The Case for Diversity in Middle School

Posted by Claybourne Elliott - 10 October, 2017

2X0A3753.jpgThe most fundamental challenge that middle school students face is that of defining and understanding their own identities. These are critical years for figuring out who they are, what they value, and what kind of person they want to be.

This process is at once exciting and difficult, reflecting the students' growing awareness of themselves and others. In addition, successfully navigating these years requires children to test new approaches and to challenge assumptions in their lives.

An exciting and difficult time

2X0A3816.jpgEarly in my career one of my students asked me, “Why do my friends seem like different people every day?” This simple question was a great expression of the adolescent process of testing identities and approaches to the world.

Some children go through this process more actively than others, but all children will try out different behaviors and approaches to the world around them to see what works for them.

That testing, and the inevitable failures and bumps that come along the way, shape an adolescent and gives him or her the critical social and emotional skills needed as his or her world expands into adulthood. At the same time, growing social awareness makes middle school children even more sensitive to their peers’ perceptions and their standing in the community.

Every child has ways in which he or she is unique and different from his or her peers. As a result, it is impossible for a child to survive the middle years without some feelings of social isolation, difference, and even loneliness.

It is these feelings that make these years hard on our kids. Poor choices during the adolescent years are often an effort to deal with feelings of social isolation or attempts to earn respect from peers. We, as a community, need to see these challenges and feelings of difference as an essential part of growing up and as an opportunity for learning.

The most powerful experience that we can give our children in order to help them learn and grow from these challenges is to share with them a positive attitude toward the wonderful diversity that exists in humanity.

The benefits of diversity

2X0A8003.jpgA diverse community naturally inspires critical thinking by exposing its members to a variety of world views. One of the reasons that critical thinking is such an important skill is that it allows us to critique our own story.

Through testing, children come to question and ultimately to understand the values of their family and community. Exposure to diversity provides more tools for this process, and it opens possible viewpoints and new ways to think.

2X0A8031.jpgColleges and workplaces recognize this. One reason that they want diverse populations is so that people can learn more from each other. As this article in the Harvard Business Review states, diverse groups are more careful about processing information and look beyond assumptions and biases.

The modern workplace and a competitive and connected world require flexibility and a respect for diversity to be successful. It is incumbent upon us to teach our students to open themselves to diversity by giving them exposure to it and encouraging them to explore their own identity.

For our students to be successful in this world, we also must teach them how to navigate diversity by instilling respect for boundaries around respectful speech and what constitutes acceptable treatment of others.

Creating a cycle of inclusion

BHP_Randolph_Spring10_310.jpgWe can teach our students that there are productive steps they can take when facing their own feelings of difference or social challenge. A typical adolescent reaction in these situations is to find someone who seems like them and then attempt to build a connection by pointing out how others are different. Unfortunately, this is harmful to others and to the broader community – it also creates a cycle of exclusion.

An article published by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which I have shared with our faculty, "What White Children Need to Know about Race," makes the point that too often white students receive the messages that it is impolite to notice or discuss racial difference. The author makes the point that race is an essential component of idenitity. "Being white may have little meaning to some whites, but that does not mean it has no meaning." She also says, "Talking about race is not racist. It’s OK — and important."

Instead, we should encourage our kids to build a broader social web and to connect across whatever differences they may have with others. When children learn to reach out when they are struggling, they come to realize that it is our human feelings, including those of isolation and difference, that can unite us across other differences.

The importance of mentors

Kickball - 4619894.jpgAdolescents benefit when they can learn and connect with adults who represent a diverse range of backgrounds, passions, and identities. This is why middle school naturally moves away from the homeroom model, where they have but one primary teacher relationship. What if that student and teacher don't click? Instead, working with a wider array of teachers gives a student more opportunities to connect and to be inspired by one of the caring adults in their lives.

These connections can shape their interests and passions and help them to understand their values.

As adults, so many of us tell stories of that wonderful teacher who first connected with us or inspired us. When we allow children to connect with a diverse community, we increase the odds that each of our students will find such a mentor.

Reaching out can feel risky

2X0A3860.jpgWe need to help students break the connection between comfort and sameness and understand that the best response to feeling excluded is to reach out and include someone else. This requires courage and it builds confidence. Here is where a strong community can help – when this is the norm, students are comfortable taking these risks and build many positive social connections. This is one of the benefits of what is termed a thick institution.

It is important to recognize that for some students feelings of difference and outsider status are more profound. Children whose racial, socioeconomic, sexual identity, or family backgrounds are outside the majority may struggle to feel a part of a community. This makes our mission of teaching an attitude of inclusion even more critical.

When we create a community that recognizes feelings of difference as a common experience, we can help students build bridges across whatever divides them. Children learn to feel empathy across their community and by extrapolation across the human condition. They become more welcoming of difference and benefit themselves when others look past their own differences.

Photos of Middle School house competitions, Field Day, Design Engineering, and the annual faculty vs. 8th Grade kickball game by David Brown, Beth Corley, and Billy Howard.

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Topics: diversity, friends, mentors, middle school, teachers

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