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student success

We Can Make Middle School Less Awkward, Here's How

Many of us remember the uncertainties of being 12 or 13 years old; an evolving sense of self, increased prominence of peers and social dynamics and a dizzying pace of physical, cognitive and emotional changes. Middle school staff from across the country recognize that these years are pivotal, striving to provide our young people with the inquiry-based, relevant learning experiences, meaningful relationships and supportive environments that they need to become thriving adults. Yet, many schools embark on this mission without a critical, untapped resource. A robust body of developmental research that provides insight into how our nation’s middle school teachers can address, and fully leverage, the dizzying changes that our young people experience. With that resource in hand, middle schools across America can transform into student-centered, developmentally-aligned learning spaces, specifically designed to help youth address those challenges and realize the opportunities of this period in their development. To realize this vision, we must first unpack that robust research, understanding the underlying changes in the brain and the body that young people experience in early adolescence. In doing so, we can create learning spaces that reinforce the unique skills they are developing on any given day—and provide the resources that young people need to flourish. We know, for example, that young adolescent brains are developing at a rate second only to infancy, rapidly discarding unused neural connections, building new ones and prompting faster communication between them. In the process, young people increase their capacity to plan and think flexibly, growing their intellectual capabilities. As areas of the brain sensitive to rewards, social cues and emotions undergo transformation, we recognize that youth are especially attuned to validation, belonging and connectedness. The question of “who am I” becomes paramount as young people begin to shape a complex identity influenced by perceptions from their parents, experiences with peers and images from popular media. And we are well aware that neurological changes can make young adolescents more prone to risk taking. Yet it is the context of risk taking, more so than the tendency towards it, that leads to the type of risky behaviors that we often associate with early adolescence. While we continue to learn of the massive biological, neurological and social changes that our young people undergo in this developmental stage, there are steps that middle schools can take now to remake the learning experience. Those efforts begin, but do not end, with our principals and district leaders, who can promote a supportive school-wide culture that recognizes and reinforces young adolescents’ needs. In this reimagined culture, all staff in the school building can guide students as they grapple with that paramount “who am I” question—and ensure they feel confident in their emerging sense of self. In this new version of middle school, adults can not only understand but confidently engage with young adolescents, accessing specialized professional development that reflects what we know about the science of early adolescence and highlights best practices on how to educate young people. Educators in the new middle school can create ongoing, scaffolded lessons that challenge youth to enhance their cognitive capacities. These can range from maker-centered learning, where students are expected to iterate, experiment and flex their critical thinking skills, to project-based learning opportunities that address real-world challenges and give youth an opportunity to take intellectual and academic, rather than behavioral, risks. Teachers can leverage the power of social-emotional learning (SEL), developing compassion-focused classrooms that provide young people with opportunities to empathize, navigate their emotions and address shared problems with their peers. And the adults leading our schools can empower young people to exercise a growing sense of autonomy, purpose and independence, sparking conversations about major issues of race, tolerance and inclusion—or connecting them with peers from across the world to address shared economic, environmental and social challenges. As we offer this vision to re-make middle school in America, we must also consider that learning takes place beyond the traditional boundaries of the school building. To make the most of learning at this age, we should recognize that youth engage with local, regional and national issues in their communities through various programs and settings. These range from after-school activities and faith-based institutions to service and political organizations, all of which illustrate that critical opportunities for learning can happen anywhere. These are just a few examples of how middle school can reinforce the exciting possibilities of early adolescence. As researchers, we must continue to disseminate new developmental research to current and future educators in ways they find meaningful, so they have the resources they need to support young people. At the same time, we invite those individuals to share how we can best leverage our young people's’ strengths at this change-filled time in their lives--and how, together we can remake middle school.
Christine Thielen is a middle school math teacher in Park Ridge, Illinois, and the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Association for Middle Level Education.

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