Middle School can be a challenging phase in a student’s life. Social structures become more pronounced. Old friendships and interests may fade and new relationships and curiosities begin to form. During this time, social and emotional inventory is taken as childhood gives way to the beginning of adolescence. The fragility of a student’s emotional, social and academic trajectory is a concern but the sheer untapped potential for success in these areas is an exciting opportunity.
If it seems to you that this developmental phase in a student’s academic career (not to mention their life in general) is fraught with an array of potential pitfalls and distractions, you would be correct. They are, for the first time, truly observing how the world perceives them and how that impacts their opinion of themselves. It can be a trying experience for the family as a whole but it is what sets the path for personal growth as they transition into early adulthood.
Because of the seriousness of this time, there has been a significant amount of research and discussion related to the topic of the Middle School years. Psychologists, educators, parents and even students continue to look for productive ways to turn grades 6-8 into a positive and transformational experience that builds self-discovery, intellectual curiosity and leadership skills and prepares students to make informed and confident choices as they move on to High School, College and career.
According to Dru Tomlin, a director at the Association for Middle Level Education (an organization that's been researching best practices for middle grade students for decades), one environment that has proven to be a support system for Middle School students is the K-8 school model. “There are a couple of different structures that a middle grades program can put into place to make the learning community smaller. One of those key structures is called interdisciplinary teaming. It has both an academic focus as well as a social and emotional learning focus,” Tomlin suggests. “Another structure that is imperative, I think, is something called advisory or advisement. In the Utopian sense of it, it [a middle school] really should have a dedicated time during the day when students are meeting with an adult advocate in the building.” (Here's How Schools Can Soften The Blow Of Sixth Grade
Creating an environment where students can explore their unique emotional, intellectual and social qualities as school wide leaders allows them to flourish at a developmental stage where they might otherwise experience great difficulty. In a recent study, researchers studied 90,000 students from 500 schools to assess the impact of grade structure on social-emotional and academic performance. “…one-third of sixth-graders in 6-12 schools reported that students threatened or bullied other students ‘most or all of the time.’ Only one in four students at K-8 schools said the same thing. And their grades and test scores were better, too.” (Sixth Grade Is Tough; It Helps To Be 'Top Dog'
At Highlands, we have worked diligently to create a learning community that feels small, personal and supportive for students and families — linking parents and students to resources that will help them thrive throughout all stages of academic life. The support that they find from faculty and their fellow students allows them to transition into young adulthood without the influences and observations of older students. Dr. Lara Embry, a psychologist and parent of a Highlands graduate cites the advantages of a Middle School experience without the influence of High School students. As a parent, she appreciated the benefits of a learning environment where 6th, 7th and 8th grade students are not faced with the constant comparison to High School adolescents.
All in all, a student’s Middle School years are going to be a challenging time. They will face new emotional and intellectual trials and will take on a new level of personal responsibility. As educators and parents, however, we have a distinct opportunity to support them during this transition with an academic environment that gives them the freedom and encouragement to explore, take risks and make personal discoveries that will help them become driven, healthy and productive members of the larger community.