Voices of Youth: Weathering the 'perfect storm' of middle school social life

The Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

Editor's Note: This story was written by Jane Parikh with assistance from Voices of Youth's Henry Bickel, a rising 8th grader at Maple Street Magnet School, who conceived of the project and conducted the interviews. The artwork to accompany the article was created by Plamedia Ekumbaki and Jaden Davis, both sophomores at Kalamazoo Central High School. Please see their Artist Statements below.

Navigating the social and emotional aspects of middle school is often guided by the onset of puberty and hormonal changes creating a perfect storm for students, says Laura Ruelas, a 7th-grade science teacher at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts.
“It’s hard to regulate your brain and impulsivity,” she says of middle school students. “There’s a connection between hormonal levels and flight or fight responses. That’s why navigating stuff in middle school is harder because puberty is affecting them.”
Social/emotional learning became a regular part of school and is now being mainstreamed into all school settings because educators recognized the need, Ruelas says. She says this is true at any school where there are a lot of students who get free or reduced lunch or are reading below their grade level.
Mental Health Comic, #1, created by Daniel Kibezi, 7th grader at Millwood Middle School.The number one concern that brings a student to her grades, is that there are typically underlying issues that exacerbate these conversations. So what may begin as a conversation about grades, could easily segue into the mention of other concerns.
“They’ll come to me if they’re having a conflict with another student or a student who is bothering them,” Ruelas says. “Sometimes this comes through a parent and they’ll reach out to me. Usually, it’s some sort of conflict or issues with grades or what’s going on in class.”
Depending on the situation, she says she talks to the students about things they can do because they won’t be able to affect what the other student does. She also advises them to write up an incident report to document what got them to this point and works with them to figure out what the dynamics are to put into context for everyone involved with an end goal of resolving the situation.
Mental Health Comic, #2, created by Daniel Kibezi, 7th grader at Millwood Middle School.Like Ruelas, Angel Olivarez, a School Counselor for Maple Street’s 7th and 8th-grade Endeavor Team, says every time a student comes to him there is a connection to whatever the typical question is and it’s almost always about social interactions.
“With course selection sheets, I could have interactions with a student about their course selection and academics. The student will walk in and say ‘Can I change my class?' Which evolves into probing on my part and I learn that the reason they want to get out of that class is because they’re having problems with another student,” he says. “The topics they come to me with are different, but nine times out of ten, that relates to their social life. That’s what comes out.”
Recognizing that each student has a different history and temperament, Olivarez says he works with a student to get them to better understand the situation that brought them into him and their reaction to that situation, as well as help them to identify their sphere of control.
Mental Health Comic, #5, created by Daniel Kibezi, 7th grader at Millwood Middle School.“First, we listen and seek to understand. When I say I want to hear what’s on your mind, along the way we seek a little more clarification and ask how they dealt with the situation worked for them,” he says. “Even if we’re not providing any advice, just the process of listening can be empowering and therapeutic for the student.”
The most common reason students come to him involves some form of friction, tension, or problem with a peer, followed by a class change request.
“It could be a friend or it could be an acquaintance, a classmate, or someone who is randomly picking on them,” Olivarez says. “A close second is a request to change a class and I’m the only one they can come to for that.”
Mental Health Comic, #4, created by Daniel Kibezi, 7th grader at Millwood Middle School.Monthly, he may see one or two students about class changes.
“As far as a percentage that’s hard for me to gauge that. Like the staff in a hospital emergency room, I only see people who need me. It’s like everybody who comes in here needs something. They’ve got an issue already and that’s why they’re coming in to see me,” Olivarez says.
A couple of years ago, he may have seen 10 students each month coming in for help. Now, it’s more of a daily occurrence with students who are working through bullying or friendship issues.
“We’re social beings and we exist here in this school in the context of our community and school. Every interaction that we have is part of our social life and interpersonal relationships.”
Mental Health Comic, #3, created by Daniel Kibezi, 7th grader at Millwood Middle School.He attributes the rise in requests to a growing number of students who cannot self-monitor and self-regulate and who experience various levels of anxiety. This coupled with a student enrollment at Maple Street that has hovered at about 880 since before the pandemic is bringing more students to Olivarez’s office and creating greater potential for conflicts.
Maple Street is the largest middle school within the Kalamazoo Public Schools system. Olivarez says it’s an assumption on his part that the more people, the more interactions and the more possibilities for conflict. This past school year, he says there were more physical fights at the school than last year, five years ago, or pre-pandemic.
In addition to the student numbers, Olivarez says he thinks the deterioration of the well-being of students and the cultural and social aspects that are being promoted on social media also are contributing to increasing occurrences of physical fights or verbal face-offs attracting onlookers and spectators who are less likely to listen and respond appropriately when a staff person intervenes and tries to disperse the group.
Collage, Mental Health, by Plamedie Ekumbaki, sophomore at Kalamazoo Central High School.“More recently these gatherings have gotten larger and more intense. Students used to say they knew what was happening was wrong and keep walking. Now we have every group of students stop and look and we have 30 phones filming these gatherings where there may have been one phone out 10 years ago,” Olivarez says. “That whole climate and culture has changed.”
During one of these incidences, Olivarez was trying to get a student to move on. The student was the child of a KPS principal and Olivarez says he was surprised that rather than complying, this student looked at him with a defiant expression on their face. He says students who earn straight As and are always on time for class represent a recently emerging category of students who stop to gawk and are hesitant to comply with adult re-direction.
The instances of “defiant and not compliant” have gone up and Olivarez says he’s now surprised by students who do stop and don’t comply.
Diptych, Mental Health, Jaden Davis, Kalamazoo Central High School sophomore.Ruelas says the relationship piece appears to affect 70 percent of female students versus 30 percent of male students.
“Male students have those issues but they don’t openly address them like females do,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot more physical aggression with females where typically it used to be that males resolved issues with physical aggression and females used isolation or shunning.”
This shift became apparent to Ruelas in the last 15 years. She attributes it to the increased exposure young people have to social media and the internet which adds to the stress they’re already trying to manage.
“It really shifted a lot when technology just blew up,” she says. “The connections we make with technology and the way it wires our brain has impacted us. There’s also levels of stress and the amount of downtime children get. They’re constantly doing something and they’re so much busier now. It’s starting to snowball to the point when we realize there’s a problem and how do we address it.”
What happens in middle school doesn’t end in middle school
The choices students make during their time in middle school don’t end when they enter high school, Ruelas says.
“Depending on these choices, they will either compound issues in high school or make them better,” she says. “During middle school, they’re getting exposed to so many different social interactions and figuring out how to navigate that. Typically, they’re not going to go to adults for help. They will either talk to friends or keep it bottled up. If they don’t figure out how to navigate things in middle school, there will be way more drama in high school.
“There’s so much going on and the majority of middle school students keep it inside of themselves because they don’t understand that everybody is dealing with the same things. They think ‘This is just something happening to me and nobody else feels this way.’ I don’t know if middle schoolers feel super-connected to the people they’re connected to. It’s such an awkward weird phase of life.”
This is especially true for students who identify as non-binary or LGBTQ+, Ruelas says.
Collage, Mental Health, by Majolie Carter, Kalamazoo Central High School sophomore“Nonbinary students have a lot that they’re dealing with. There’s targeting of them and they also deal with having people accept them,” she says. “Some students don’t have support at home with their sexuality or gender identification which makes it hard for them.”
But, even with parental support, students are influenced by outside forces like content that is available to them on their phones and computers. Olivarez says parents may be trying to instill certain values, but “24/7 access to social media is shaping their thought process and value system. There’s always been counterforces in society to what a parent might have been teaching.”
These counterforces also contribute to a shift Ruelas started seeing in her classroom about 10 years ago where students were “all over the place” and could not self-direct themselves.
“Now, it’s a rarity to have a student who is settled and able to stay engaged in classroom activities. Less students are focused. When I was a child we had one or two students who were struggling with impulsivity and everyone else was self-monitoring. Now we have two or three students in a class who are self-monitoring.”
Maple Street is only one example and by no means the only middle school that faces issues with students who face challenges that often make it difficult to focus on the real reason they go to school — to learn and become prepared for what’s next, Ruelas says.
“Something is clearly missing within the wider context of family and society. We need to re-direct students who can’t manage themselves,” Olivarez says. “We need to look at how the caregivers interact with their children. The personalities and tendencies at school become a part of the child’s world and there are so many facets to school — peers, staff members, and teachers. It’s so complex and we need to expand our view of that out to the macro world and society globally.”

Artist Statements and Biographies:

Plamedie Ekumbaki, collage: I like artwork because it lets me express my ideas in different creative ways. My focus area in this session was “Teens and Their Social Lives.” I used collage to exhibit the two sides of this topic, problem and solution: teens having fun playing sports, and shopping, with bright colors symbolizing joy, and the dangers of being lonely and the fear of not being good enough.

Plamedie Ekumbaki, 15 years old, is a sophomore at Kalamazoo Central High School. For her project, Plamedie chose the focus area of Youth Mental Health, so it seemed a natural choice to focus on Teen Social Lives this time. During the session, Plamedie commented on the need for people to be themselves in order to more easily traverse the ups and downs of the social life of a teenager. Plamedie spends a lot of her time in the spring practicing for and competing in Track meets.

Majolie Carter, collage: I love cutting out pictures and text to create a new image. My focus area was Teens and Their Social Lives. I used collage to illustrate the activities and behaviors teens feel pressured to partake in just to survive in their world. I also included some of the “good things” teens experience like laughing with friends, hanging out, and having fun, and colors that symbolize happiness.

Majolie Carter, 15, attends Kalamazoo Central as a sophomore. Majolie joined Voices of Youth for art, because of how they compensate young artists, which she believes is important.

Daniel Kibezi, comic strip: I made my art with the topic Mental Health in Social Life, and how people and technology can disrupt your mental health. I chose to do comics because they can be understood and easy to read. I hope people learn you should respect others because it could hurt more than you know.

Daniel Kibezi is entering 7th grade in the fall. He has participated in Voice of Youth because he appreciates the opportunities it offers.

Jaden Davis, diptych: You can tell yourself, “I’ll just be on here for a little bit,” and then all of a sudden you realize it has been two hours. You haven’t showered like you were supposed to, and you haven’t eaten. Now the sky is getting darker and now all the things you should have done, you gotta' cram into the night. But the phone isn’t only demotivating teens from their work, it’s also distracting them from connecting with each other. With countless amounts of content competing for the attention of teens, teens get too distracted to even text back. In this photo pairing, I show the time-wasting and isolating effect that phones have on teens.

Jaden Davis, 14, is a sophomore at Kalamazoo Central High School. She joined Voices of Youth to be with her friends and get to do art while being with them. What she likes about photography is that every picture can have different meanings for different people.

Henry Bickel, who conceived of this project and conducted the interviews, is an 8th grader at Maple Street Magnet School.
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