The middle school years often get a bad rap. The common tropes about these critical years in a child’s life center around social awkwardness, disinterest in school, and those first feelings of difference that can lead to unkindness or even bullying.
As a middle school educator, it’s not unusual to hear from parents – “Y’all are angels for putting up with them.” Similarly from students, a typical refrain might be, “Well, it’s just middle school – it doesn’t count anyway.” But middle school doesn’t have to be viewed that way!
The reality is quite different. Our understanding of childhood development highlights just how critical these years are for kids in their development towards becoming healthy, happy adults. Our society (and far too many schools) view middle schools as a holding pen – a place whose main purpose seems to be just trying to keep kids out of trouble in those first challenging years of adolescence. However, a school culture that embraces these years can create an environment that supports and challenges students – while also being safe and a lot of fun.
As this is Huntsville, we’ll compare a child’s education to the launching of a rocket. The K-6 years are all about building the right structure and a solid launch pad. 7th and 8th grade are critical because they are the last chance to change the trajectory of the flight. During these years, students need to cement critical school skills and find new interests and passions that drive them to maximize their potential. This will allow them to set a trajectory for themselves as they “take off” into high school and college. Once 9th grade arrives, the rocket is already in flight. Sure, you can change the course of the rocket after take-off, but course corrections have a much smaller impact than does a carefully plotted original path.
5th & 6th Grade: Drama and Distraction
5th and 6th grade are often included with the last years of elementary school. However, from a child development standpoint, this is not ideal. The changes that students begin to undergo during these years are dramatic and highly distracting. Certainly 5th and 6th grade can be wonderful years. For some children, these are the last golden years of childhood. Kids come to school with the natural curiosity and joy of the young, but have developed some of the sophistication to drive their own learning and develop skills particular to their needs.
However, adulthood is coming and so are a whole host of new interests and distractions. Students who don’t spend these years laying down fundamental school skills, such as note-taking, organization, and time management, will find it much more difficult to do so when the stress is on in 7th and 8th grade. That is why it’s important, regardless of whether 5th and 6th are part of middle school, that these years be rigorous and focused on helping children develop strong skills.
In addition, proper social and emotional development is critical during this time. A school which meets a child’s interests and helps them overcome challenges will instill confidence that is critical for the years to come. In addition, children will develop and build upon their love of learning rather than see it diminish.
Finally, a strong 5th and 6th grade program should begin to address important social and emotional challenges – such as combating bullying, developing healthy friendships, and building trust in adults – that will allow children to face more complex social challenges and avoid common pitfalls in middle school, high school, and beyond.
7th & 8th Grade: Critical Preparation
The 7th and 8th grade years are unlike any other time in a child’s education, and they are critically important. It is impossible to get through middle school without frustration and upheaval. But that doesn’t mean that these have to be bad years. We must help our kids turn that equation upside down.
I often tell my students – “It’s middle school, you’re going to make mistakes during these years. It’s not whether you make them, but how you respond to them that matters.”
Kids who own their mistakes and learn from them develop more quickly and more confidently into capable adults. Those who make excuses will find that they keep making them over and over, often with increasing negative consequences.
A healthy middle school community should combine strong, clear boundaries with education around mistakes. When a child errs, they should be coached on how to make it right and how to avoid the same issue in the future, in addition to any consequences. This helps a child know that their community believes in them, while also giving them the skills to grow and learn from their experience.
“Well, it doesn’t count yet anyway.” This has long been the refrain of many a non-motivated middle school student. My experience has taught me that those students who thought middle school “didn’t count” run into the same problems in high school and beyond.
A strong 7th and 8th grade program should be seen as a great opportunity to develop critical skills and a last chance to help a child who may not be maximizing their potential before they move into high school. It helps kids to compare these years to athletic practices or artistic rehearsals. Ask your child, “How well will your team play if it doesn’t practice?” Or, “What will happen on the big performance day if you don’t take the dress rehearsal seriously?”
In that regard, the 7th and 8th grade years should directly prepare students for their high school years. For example, at Randolph, we introduce formal laboratory science in the middle school. When our students reach high school, they are ready to conduct their own experiments, write lab reports, and draw their own conclusions. If middle school is the “dress rehearsal,” it should look like the real show. Your child can learn how they face these challenges, and you can help them make any necessary adjustments at this critical moment.
Why challenge matters
None of the great preparation opportunity of middle school matters if a child is not appropriately challenged. How can you and your child understand their strengths, weaknesses, and learning needs if their skills are never put under any strain?
Middle school should not be a time to pass a child along – it should ask your child to take ownership of their learning. A strong program also challenges them to set their sights beyond what they currently think they are capable of. The most confident students are built from many moments when “I can’t” turns into “I did.”
In addition, it’s important for students to practice those fundamental school skills that they learned in elementary school and refined in 5th and 6th grade. Time only becomes a more precious resource as your child ages, and being able to maintain a schedule and remain organized are critical. If your child does not need these skills to be successful in middle school, then they aren’t being challenged. Learning how to get started on work, lead a project, and communicate well with peers are skills that must be developed in preparation for high school.
Most importantly, your child must be challenged so that they learn what to do and what options are open to them when they are feeling completely stymied. Critically, they must be able to advocate for themselves and seek out help from others – particularly their teachers. A strong middle school community encourages students to build relationships with adults that will provide them with advice and support when the going gets tough.
Sure Footing on the Journey to Adulthood
At the root of all of the above lies the issue of social and emotional development. If you visit (as I do so often!) a 5th grade recess and an 8th grade break time, you can see the dramatic changes that take place in a child’s social dynamics during these years. In the first, children will be playing much as they have in recess since Kindergarten, with imaginary play and free-flowing social associations. Three short years later in 8th grade, conversation and strong social groupings will have come to dominate (much as they will for the rest of their lives). This change doesn’t always happen easily.
For students to obtain all of the preparation needed for high school, they must first feel a level of social and emotional safety. A strong middle school helps children with this by teaching them directly about their social development and giving them strategies to employ when things get challenging. It also places them in an environment that values learning and understands their needs.
Finally, the journey to adulthood requires that a child learn to build connections with adults other than their parents. A child should be surrounded with a variety of caring adults who they can turn to for advice and support. In addition, the diverse interests and lives of those adults will help children develop their own interests and approach to the world. None of that is possible if a child does not feel safe and confident in their community and its care for them.