Understanding the Middle School Brain

Sarah Crowley, Director of Academic Affairs
It is not uncommon to view adolescence — particularly the middle school years — as a dark and stormy time that parents, teachers, and even adolescents themselves must simply endure. Even within the world of education, those who teach lower and high school students often express bewilderment at their middle school colleagues. As someone who has worked with middle school students for over twenty years, I think it is important to provide a narrative about adolescence that offers an equally valid, but definitively more optimistic view of the majestic and incredible design of what I will refer to as the middle school brain. Moreover, it is important that we understand how the structure of a well-designed middle school program supports and nurtures its students, and their families, through these dynamic years of development.
PSYCHOLOGY AND THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN
 
Adolescence is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of psychology. It wasn’t until 1904 that G. Stanley Hall published Adolescence, which is widely recognized as the beginning of the field of adolescence as an area of scholarly and scientific research. Hall called attention to this phase of human development which, I would argue, was in part necessitated by the Second Industrial Revolution when jobs that were once held by children were suddenly being performed by machines. Prior to this — in rural and urban settings — adolescents adopted the lifestyle of an adult, engaging in the available and necessary work and industry of their milieu. This is not to say that adolescence did not exist prior to the Civil War; what is more accurate is that in certain areas of the world, the combination of advances in the fields of both technology and psychology conspired to allow for a more thorough investigation of this period of human development.

Over one hundred years after Hall’s two-volume tome, some of what he described can be discounted, but much resonates strongly with current findings in scientific psychology. At the same time, there is a tremendous amount we now know about the brain, and specifically about the adolescent brain, that we couldn’t have known before the birth of neuroimaging and other advances in medicine and technology. And this is what leads to my insistent call for a refrain of hope and optimism as we think about the middle school students we teach, parent, and love.

I spoke earlier of the majestic and incredible design of the adolescent brain. This was not hyperbole, and the story begins well before adolescence. A baby’s brain has almost twice the number of synapses as the adult brain. After the age of two- or three-years old, the brain begins to “prune” those synapses that are not used. (“Used” simply means that they are stimulated by the environment and thus, put to use.) While this pruning process may sound problematic, it is essential in the ongoing development of a more mature and efficient brain. This process continues during the elementary school years — as children’s brains are refining their sensory and motor functions.

At around the age of eleven for girls and twelve for boys, there is again a proliferation of neural tissue, or what scientists refer to as gray matter. Similar to the pruning that takes place during childhood, adolescence is characterized by a second phase of pruning. Rather than refining the parts of the brain that are responsible for the sensory and motor functions, however, the pruning process during adolescence takes place in the frontal lobes, and more specifically, in the prefrontal cortex.

And this is where the invisible drama of adolescence unfolds within the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for planning, making decisions, setting priorities, forming strategies, and inhibiting impulses. Thanks to more recent neuroimaging techniques, we now know that there is also an enhancement during adolescence of brain functions related to the navigation of complex social relationships, as well as learning to read and respond to subtle nuances in social signaling (Wright 2016). The upshot of all of this is that adolescents undergo significant change in terms of behavior, cognition, and emotions.


MIDDLE SCHOOL AND THE ADOLESCENT

At Calvert, our Lower School teachers are experts in the cognitive, academic, social, and emotional development of elementary school-aged children. As such, we design our program so that our Lower School students can and do thrive across all these domains. Meanwhile, our Middle School teachers and coaches have an expertise that falls squarely in engaging and supporting the range and span of development that is evident in our Fifth through Eighth Grade students.

During their middle school years, boys and girls are transitioning from an appropriately linear development of elementary education to a new form of cognitive functioning. Lev Vygotsky, the seminal Russian psychologist who studied the intersection between social interaction and cognition, helps us understand how identity formation is an essential component of the adolescent experience. Our Middle School students — as all middle school students — are not just learning about history, science, and literature. According to the psychologist and Vygotsky scholar Dr. Jessica Kindred, adolescents face questions that at one time had easy answers, but because of new capabilities in their brains, these “simple” questions require closer and more thoughtful examination. This is the age when the brain is newly capable of concept formation, and adolescents struggle to make sense of the world and how they fit in it. Kindred explains that the questions become more insistent, the answers more nuanced: Who am I? How do I matter? Am I a dream of my own making?

Adolescence is the first experiment of self, and they have no practice in it. Nor should they. Our students are developing their own weltanschauung, informed by and also independent of that of their families, their friend groups, and their communities. This is why it is essential that middle school is designed to support the whole child.

As I mentioned, technology allows us an incredible opportunity to literally see what is taking place in the brain, and it supports the empirical evidence we have through the study of human development. As Socrates cautioned himself in The Fallacy of the Artisans (“I do not think I know what I do not know.”) so we must be careful to remember the limits of what we know. The questions about how best to support our Middle School students cannot all be answered with an understanding of neuroscience and its sophisticated and elaborate tools. Nor can those of us who work in middle schools — the professionals, or Socrates’ artisans — ignore the immense body of research available to us.

Calvert has designed its Middle School program based on knowledge gained through expertise and experience. The faculty have a rich and abiding understanding of what current research shows about adolescence and about the development of the brain. But the algorithm is rounded out with an equal amount of humility, in the form of genuine curiosity about, and recognition that, adolescent development is a complicated, unique, and altogether messy process that must be approached with expertise and delicacy.

There are numerous manifestations of adolescence. It is common for children to shift friend groups, which can lead to hurt feelings, confusion, and sadness. In their quest for independence, middle school students may put distance between themselves and the adults in their lives — sometimes through a combination of silence and self-imposed exile. (The phenomenon of the closed bedroom door may become familiar at this time.) Adolescents may lose interest in activities that were once held sacred; at the same time, they may also find new interests and develop new areas of skill and expertise.

Throughout all of this, adolescents experience a new level of moral and intellectual engagement. There is an idealism that proliferates at this time of life. They attach themselves to causes that they feel passionately about, and they take pride in their ability to develop and hold opinions about sophisticated ideas. They are beginning to take ownership of the world, and are intent on making that world better than it is. In part, this is due to the rapid synapsing of that adolescent brain. Yes, our adolescent children may not have the experience we adults have, but their brains are faster, and their enthusiasm is unbounded.

Calvert’s Middle School provides a robust and deep academic experience, as well as a rich and varied extracurricular offering. Both of these programs work in tandem and are at once proactive and responsive to the shifting landscape of adolescence. Our students’ and teachers’ schedules are designed intentionally to allow for numerous opportunities throughout our seven-day cycle for individual or small-group meetings. In this way, students build relationships with their teachers through the context of a discipline; at the same time, they build their academic proficiency within the context of caring and supportive relationships.

Starting in Sixth Grade, students are able to join interscholastic sports teams, including soccer, field hockey, football, basketball, and baseball. Beginning in Fifth Grade, all Middle School students are able to choose from a wide range of club activities from robotics to sewing to intramural sports. There are opportunities for students to take part in the arts, including drama productions, musicals, instrumental ensembles, choral groups, painting, and sculpting. We have student groups that are dedicated to community service and political activism. Within the contexts of such clubs as our Diversity Club or our Book Club, students engage in discussion and take excursions to local exhibits or film showings. And our Institute for Leadership and Purpose provides opportunities for students (and at times for families) to build awareness around local and global initiatives and to understand how leadership begins with participation and working as a member of a group, whether organizing donations, participating in a fundraiser, or engaging in community service.

As well as the options available, there are mandatory built-in touchpoints for all Middle School students. Each child is assigned an advisor and meets regularly throughout their week with that advisor and a small group of same-grade students. Calvert also has a house system — as the Mighty Bees, our houses are known as Hives. Each Hive comprises students from across the grades and two faculty members. Hives meet to engage in social activities that include community service as well as inter-hive competitions.

Without question, adolescence represents a shifting landscape and requires a great deal of agility in maintaining balance. Adolescents encounter disequilibrium across a range of dimensions, as they develop cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally. At Calvert, we anticipate those moments of disequilibrium. Our size allows faculty and coaches to help students develop their skills, while also keeping a careful eye for those moments they may need support. Our expertise informs our ability to step in when necessary, and at other times, to give room and allow our students to find their own footing. The range of activities and choices for engagement available to our students allow for the typical adolescent experience of group affiliation, friendship seeking, and developing new expertise to occur organically through self-selection, and also by careful design that includes the direction and oversight of caring and knowledgeable professionals.

Finally, at Calvert, we recognize that school is just one part of the adolescent’s life. The same teachers, coaches, counselors, and advisors who know and care for the students, understand that the care we provide is at its most excellent when we are actively engaged with families. It is this dynamic relationship among child, school, and family that provides the deep and rich web of support our Middle School students need as they navigate this dynamic, complicated, and extraordinarily exciting period of development.
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Calvert School is an independent lower and middle school with a curriculum that is designed to challenge capable boys and girls.

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