The Middle School Years

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Oct 16, 2017; Baltimore, MD, USA; Admissions photography of Calvert School of Maryland. Kindergarden through 8th grade students participating in classroom activities including science, robotics, interacting with teachers and athletics.

It is hard to walk into the children’s section of a bookstore without seeing a collection of books on the comically tragic life of a middle school student.

In fact, being in the middle of anything seems to carry a long list of negative stereotypes. The Middle Ages were defined by darkness and disease, the middle child has a stigma to battle, and mid-life was given its own crisis. Evidenced by the numerous books and movies on the topic, however, none of these “middles” is more cringe-inducing than middle school.

So why does middle school have such a bad reputation?  To begin with, being in the middle of anything can be complicated and messy. The middle lacks the excitement of the beginning, and the sentimentality and closure of the ending. It is our present, with neither the clarity of the past nor the limitless promise of the future. The middle is where we lean on the memory of what was, to support the dream of what might be. It is something to be passed through – no one wants to be “stuck in the middle.”  The middle school years have all of these attributes with the added complication of human development in overdrive.
In our lives, we will all experience three basic types of development: emotional, cognitive, and physical. Throughout our lifetimes, we are consciously dealing with one or two of these at a time. During the middle school years, all three hit us at once, and they tend to hit us hard. Beginning around ten-years-old, our bodies are flooded with certain hormones that affect not only our physical appearance, but also the functionality of our brain. The middle school brain is operating with a fairly well-developed limbic system (a part of the brain that is particularly influential in, among other things, controlling our emotional health), and a fairly underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and our capacity for reflection). As author Thomas Armstrong put it in his book, The Best Schools, “young teens’ brains have their accelerators pressed all the way to the floor, while their brakes have yet to be installed.”
Nowhere do we see this imbalance more than in the emotional growth of a child during the middle school years. These are the moments where boys and girls will decide, in part, what type of person they wish to be. This will cause them to try on many different personas, most of which they acquire from their peers. This is why an eleven-or twelve-year-old may vacillate between curling up on the couch next to his parents one moment, and wanting little to do with these same people the next. Identity is not an easy thing to develop, and a good deal of that development, on a foundational level, is happening during middle school.
The cognitive changes that take place during these years are vast. Our sons and daughters are transitioning from a very concrete way of seeing the world to a more abstract way of thinking. At the same time, right around the fifth and sixth grades, their brains are perfectly positioned to cement in place many of the all-important non-cognitive skills: organization, time management, self-advocacy, etc. These are the skills that, if taught well, will allow our students to focus on content in upper school and beyond.
Of the three areas of growth, the physical development is probably the easiest one for us to identify because we can see it. In the words of Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, “you have kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet, mixed in with these gorillas who have to shave twice a day.”  Yet, apart from the social stress that comes with such differences, there are also real physical changes that impact a young boy or girl’s self-image. The growth associated with these years can lead to a physical awkwardness. A sport that once came easily may all of a sudden seem challenging, given the physical changes taking place. This alone can impact young adolescents at a time when they are attempting to define themselves within a context that is shifting, seemingly on a daily basis. Click to read entire article.

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