Let’s get back to our middle school friends. One of the psychological factors that helps to explain middle school students is Identity Development.
Have any of you seen that scene in Zoolander in which Ben Stiller looks into a puddle, sees his reflection, and says “Who am I?” only to be splashed in the face by the puddle by an oncoming car? That’s basically what’s going on in early adolescence.
I am reminded of a situation that happened at one of my schools. A teacher came to me perplexed because one of his 8th grade students was acting up in class. He had taught him in 7th grade and he was a delightful student—did his homework, was respectful, helped him out after school with cleaning up the classroom—a model student. Now the student is in 8th grade and is defiant, rude, and hasn’t turned in a thing all year. He disrespects the teacher all the time, publicly. It had the flavor of a typical “Class Clown” situation. The teacher was fed up that day because the student told the class he thought that his teacher was the star of the movie, “The 40-Year Old Virgin.” Okay, that’s kind of funny, I admit (because it wasn’t directed at me!). But there is a time and place for being funny, and it’s not during a math lesson.
So what happened? How did Sweetie McStudent turn into Class Clown? Is there any hope for getting Sweetie McStudent back?
Let’s take this on using one of my favorite theorists for explaining adolescence. Erik Erikson would say you can get Sweetie back if he can resolve his “identity crisis.” Erikson’s theory of development basically says that there are certain “stages” and developmental tasks that people must go through in their life to have a healthy identity. They must accept and work through these conflicts in order to develop virtues, such as fidelity and competence.
The stage Erikson describes for adolescence is called “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” This means that adolescents are trying on different roles and seeing how they fit. This student had tried out the “Sweetie McStudent” role and now was going to try on “Class Clown” role for a bit and see what that gets him in life. Sweetie McStudent gets the respect of your teacher and probably parents, while Class Clown gets you the respect of your peers. It’s a trade-off, and perhaps he was confused about what type of adolescent he wanted to be. This role confusion and trying on of identities in adolescence is normal, according to Erikson.
Fortunately for you, I have the (partial) epilogue to this story because I was friends with the school psychologist at the student’s high school the next year. He made the freshman baseball team in 9th grade, which was a turnaround for him, because he needed good grades to be on the team. So he began integrating his identity by being both a Sweetie McStudent and a Sporty McSportsalot. Maybe one day he'll even integrate his Class Clown skills into his identity and he'll end up being a comedian too. The kid was funny.