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Programs help middle schoolers navigate, thrive

Middle school expert to speak at bullying conference Wednesday

By Marissa Brooks
Correspondent

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This story was published in some of the Observer’s regional sections on Sunday.

A little more than 10 years ago, Michelle Icard lost her job and her maternity leave when she was seven months pregnant with her son, and her daughter was almost 2.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” said Icard, 40, of Cotswold.

She decided to leave the world of business and return to teaching, which she loved.

She started a private tutoring program for middle school children and began noticing a common theme. A lot of the middle school students had been doing fine in elementary school but now were having trouble.

“The assumptions were that the children didn’t know how to study, didn’t know how to get organized,” said Icard. She would try to help them learn those skills, but that didn’t always solve the problem.

In 2003, after a lunch discussion with several friends in which they shared stories of middle school angst, Icard had a realization.

“A huge part of academic stress was social stress,” she said.

Armed with degrees in English and education, in addition to professional experience with training programs, Icard began researching and writing curricula. When she learned a new piece of advice to help preteens and teens navigate their social world, she would create a pragmatic tool to go with it.

Icard was determined to help children build confidence and social and leadership skills.

In 2004, Icard launched Athena’s Path for girls, and shortly after created Hero’s Pursuit for boys. Both programs are designed to give middle school students the tools to deal with difficult situations.

“What separates my program from others is that it doesn’t just give advice, it gives kids a time and place to practice new skills,” said Icard. “Kids are impulsive and they aren’t good at thinking critically without practice. In my lesson ‘Dealing with Criticism,’ the kids don’t just listen to adults tell them ways to respond to criticism, they actually practice responding. That’s what makes the lessons stick.”

According to Icard, Athena’s Path and Hero’s Pursuit have reached more than 7,000 students in 30 schools in five different states, and more than 250 teachers have been trained to implement the programs.

Icard, a nationally recognized speaker, will share her expertise through a roundtable discussion and presentation Wednesday at Joined in Education’s Stand Up to Bullying Symposium at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Shalom Park, 5007 Providence Road.

At her roundtable discussion “Making Middle School Nicer: Creating a Culture of Positive Social Leadership,” Icard will address successes and failures related to developing school culture. This discussion probably will be best suited for those with specific questions, like whether, why and how to implement social education programs in their schools, Icard said.

Icard’s afternoon presentation, “Middle School Matters,” will cover content that will include: the importance of resilience and how to build it, the No. 1 fear of middle schoolers and how parents and teachers can help, the adolescent brain, findings from the Department of Justice Study on Bullying, and creative problem-solving.

“I hope to see lots of parents, teachers and administrators who want to learn more about the middle school social world, its effect on kids’ development and ways we can effectively solve real middle school problems,” said Icard.

“Middle school is the ideal time to impact a child’s sense of confidence, empathy and leadership,” she said. “Now is the time to teach kids critical thinking, creative problem-solving, resilience and impulse control.”

Marissa Brooks is a freelance writer.
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