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Moms, you think babies are tough? Wait until middle school

Think having a baby is hard? Wait until middle school.
New research shows caring for infant is not the most trying time of motherhood.
January 21, 2016

New study shows as kids ride the roller coaster of early adolescence, so do moms

Ask 10 people what the most taxing years of motherhood are and there’s a good chance the consensus will be “children’s infancies,” when distressed babies adjusting to the world are too young to explain what’s bothering them. It’s a strong answer, but not the right one, according to new research.

A new study conducted by Arizona State University researchers Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla showed that the most challenging period of mothering comes during the child’s middle school years, when a mother’s investment in her child’s well-being is compromised by the confluence of puberty, the dynamics in a new school where the burdens of popularity and academic achievement are heightened, and the instinct to branch out from parental rules.

It all adds up to a tumultuous time for the children, and those who must nurture and guide them through this trying period.  

For Cindy Dee, a medical professional in Chandler, Arizona, who did not want to be identified by her real name, her teenage son seemed increasingly dismissive of what she had to say, like during a striking conversation on how Advil worked.

“I’m a doctor. I know how Advil works, but he was telling me I didn’t know,” she recalled. “It is hard when they look at you like you have this innate stupidity. It used to be that I was all-knowing.”

Escalating concerns about kids’ risky behaviors in early adolescence only add to the mothers’ tumult.

“From the perspective of mothers, there’s a great deal of truth to the saying, ‘Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems,’ ” said Luthar, an ASU Foundation Professor in the Department of PsychologyThe Department of Psychology is part of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “Taking care of infants and toddlers is physically exhausting. But as the kids approach puberty, the challenges of parenting are far more complex, and the stakes of ‘things going wrong’ are far greater.”

Luthar and Ciciolla’s paper, “What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages,” is published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

Luthar and Ciciolla studied more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults and examined multiple aspects of mothers’ personal well-being, parenting and perceptions of their children.

When considering disturbances in mothers’ own adjustment, the study showed “an inverted V shape in feelings of stress and depression, with mothers of middle school children (ages 12 to 14) consistently faring the most poorly and mothers of infants and adult children doing the best,” Luthar said.

Why are the early teen years so tumultuous?

“Several factors come together in a perfect storm,” Luthar said. “One, the kids are dealing with puberty and all that this implies — hormones, acne and changing bodies. Two, they are drawn toward experimenting with alcohol, drugs or sex.

“They are also coping with transition to a relatively impersonal school environment, with large buildings and different teachers for each class, as opposed to the relative safety of smaller elementary schools with the same teacher all year. Their academic performance is now evaluated in a much more public way than before, as are their extracurricular talents. Finally, as they strive to separate from their parents, the peer group takes on enormous significance; early adolescents are very invested in ‘being popular,’ desperately wanting to fit in and be admired by their peers. That is a lot to deal with simultaneously.”

“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work.”
— Suniya Luthar, ASU Foundation Professor

As the children struggle to negotiate all of these major challenges, so too must their mothers as their primary caregivers.

For Dee, sometimes the old soothing methods still work for her son, sometimes they don’t, and she is both perplexed and worried about how best she can protect him.

“Sometimes a hug is helpful,” Dee said. “But sometimes not at all. There are times when they don’t even want to be seen with you in public. They want you to drop them off away from the drop-off point.”

“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work,” Luthar said. “They also have to walk a very fine line in setting limits. On the one hand, moms want their children to be open in sharing what they do with their friends, and on the other hand, there is the real concern that such honest exchanges might seem like they are tacitly condoning risky behaviors, if disclosed. 

“Decisions about what to allow, where to draw the line, how to effectively draw the line — all of these bring confusion and even fearfulness. And then, of course, there is the hurt, from the eye-rolling, distancing and even blatant scornfulness, from the same child who was unequivocally adoring just a few years earlier. That rejection hurts, it can hurt deeply.”

In addition, Luthar and Ciciolla cite other studies showing moms of early adolescents are likely experiencing their own developmental challenges as they begin to recognize declines in physical abilities, cognitive functioning and increased awareness of mortality. It also is a period when (according to other studies) marital satisfaction is the lowest and strife the highest.

All of this adds up to stressed-out moms of middle school children.

So what can moms do for relief?

Luthar suggests two interventions that can be done to minimize mothers’ stress. One is information dissemination to be done not just when the child enters middle school but in earlier years so they know what is in store for them. The second is providing ongoing support for the mothers, once the children do start middle school and continuing through graduation of high school.

“It is not enough simply to educate the mothers about the teen years; they must be ‘refueled’ themselves as they shepherd their children through this often tumultuous time,” Luthar said.

“We have learned that if mothers are to retain their equanimity as parents and as individuals, they need to receive nurturance and tending themselves. This new study shows it is during the hectic middle and high school years — perhaps more than ever — that mothers must deliberately prioritize the regular receipt of ‘authentic connections’ in their everyday lives.”

The juggling of everyday activities has taken its toll on Dee and her son. In order to meet their schedules and let him still do competitive climbing, they agreed her son would take one online math class. But he didn’t keep up with the work early on in the course and nearly failed.

“He was super panicked and super upset about it,” she said. “I was really upset with myself because I thought that had I been a better mother I wouldn’t have let him fall that far behind. If I had been more on top of things this wouldn’t have happened.

“But when we sat down and discussed it I said, ‘If you take the time and work really hard you are going to do OK.’ He did. He worked hard and got a B in the class. So what started out with me feeling like I failed, ended up being a very good lesson for him. But it all happened during very trying times."

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU expands teachers' technology tool kit

ASU program is expanding teachers' technology tool kits, with amazing results.
ASU student-teachers are embracing animation, songs, storytelling technology.
January 22, 2016

Student-teachers find that learning surges with apps, animation and other know-how

A few years ago, students in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College took a three-credit course on how to use technology in the classroom.

“There’s something kind of ironic about having a course called ‘integrating technology,’ but it’s a standalone course — it’s not integrated,” said LeeAnn Lindsey, who is in charge of the technology-infusion initiative at the college.

Then that changed. Starting in 2012, the Teachers College dropped the one-time class and began infusing technology into every course that undergraduates take. So when ASU students learn how to teach multiplication tables or American history, they use videos, storytelling applications, animation software and other techniques to improve the lesson.

The goal, Lindsey said, is for the children to be the ones using the technology.

“It’s not just about ‘I’m going to lecture with a PowerPoint behind me.’ It’s how to teach so that students are driving instruction,” Lindsey said.

“The students are the ones creating a website; they’re doing digital videos to show their learning.”

Starting last year — and thanks to a $50,000 donation — some of ASU’s student-teachers took that philosophy into their school classroomsASU partnered with the Avondale, Tolleson and Osborn elementary school districts in metro Phoenix, providing training and iPads for the project. The donation was from the Jane A. Lehman and Alan G. Lehman Foundation., where they saw amazing results. Children learned faster and were more engaged. Lessons were individualized and classrooms became paperless.

All students became enthusiastic, according to Hayley HoskinHayley HoskinHayley Hoskin (at right in the photo) is in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College iTeachAZ yearlong teacher-training program., an ASU student who teaches eighth-grade math in the Avondale Elementary School District.

“It was night and day to see that the students who had been disengaged from the lessons — even defiantly not participating — were the ones who created the most abstract and creative presentations,” said Hoskin, whose class created animated stories and wrote a song to explain the concept of proportion.

“It was nice to see how it reached every kind of learner in the classroom.”


An iPad with a person's face on the screen.

A tablet shows a fourth-grade student pretending to be a pilot during the iTeachAZ presentation in Avondale on Jan. 15. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


'They got it the first time'

ASU students in the iTeachAZ program spend the whole academic year teaching at their schools, not just one semester. They student-teach in a classroom, supervised by experienced mentor teachers, and take their senior-year ASU classes on the school district campus, taught by an ASU faculty member who is the site coordinator.

Lynda Scott is the ASU site coordinator in the Avondale Elementary School District in the West Valley. She jumped at the chance to apply for the technology-infusion program after looking at her data from the previous year. She observed many student-teachers using videos and games, but only once did she see the children using technology. Her goal was to get the technology into the pupils’ hands.

“A lot of people think that classroom management would get worse with technology, but we could see that classroom management was better because the kids were so engaged in what was happening and they were listening,” she said.

Both the student-teachers and their mentors were trained, and Scott modeled how to integrate technology in the ASU classes she taught the pre-service teachers — who needed to see both the good and the bad.

“We knew it would not be perfect,” Scott said. “We knew there would be times when the kids wouldn’t use it appropriately. One day our Internet was out. We had trouble with the apps. But I told them, ‘This is going to happen in the classroom, so what’s your Plan B?’ "

Earlier this month, the student-teachers and their mentors in the Avondale district presented their technology-infusion projects. Among their conclusions:

• Students learn quicker: ASU student-teacher Lola Dominguez teaches first grade and used a storytelling app. “They listened the first time, and they got it the first time.”

• Assessments are faster: Rebecca Haines, who has been teaching for 29 years, tried the Plicker app, in which each student answers on a card with a bar code. She scanned the room and knew immediately how many got the answer right. “It’s a quick and easy assessment, and it helps our understanding of what they understand,” said Haines, a second-grade mentor teacher.

• The students were more engaged: Hoskin said her eighth-graders weren’t required to work on their projects at home, but most did. Being able to create an animated project gave shy students the courage to speak up, she said. “They could just press play and they weren’t standing up there with a poster board.”

• Technology allows more inclusion: ASU student Ashley Kesweder teaches first grade and found the storytelling app perfect for her pre-readers. “They were able to show me what they know without that frustration of not knowing how to spell,” she said.

Partnering with mentors

The various gadgets, apps, programs and methods that teachers use will likely change in the coming years, but the point of the technology infusion is to keep minds open.

“It’s creating a mind-set of embracing any new technology that comes along, with a framework for how to integrate technology that’s not specific to one tool,” Lindsey said.

And that’s important for the experienced teachers as well, said Chris Giles, the K-12 education technology specialist for the Arizona Department of Education.

“This is really sketchy ground for them because they’re not the technology users that the students are,” said Giles, who trains teachers around the state. He sees the ASU program as a key way for the new and experienced teachers to collaborate.

“There’s no age thing, just partnership.”

ASU’s pre-service teachers will continue to use devices, apps, videos and programs as part of their courses, but the $50,000 grant that funded the elementary-school program has expired.

Lindsey said she is searching for more money to offer the program to more schools.

“I would like to find a donor who says ‘This works, I can see it.’ "

Top photo: Betsy Hargrove (center), superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, chats with Sara Sanchez, an elementary education senior at ASU, about the project she created with students in her fourth-grade class while working on a Native American unit. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now



Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now