When adults look back at their own time spent in the educational system, they often recognize the important changes that took place for them academically during their middle school years – and researchers back up that assessment.

But that doesn’t always transfer into real efforts to carefully make the unpredictable middle school years a priority. “Unfortunately, middle schoolers are often the forgotten middle child – lumped in with younger children or older teens,” says Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and writer who has a book out about middle school students, Middle School Matters. “Instead of treating middle schools like mini high schools, we need to be thoughtful about our approach and ensure we’re recognizing their unique developmental needs. Kids become disengaged at this age.”

Middle School is Important Academically

Fagell says that while we all know there are huge, important changes taking place in young people emotionally and socially during this period, there are many ways that academically it also is a critical time.

Gina Harris, the culture and climate coach at Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, and a member of the National Education Association board of directors, agrees with Fagell’s assessment. “Although early childhood education gets a lot of attention due to brain development, the stages and importance of middle school identity development can be critical in determining high school and college success,” Harris says. “I have seen students come into 6th grade with full confidence in themselves only to lose it through peer pressure over the course of the year. Others come in defeated and find their voice.”

A Transition Time

Fagell notes that there are important transitions that take place at this time. Students move from the protective environment where they have very few different teachers, a close group of peers in their classes and an easy-to-manage routine. They are thrust into a system that is much more complex. “The transition itself is disruptive – they’re untethered from adults and peers who know them well. They go from one teacher to many and may feel uneasy about sharing thoughts and ideas in front of new classmates they don’t know,” she says.

Linda Taylor, an education professor at the University of California Los Angeles and co-director of the School Mental Health Project in the university’s psychology department, says that if transitions don’t go well for a student for some reason, learning can suffer. She says mounting research shows that a positive transition into middle school is critical for success, and that achievement typically drops off – often dramatically – in the first year there.

Fagell also says that some students are vulnerable academically during this period because they want badly to conform, which can mean creativity, inquisitiveness and independent thinking can decline. She points to research that shows a steep decline in creativity from students 5 to 10 years of age, suggesting that inspired, individualistic thinking is muted by schools, culture and personal efforts to fit in. Boys also get societal messages about not being too smart or interested in school, and girls may feel that but also are prone to seek perfection, making them much less likely to expose themselves or take chances, Fagell says. “As educators, we need to preserve their natural inquisitiveness and willingness to take risks at an age when they’re feeling particularly scrutinized and judged and may be especially hesitant to go out on a limb,” she says.

Harris says one way teachers can help is by “Looking for the gifts of each student and working with them to amplify their recognition and development of those gifts.” “Not only are their beliefs about their abilities beginning to solidify as they expand in finding their identity, but those ideas they adopt in middle school can be transformational in either direction,” she says.

While it is important to pay attention to academics among middle schoolers with an eye on factors like the effects of the transition and peers, Molly Mee, director of the Secondary and Middle School Education Department at Towson University in Maryland, also says educators should gain a good understanding of the middle school brain.

“It will help educators to understand that the brain in early adolescence is unique,” she says. “It has strengths, and students this age are often capable of more than we expect, and they should be challenged. But we have to understand that it also is very temperamental and unpredictable.” Writing in the magazine for the Association for Middle Level Education, she describes how middle students are developing in four ways that educators should understand and accommodate: socially, intellectually, emotionally and physically.

She notes that an adolescent’s intellectual development can mean they understand very abstract concepts and can learn quickly, and she warns that teachers shouldn’t underestimate them or pay too much attention to the quirks of their age that show up in unproductive, uncharacteristic or impulsive behavior. But, she says, it requires patience and a willingness to overlook some irrational behavior and unexpected changes with an eye to the long-term development of the student. “Their teachers have to have a thick skin and be able to see the long-term goal of developing a good student and a good person, no matter what they face in the classroom.”

She and other experts suggest these tips:

  • Middle school students will be engaged if the work is stimulating and meaningful, though it may take patience. It should relate to real life and their perception of their futures.
  • Teachers should give positive feedback freely, since middle school students need and seek positive reinforcement. But it should be honest and based in facts.
  • They should be encouraged to be creative and generate writing, sometimes with tight restrictions on the content and sometimes very little.
  • Curricula, tasks, and tests should be designed in different contexts, media, and practical applications.
  • Teachers should try various types of self-regulated learning. They may want to experiment with flipped learning.
  • Help them begin to see how their work at this age will affect their future education and life.