Recently Added

Hormone Highway… navigating Grade 8

September 24, 2012

Dear Mr. Dixon,

The 'takeaways' from my work are many. I could talk all day about what I've learned from conducting surveys… and do so regularly enough to raise my wife's eyebrows in dismay. I'll constrain myself today, though, to just one topic… Hormone Highway. That's a term shared with me by more than a few school administrators during my travels. Actually, they call it Hormone… 'something else that starts with H***' but this is a family program so let's leave that alone. Hormone Highway, otherwise known as Grade 8, reveals itself in full living color in my work… not just in student surveys, but also in surveys of parents (I call them 'parents going through puberty').

To qualify what I'm about to share, I conduct constituent surveys for independent schools. It's what I do. In fact, it's all I do. Over fifteen years, 264 such surveys have polled precisely 123,289 respondents, averaging some 125 questions each (this third number is, admittedly, just an eyeball estimate – could be higher… not lower). Forty-nine of these have been surveys of students (another 102 surveys of parents). The total number of student participants has been 26,215 answering, on average, more than 100 questions about their school experience. Do the math. I think you'll agree that I'm sitting on several doctoral theses worth of data… and this only from the student surveys.

Students from Grade 5 and higher participate, offering wonderful insights as to: specific school-life satisfaction ratings; attitudes about academics; workload stress; feelings of emotional safety; sense of belonging; co-curricular engagement; self-appraised preparedness; and social/relational life at school.

Dissected and cross-tabulated demographic sub-groupings expand my field of vision exponentially, on occasion yielding thousands of pages of tables and graphs… for just one project. Different strokes for different folks, they say… well, this study of dissected data is a joy for me. It's not just that I love numbers, although I do. What really turns my crank is digging in and making sense of the numbers… translating it all into plain English in aid of better management decisions. Now that's just plain fun.

At times, it's purely comical (and sad at the same time) to review more than one hundred graphs of parent ratings, crossed by one variable – grade of enrolment of the child.

Invariably, when I present the result that Kindergartner parents offer the highest ratings of College Counseling, an outburst of laughter follows. What's sad is that prospective Kindergartner parents are also the first to say, 'show me your college list.' This is nothing but sad.

I witness the migration of parent attitudes with progression through the grades, on the subject of what's most important in their children's education. To paraphrase (and this is a generalization), JK through Grade 3 parents want little Johnny or Susie to be socially adept, well adjusted… and not to bite anyone at school. The same people, speaking of their Grade 10, Grade 11, and Grade 12 children, however, want Harvard, Princeton, or Yale… and it doesn't matter who they have to bite to get there. This, too, is sad.

On today's topic, I often see parents of Grade 8 students punishing a school with lower ratings than those from parents in contiguous grades. While not a universal finding, it happens frequently enough for me to say that some parents of kids going through puberty have long forgotten their own experiences in this department. They haven't a clue. In effect, their answers shout, "I don't know what you've done to my child this year, but whatever it is, please stop!"

Although I begin the analysis stage of each new project with an open mind, trying to set aside what I've seen in past and to accept new results free of bias, I cannot resist looking first to the graphs of parent surveys and student surveys, with grade of enrolment on the x-axis. It’s downright fascinating. Scores of both parents and students chug merrily along as we progress from left to right… Grade 5… Grade 6… Grade 7… oops! – Grade 8 strikes again… only to recover again in Grade 9. Again, this is not universal, but it is stunning sometimes to see how many seemingly unrelated measures are significantly depressed by the halo effect. This occurs when a force of such strength comes into play that everything in the vicinity is affected. Sort of like tossing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread to the perimeter. Puberty is just such a force.

Schools take a variety of approaches in the accommodation of this change in life. Some do a better job than others. Some place Grade 8s as the first class in the Upper School. Some pay special attention to parents who appear to be going through puberty, themselves, along with their children. I've even seen one school where the Middle School kids are segregated into single-sex education, returning in Grade 9 to co-ed.

I'm not qualified to judge the merits of these initiatives. I'm neither an educator nor a psychologist. I'm just an interested observer looking in from the outside. This acknowledgement aside, I am sitting on a boatload of data and would share with you an anomalous result coming from concurrent parent and student surveys at one of my client schools. Not only were there no major dips in scores from Grade 8 parents and students. In contrast, a strong upward spike in results (for both Grade 8 parents and students) was the norm. Across many unrelated measures, ratings were consistently higher than those from contiguous grades. You can be assured – this anomaly caught my attention.

I like a good challenge, and I do love the numbers, so I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. I tore those surveys apart in every way possible in search of an explanation. I'm sure I spent two full days trying to understand what was different about this school or these Grade 8 students. In the end, I was left empty-handed. Absolutely nothing. I don't give up easily but there was just nothing there.

When I arrived at the school to share results from these two surveys, I made a point of presenting a number of slides pointing to this Grade 8 distinction. Then I stopped, explaining the norm as observed in other schools, and threw up my hands. "Okay, I give up… " I said to the senior admin team. "You tell me what's going on." I could see by the smiles on their faces that they had a secret. "Cough it up," I demanded.

Here's their answer, folks, and it's so simple that it's brilliant. Seems that, particular to the Grade 8 class, this school has introduced a peer-tutoring program. Every student in Grade 8 is responsible for tutoring another student at the school. Having studied kids going through puberty, they’ve concluded that the greatest challenge comes from getting all wrapped up in oneself and one's own misery. I've got pimples, I'm ugly, I'm fat, I'm stupid, everybody hates me, and I don't belong here… or anywhere else for that matter.

By mandating the peer-tutoring experience, this school has enjoyed great success in dragging kids outside of themselves and into the role of helping someone else in need. Rather than ignoring puberty, or dismissing it as a necessary evil, the school has elected to purposefully engage these students in larger purpose. The school has created program that expresses the discovery of the self through the service of others, rather than through a downward spiral of hormonal navel-gazing.

Grade 8 parents and students, alike, have rewarded this school with remarkable scores.

Call it service learning. Call it preventive medicine. Call it common sense. I call it brilliant. I won't say that the school has 'cured' puberty because puberty is not a disease. It is, however, a meaningful and disturbing distraction for many, though not all, kids. There's a saying about parenting that if we "keep 'em busy, we keep 'em out of trouble." I think it's also true that when we place our kids in a position of responsibility for helping someone else in need, their passage through Hormone Highway may be more safely navigated.

Simply brilliant.

My wife and I have three grown children, Mr. Dixon, and one 12 year-old… who just this month entered your Grade 8 class. This might be an opportune time for me to advise that, on her own initiative and under my watchful eye, she completed Grade 8 Mathematics three weeks before the start of classes. I should also say that she just loves to help others.

Something to consider.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

I welcome your feedback. Feel free to contact me by e-mail.

To help me avoid receiving a ton of spam, I’ll ask that you please replace the parenthetic content, and the parentheses, of course, with the @ sign. Thanks.

kevin(at sign)