Stuck in the Middle: Navigating the Middle School Experience
“Little people have all the feelings that adults have—[just] with way less world experience,” according to Mayra Cruz, principal of a public middle school in Washington, D.C.
Cruz’s words are a succinct answer to a question posed in a recent article from The Atlantic: Why is middle school so hard for so many people?. Ask just about anyone to reflect on their middle-school years and you’ll likely be met with a resounding groan, a few shared memories laced with regret and self-deprecation (“I can’t believe I dressed like that”, “I was so awkward at that stage!”), and general disdain for the middle-school environment and its unwritten social rules.
Change doesn’t come easy
The preteen years are filled with emotional, physical, and social changes that can lead to struggles in the classroom and beyond. And for students in the digital-native generation who are currently living out their middle-school years, there is the added layer of social media; by providing even more of a window into the lives of others, social media yields a new-age kind of pressure to live up to a standard set by the “cool kids.” Yet even the almost universal use of social media among the tweens of today doesn’t change the fact that the adolescent years can be some of the most isolating.
All at once, students' physical appearances begin to change, a new level of self-consciousness settles in, and friendships that were once easy and carefree become more delicate and may begin to fade away. To compound the already sensitive transition from childhood to adolescence, bullying is more likely to be an issue during this time. As bullying prevention expert Sherry Gordon explained, bullying is “a form of social power. Kids in middle school bully others to protect their image and improve their social status. As a result, they often take advantage of peers that are more socially vulnerable in order to feel accepted.”
In the midst of so many physical and social changes, it is unsurprising that tweens' performance in the classroom may slip—but this doesn't mean they aren’t feeling academic pressure. Gone are the days when higher-ed discussions were reserved for high school; now, younger students routinely hear about the competitiveness associated with getting into college, as well as all the work that needs to be done in the years beforehand. While grappling with the changes affecting their bodies and their relationships, today's middle-schoolers are also being nudged toward thinking about standardized test scores and extracurriculars that will help them stand out in a pool of qualified college applicants several years down the road.
Compounding this, the start of sixth grade often means a change of school, which can be a source of struggle in and of itself. According to the longstanding “top dog/bottom dog” theory, the grade span of a school can play a significant role in students’ experiences, with the graduation to middle school creating the biggest hurdles. According to Sarah D. Sparks of EdWeek, “When students move from fifth grade to sixth, they report higher rates of bullying, drops in math and reading achievement, more absenteeism, and less of a sense of connection to school.” However, when students have the ability to move through grades in a familiar environment, they’re naturally more likely to feel safe, develop confidence, and feel more connected to school—perhaps even to the extent of taking on student leadership roles or participating in more extracurricular activities.
Simply put, chopping up grade spans into smaller portions (such as grades six to eight) can disrupt the progress of students at this sensitive age, as those who were "top dogs" in fifth grade become "bottom dogs" at a new school come September. “There's evidence that separating students into a shorter sixth to eighth-grade span in middle school intensifies bullying of lower-grade students,” Sparks noted.
A helping hand
Keeping Principal Cruz’s words in mind, parents and educators alike should make an effort to treat middle-schoolers with empathy and remember that these "little people" are in the midst of figuring out how to navigate a barrage of new emotions and experiences. While it is normal for tweens to think they are “too cool” for parents or teachers and instead source approval from their friends, they still need support, security, and guidance from the adult figures in their lives.
The American Psychological Association suggests a few different approaches for parents and educators looking for ways to help lighten the load of middle-school malaise:
“Encourage children to try new things and learn new skills that may be outside of their comfort zone.”
With so many middle-school milestones involving emotional and social changes, middle-schoolers are much more attuned to the actions of themselves and their peers. Though it can be difficult for adults to broach certain topics without being brushed off, it is still important to encourage tweens to try new things—even things that may not be popular with their classmates.
“Teach children that learning takes effort, time, and practice.”
The proverb “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again” may seem difficult to impart to tweens who are hyper-sensitive about their faults and shortcomings. However, it is still important to reiterate that it's OK to make mistakes and that learning new concepts doesn't come easily to everyone. Ultimately, while one middle-schooler may move at a different pace to another, neither speed is "wrong" or "inferior."
“Help them problem-solve, but let them figure out possible solutions, with your guidance.”
Although tweens' increased desire for independence is typically evident both in and out of school, their need for guidance can be equally as obvious. Confronted with this paradox, parents and teachers must strive to strike a balance with regard to problem-solving by providing insight in a way that leaves room for tweens to come to their own conclusion, on their own terms, and in their own time.
While there is no easy fix for middle-school travails, the adults in tweens' lives can still make this trying time a little easier. In some instances, that might mean resisting the urge to intervene; in others, a little guidance can go a long way. And who knows? You might even learn something yourself in the process.
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