Getting Middle School Right, Because if We Don’t …

Middle School is more than a bridge from elementary school to high school. Early adolescence (the 11-14 year old) is a time of rapid physical and psychological changes; a time when children simultaneously want to be seen and hope no one will notice them.

Beyond the familiar sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll minefields teenagers have always faced, there are more dangerous threats such as sexting, vaping, bullying, cyber-bullying, gaming and tech addictions, school violence and widespread incivility within the current popular culture of our teens, tweens and children. Add the social isolation and academic struggles of the pandemic lock-downs and the challenges can be overwhelming!

This assault on childhood has far-reaching effects that are showing up as increased anxiety and sensory overloads, along with a diminished capacity for empathy, reasoned thinking, and self-management.

We must first recognize the developmental needs of the middle school child and what makes them vulnerable to these risks before we can equip them to confidently navigate through their teen years with strength of heart and character.

The Middle School student has a real need for:

Identity – Children will examine (sometimes harshly) their parents, teachers, and peers in an effort to construct their own picture of who they want to be as an adult. They are searching for characteristics and qualities that will become their own identity. Adjusting to a new physical self in a suddenly unfamiliar body, new emotional capacities and intellectual abilities, their emerging question of ‘who am I’ becomes even more complex in these times of blurred expectations and fluid social and gender landscapes.

Students need a safe, trusting environment where challenges and questioning is welcome without judgment. Strong boundaries to bump up against will keep them safe while students practice trying on new roles and behaviors, even the challenging ones.

Social Connection – Friends are more relevant than parents or teachers, in that, children at this age learn through socialization and peer relationships. Peers are the influencers and arbiters of cultural norms. But while peers may be the best source of contemporary information and trends, they usually lack the emotional and relationship skills, life experiences, and maturity needed to develop a child’s sense of self.

Only when students establish a foundation of dependence and compliance with trusting adults can they begin to develop independence and healthy peer relationships. A student who experiences school as a safe place with classmates and teachers as supportive will be able to fully develop their own integrity, ethical conduct, initiative, compassion, critical-thinking skills, and self-confidence to navigate their world.

Autonomy & Privacy – Children must break away from their parents in order to practice decision making, yet this generation has grown up always being watched. This is the time when children push back, which is exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Rebellion is one of the most effective routes to autonomy. Therefore, adolescents not practiced in taking safe risks will be vulnerable to more extreme risk-taking behaviors or to becoming overwhelmed and immobilized.

Students who feel respected and held in high regard will rise up to meet the multitude of expectations placed upon them. A balance between students having individual choice along with realistic expectations and a clear path to success is necessary to learn to accept themselves and their world. Adults will need to gauge when to step in and when to step back.

If children do not get these essential developmental needs fostered in a positive and safe manner, they will find other ways to take more uncalculated risks, employing more aggressive or more secretive behaviors in an effort to get these needs met.

Caulbridge School sets the stage for student success beginning in Kindergarten through artistic lessons, time in nature, healthy rhythms and habits, structured academics, meaningful assessments and hands-on learning.

All children develop unevenly, and no time in their lives is this more evident than in the middle school years. Caulbridge School is unwavering when it comes to the critical areas for a child’s development. We directly support the challenges of adolescence with warmth, tolerance, guidance and coaching.

Learn more about the curriculum and our approach to Middle School here