression where words often can’t, which is true for many young people. My high school teacher always said, “it is important to create something everyday.” I have since taken those words to heart.

Whether I am sewing, cooking, dancing, painting, drawing, or creating graphics for internships, I have always taken it upon myself to create daily.

I think adults should encourage youth to find creative outlets, to explore different avenues for expression, and foster the development of young artists to be creative.

In a world of standardized testing and schooling, there is often little room for subjective creativity and emotional intelligence. Creativity fosters skills that move people, skills that bridge people together, skills that foster empathy and emotion. It is this power to foster emotion and share common humanistic values that makes art so powerful.

Being an Active Community Member

Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to give back to my community. The Latin Ballet, the studio I danced at, was centered around bringing in the community. After each production we would bring the audience on stage with us to come learn some steps of Bachata, Salsa, or Flamenco.

This helped me connect with kids younger than me, but also share my talents to inspire the next generation of youth artists.

I became passionate about being an even more active member of my community. I worked as a kayaking instructor on the river, where I grew to understand the importance of conservation. I became an activist on fighting to mitigate issues surrounding Climate Change and became empowered by the power of Greta Thunberg’s voice shouting:

Youth CAN make a difference.

Within Richmond, VA I then began interning at a project directed towards studying urban heat islands, where I learned that impoverished neighborhoods and certain streets of Richmond were often 10+ degrees hotter than other parts of the city due to limited tree coverage. From that experience I learned that green space, poverty, equity, and resource access are all interconnected.

I became emboldened to be a voice and advocate for equitable change.

Bridging Art & Social Justice

It wasn’t until I learned that art and equity development can be connected that my perspective on the world transformed.

I have begun to work in a space where dance, music, and art drive my social justice projects. Today I work as an intern at the Sound Justice Lab, a social justice project affiliated with the UVA Equity Center and centered around amplifying voices of gender discrimination. I create graphics, flyers, website material, and visual content that incorporates my artistic passion to present expressive visuals that are measurable and meaningful.

I also work on a project called Project Drumline, where we teach kids rhythm with bucket drumming, music, and dance through City of Promise.

On my journey to become an active and artistic citizen, I have learned that art brings in a level of emotion and depth that sparks conversations amongst people, and conversations are the key to beginning to enact change. I have learned of the power of expression behind a piece of art. I have learned that being creative is a way for me to fight for change and to bring profound meaning to my causes.

Youth are looking for a place to express themselves, to find their own voices.

We want to be a force of change, and sometimes all it takes is putting some color on a piece of paper and other times it’s turning on music and moving your body.

Just remember, art can change the world.


Maya and her sister founded an organization, SistersProjectPeru, who’s ultimate hope is to build a sustainable medical clinic in rural Huacahuasi Peru in the hopes of increasing healthcare accessibility and empowering women on a global scale. Maya recently held an auction of her art to raise money for the organization. To learn more, please visit https://www.sistersprojectperu.org/.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Maya Koehn-Wu is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Her intersectional identity as a multiracial female inspires her exploration of different cultures and drive to constantly be making global connections and impacts.Through dance, art, and creative social justice work, she seeks to experience the world outside of where she lives. In addition to being a globally minded, assertive, and politically vocal citizen, she is working as an environmental activist seeking to work within the global community to tackle climate change.

The Power of Intergenerational Activism

By: Celina Adams

Highlights:

  • In spring 2021 I worked with the Teachers in the Movement project during my final semester as an undergraduate.
  • During this time, I reviewed and conducted oral history interviews that explored teachers’ ideas and pedagogy inside and outside the classroom during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
  • In this original blog post, I reviewed an interview with Mrs. Flora Crittenden and reflected on the power of intergenerational activism.

Mrs. Flora Crittenden is a remarkable woman who positively impacted her students and community throughout her lifetime. She worked as an educator, guidance counselor, and politician during the Civil Rights Movement. Her incredibly deep involvement in her community speaks to her determination to facilitate racial justice in every aspect of life. I reviewed an oral history interview from Mrs. Crittenden during my involvement with the Teachers in the Movement Project, and a major theme that arose in the discussion of her career is the importance of support systems. This yielded intergenerational progress that is evident in the lives of Mrs. Crittenden, her family members, and her students.

Role Models & Background 

While attending the only school that accepted Black students in her county in Newport News, Huntington High School, Mrs. Crittenden interacted with teachers who maintained high standards for her. This high school was established around 1920 with the intention of providing quality education to African American students, and in Mrs. Crittenden’s experience, it did exactly that. Mrs. Crittenden specifically recalls the impact her high school biology and chemistry teacher, Mr. Hines, had on her. While in his class, she was assigned projects that she found uninteresting. She was determined not to complete her assignments; however, Mr. Hines pushed her to conduct the necessary research. Mrs. Crittenden believes that educators like him were the reason she attended college and excelled academically. Mr. Hines was one of the many resources Huntington High School afforded Mrs. Crittenden, and his impact in her life extended beyond his classroom. Years after she graduated, Mr. Hinesbecame the principal of George Washington Carver High School which is located in Newport News. He alone was responsible for the school’s opening and operations due to the lack of resources provided by the School Board. As a result, he recruited Mrs. Crittenden to help develop the school’s curriculum and hire faculty. Mr. Hines garnered her support prior to the school’s unveiling in 1949. He went to her home, and he said “Mrs. Crittenden, get dressed—we got to go make a school.” This simple statement coupled with his guidance radically affected Mrs. Crittenden’s life. It gave her the opportunity to invest in a school in a way that most teachers are unable to do.

Educating during the Civil Rights Movement 

Even though the subject matter Mrs. Crittenden taught (girls’ physical education and occasionally biology) did not easily align with the ideas promoted by the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Crittenden made an effort to remind her students that they were valued, citizens. She wanted them to know that neither their age nor race made them inferior to anyone. Mrs. Crittenden worked predominantly with young women since “physical education classes were separated by gender but not the academic classes.” It was not until 1972 that all classes were required to be coeducational as a result of Title XI. Therefore, the majority of Mrs. Crittenden’s students had to navigate a society that praised whiteness and masculinity. This challenging situation made the affirming messages Mrs. Crittenden taught increasingly necessary. Additionally, she encouraged her students to be an active member of their communities despite social norms. This approach was rooted in her belief that:

Educational institutions have the ability to strengthen both families and nations by producing educated and thoughtful citizens.

Mrs. Crittenden was determined to ingrain these ideals in her students. Her teaching style suggests that activism can occur in any environment. It is not limited to certain subject matter, locations, or age groups. She suggests that “it just so happened that [she] was a teacher” who used her career as a platform to promote Civil Rights. Mrs. Crittenden’s work suggests that activism is rooted in an understanding of the humanity of people.

Life Beyond Teaching 

Mrs. Crittenden sought opportunities to enact change in the lives of young people and community members beyond teaching. This led to her decision to become a guidance counselor. This new position allowed her to counsel students in a more personalized manner; she could tailor her approach to individual students rather than classrooms with multiple people. Mrs. Crittenden was invested in the lives of her students. Furthermore, she was able to engage directly with students and parents creating an environment that fostered student success. Thursa Crittenden, Mrs. Crittenden’s daughter, recalled an experience in which a student received a scholarship to an excellent university, but he did not want to attend that institution. Mrs. Flora Crittenden knew the school would afford him numerous opportunities, so she traveled to the students’ homes to speak to his parents and compel him to accept the university’s offer. He ultimately decided to attend the university, and he attributes his success to Mrs. Crittenden’s persistence. This situation highlights Mrs. Crittenden’s deep desire to support her students.


Read more in the original blog post on how Mrs. Crittenden’s family shaped her view of education and ultimately led to her deep appreciation of teaching, her educational background, her life after retiring from teaching which include becoming a representative for the Virginia House of Delegates, and references.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Celina Adams recently received a Bachelors of Science in Education in May 2021 from the University of Virginia. She double majored in Youth in Social Innovations and American Studies. She currently works on the Counseling and Equity team at ReadyKids, a local nonprofit that provides educational, developmental, and counseling support to children and families. This position embodies Celina’s interests in racial justice, culture, and mental health. She hopes to continue her studies in order to learn how to highlight the stories of marginalized people and promote positive racial identity development. 

Mentoring for Enhancing Educational Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors

By: Michael Lyons

Highlights:

  • Mentoring programs have long valued academic-related goals for their services, where many target academic enrichment or emphasize college access and educational attainment as outcomes.
  • To understand this connection better, I co-authored a report that examines research addressing the potential influence of mentoring for youth on their educational attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (or EABBs).
  • In this blog, I highlight some of the conclusions from this report and share practice recommendations that focus on actions that mentors or program staff could take to support development of positive EABBs, including supporting growth mindsets, persistence skills, and more.

Can volunteer mentors really help improve students’ engagement, attitudes, and behavior about school? To help mentoring programs and mentors understand the answer to this question, I recently co-authored a review, called Mentoring for Enhancing Educational Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors (see the full report for additional findings and recommendations) for the National Mentoring Resource Center. I am revisiting this review for National Mentoring Month.

School-based mentoring programs match adult volunteers with K-12 students so that students have access to another supportive adult in their life. The rationale is that positive youth-adult relationships (e.g., relationships students develop with teachers, coaches etc.) are important for helping youth be successful in school. So, mentoring programs that match students with volunteer will have the same effect, right?

In this review, we found that mentoring programs that use volunteers and match them with students tended to help students feel more connected in school, increased their engagement, and promoted positive attitudes about school.

However, we also found that, on average, these positive effects tended to be small and variable (some students had better outcomes with a mentor compared to others).

Although we do not know all the reasons that explain the variability, we did find that some studies suggested that the school and community environment might influence the effectiveness of mentors. For example, historically marginalized youth who experience racism and discrimination in school might benefit from mentors who acknowledge the reality of their experience in school.

Implications for Practice

My colleague Michael Garringer, Director of Research and Evaluation for MENTOR, provided implications for mentors and mentoring programs to promote positive EABBs in mentees. Based on the review, he concluded that programs should consider the following principles:

  1. Make sure you understand the root causes of negative EABBs – There are lots of reasons why youth might have difficulty engaging in school and mentors may be able to address only some of these. In some cases, mentors and mentoring programs may need to address systemic factors contributing to negative EABBs.
  2. Recruit (or train) the right mentors to address EABBs – Training is needed to teach mentors how to best respond to, and address, the various reasons youth might be more or less engaged in school.
  3. Consider mentoring models that emphasize youth voice and engagement – Youth participating in mentoring often know more than we (adults) give them credit. Asking youth directly may be one successful approach.
  4. Draw from evidence-based intervention when possible – There are some formal mentoring curricula shown to promote student success in school. Some mentoring programs may wish to integrate these into their current services.
  5. Train mentors on goal-setting strategies and the art of giving back – Mentors and mentees who jointly set goals and track progress toward those goals is one specific skill that tends to be associated with greater improvement in student engagement; mentoring programs may wish to emphasize these skills in program-provided training.
  6. Reinforce positive EABBs through parental engagement – Parent and families are another important support mentors can use to understand and facilitate student engagement in school.

For links to relevant resources and training for these take-home points, please visit the full report available online.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Michael Lyons is an Assistant Professor of Education and faculty affiliate at Youth-Nex. He is interested in the social-emotional development of middle and high school students in a positive psychological and traditional mental health framework. Specifically, his research reflects an interest in understanding the mechanisms and practices in a school setting that promote student well-being and school-relevant outcomes (e.g., grades and behavior) through an ecological model. Dr. Lyons is especially interested in school-based mentoring programs as one approach for promoting student well-being and enhancing academic outcomes. He also co-directs the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health which aims to support the provision of school mental health services in Virginia.

Vlog: Youth at the Intersection of the Movement for Racial Justice and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Daniel Fairley II

This vlog is the first in a series. View the second post entitled “Youth Mental Health & Reshaping Our Culture.”

Highlights:

  • I am the Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement in the City of Charlottesville.
  • In my work, I identify and direct opportunity-youth toward targeted services, and liaison with agencies, schools, special interest groups and organizations serving at-risk youth, especially minority children and youth or any other children who fall within the achievement gap definition, while overseeing policy and program implementation.
  • In this video blog, I share more about my experience working with youth, and talk about what adults can do to better support youth who are focused on both the movement for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: Youth-Nex Youtube

There is a pandemic that has been going on for centuries and a pandemic that we just started about 2 years ago. It is easy for adults to just focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, and say we’ll figure out the other things later about racial injustice. But for many youth that is not their focus or lived experience. So what can adults do to support youth at this intersection of the movement for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic?

The best thing adults can do is ask questions and listen.

Say “teach me more about that,” or “I don’t know I understand.”

Put youth in the driver’s seat and make them teachers. Have them show you their experiences, and how they are navigating through it to make meaning of their experiences. Especially teenagers who are muted in their own responses, ask them questions about how they are processing and dealing. Create a space that is non-judgmental where a youth can be their genuine self.

If you are working with youth, there are 3 rules to follow:

  1. Show Up: When you are there with youth, be there completely. Limit distractions and be fully present.
  2. Keep Showing Up: Be there for youth and build a deep connection. Keep showing up time after time working with the same youth. Don’t be a one-and-done, but instead be there for the long haul!
  3. Be Authentic: Don’t make assumptions, and be true to yourself. Say “tell me what that is like” instead of pretending you know or understand their experiences. Say “what can I do to better understand your experience.”

Daniel is also a local steering committee member for the University of Virginia Equity Center with which Youth-Nex is affiliated.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Daniel Fairley II received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Richmond and his Master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Vermont (UVM). He was awarded the Kenneth P. Saurman Memorial Award and Richard F. Stevens Outstanding Graduate student in the State of Vermont for his dedication to social justice and stellar academics. Daniel’s professional experience includes interning with the Operations department of The White House under the Obama Administration. He also worked as an Assistant Residence Director in the Department of Residential Life at UVM, and as the Area Coordinator at the University of Virginia in the Department of Housing and Residence Life. Daniel volunteered with the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, which led to his current position as a Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement for the City of Charlottesville. He now serves as the President of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and Board Member for Loaves & Fishes food pantry.