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Teaching Strategies for Middle School Development

James Paterson

No one is really all that crazy about the middle school years. They befuddle or trouble parents and educators – even brain scientists to a degree -- and especially the kids going through it. Increasingly, however, researchers say it is probably the most important stage of our development, and it is critical educationally. While we think about this period as a crucial time for social and emotional growth, students also begin to develop academic and career interests and generally form study and work habits and even their attitudes about school. Molly Mee, who heads the Secondary and Middle School Education Department at Towson University, says educators should use teaching strategies to try empathize and gain a good understanding about what young adolescents are going through. Others note that our teaching strategies have to be adapted to the middle school brain – and that behavior management is different for this age, but must be consistent. “The social and emotional stages of development for the middle school child are extremely delicate,” she said in an interview. “The young adolescent is physically developing at a rapid rate so they can look like adults but socially and emotionally are still very immature. Combine that with peer pressure and social media and it is a difficult time, and our middle school children are at risk.”

Teaching Strategies to Accommodate how Middle Schoolers Develop

Writing in the magazine for the Association for Middle Level Education, Mee also describes how a middle school boy’s day might unfold, and notes that all middle school students are developing in four ways that educators should understand and accommodate.

Socially. It may require more work and creativity, but teachers could have students collaborate socially in positive ways. They should be conscious of students who struggle, assist them, and talk to counselors or parents about concerns, especially if they are significant. The school also might think of ways to alter the school day to allow for structured social activities, or create cooperative projects that engage students socially and benefit the school and community, she says.

Intellectually. Adolescents often have the intellectual ability to understand even very abstract concepts, and teachers shouldn’t underestimate them or pay too much attention simply to social needs at this age. “Merely focusing on social activity that is fun is not enough,” she writes. Finding the link between the concept and their life or social needs, however, can make the work engaging.

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Emotionally. “Young adolescents are usually in the middle of puberty, and can be prone to emotional outbursts and mood swings. The middle school child may be seen laughing one minute and crying the next.” It requires patience on the part of teachers.

Physically. Obviously, middle school students are changing physically. There are complex changes taking place as both sexes move into puberty, and even different speeds between boys and girls and even within one gender, which can create stress and social problems. Beyond that, young adolescents can be uncomfortable as growth spurts occur or may still need daily unstructured physical activity, although schools sometimes believe structured physical education classes are enough.

“A growing understanding of young adolescents’ social, emotional, and physical needs and assets suggests that if these are not addressed, children may not reach their full capacity to learn in school,” Mee says.

Jay Geidd, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and a leading expert in the teen brain, worries that there is a lot of attention on the early years and the important developments of the brain in preschool, but that educators need to direct extra attention to middle school years too.

He notes that the middle school student’s brain is growing bigger, faster and more complex daily, but it can't quite control itself.

"These remarkable brain changes remain quite active into the mid-to-late 20s," he says. "There is nothing particularly striking in terms of brain maturation that stops at 16, 18, or 21 – ages that have been used as milestones of adulthood."

Geidd says there are three important processes taking place within the brain that educators may want to become aware of -- to give them some perspective on why middle school students behave and learn in certain ways.

First, there is a significant increase in the ongoing changes that, from birth, coat some brain cells in a white substance called myelin, causing them to connect, communicate and make key patterns as much as 3000 times faster, he says.

Second, he says, adolescents also develop "Plasticity," a growing ability to change thinking patterns by pruning cells and causing some to "Specialize" in response to experience.

"It's a one-two punch – over production and selective elimination,” he says. “The increasing communication among different parts of the brain and increasing specialization are connected in an intriguing way that accounts for many of the good and bad features of the adolescent brain." Students are inquisitive and intellectually energetic, but erratic and can’t easily control themselves.

In addition, finally, the part of the brain that slows us down when we are tempted to take risks, eat impulsively, and ignore a homework schedule or behave erratically in class develops slower than other parts. That is the biggest reason for the behavior issues teachers see.

Adrian Galvan, a psychology professor at UCLA and director of its Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory who has written and spoken on the topic, says that parents and schools should be consistent, but mix standards and rules with opportunities for young adolescents to stretch their brains. She says the age may cause them to make poor choices but also might allow them to explore in ways they won’t later.

"This is promising, not perilous, so the first step in helping adolescents understand and use their developing brain more comfortably, creatively, and productively is to stop creating a narrative that pathologizes adolescents, she said in an interview. “Once we feel more comfortable and celebratory about the emerging sense of identity, agency and self-reliance, so will adolescents."

Geidd says even their obsession with technology may not be all bad. He suggests that rather than fight the connection with phones and other technology, we might embrace it and both guide young adolescents to new tech that influences them in good ways or, obviously, helps them learn. Technology might even allow us to monitor them and spot serious social or emotional issues, two-thirds of which he says present themselves and can be most readily identified and treated at this time, but unfortunately aren't generally addressed for a decade.

Middle School Matters (MSM) was founded to address the need for attention to the middle school years, especially the research on that age group that MSM says is often not utilized enough.

As many experienced middle school educators will note, it points out that consistency is critical. It notes that teachers should collaborate to approach students similarly with regard to academic performance and behavior.

“A student’s experience in the middle grades is a selection of classes they go through in a day. If they experience inconsistent expectations across those classes, the student and the school will struggle to achieve high outcomes. Middle grade students need to have common behavioral and academic expectations, recognitions, and consequences throughout the school day in all their classes.

It notes that schools impart academic knowledge but also must guide them “To become productive, well-functioning citizens” as well. “There are behaviors that are positive and contribute to a student’s success in school and behaviors that are maladaptive and prohibit them from maximizing their opportunities to learn.”

Behavior should be addressed with a “Whole-school prevention programs, targeted supports of moderate intensity or duration delivered to groups of students, and cases managed one-on-one or small group supports.” Early warning indicator data such as attendance, behavior, and course performance concerns should be shared with teacher teams and other adults who provide support such as counselors, community-based organizations, and parents. The effectiveness of supports should also be evaluated.

MSM notes that, “The middle grades are the make-it-or-break-it years, when some students begin to disengage from school, increasing the likelihood of dropping out in high school.”

MSM notes that research shows students who are at risk of dropping out can be identified in middle school, particularly those who have one of what the program calls “Off-track indicators.”

 If one of these are evident, students have a less than 25 percent chance of graduating on time:

  • A failing grade in mathematics or English/language arts.
  • An attendance rate of less than 85 percent.
  • One unsatisfactory behavior mark in a core course.

MSM offers a variety of resources its Web site, including a recently updated field guide with a collection of research-based principles, practices, and strategies that 10 top researchers found were essential for middle school success. It has examples and illustrations for each recommended practice for teachers and roolkits with extra support.

It covers teach strategies and interventions for reading, writing, and math, and explores research in cognitive science and advanced reasoning, enhanced learning, dropout prevention, and issues with behavior and school climate.

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