The Middle School Years

It is hard to walk into the children’s section of a bookstore without seeing a collection of books on the comically tragic life of a middle school student. In fact, being in the middle of anything seems to carry a long list of negative stereotypes. The Middle Ages were defined by darkness and disease, the middle child has a stigma to battle, and mid-life was given its own crisis. Evidenced by the numerous books and movies on the topic, however, none of these “middles” is more cringe-inducing than middle school.

By: Head Master Andrew Holmgren

So why do the middle school years have a bad reputation? To begin with, being in the middle of anything can be complicated and messy. The middle lacks the excitement of the beginning and the sentimentality and closure of the ending. It is our present, with neither the clarity of the past nor the limitless promise of the future.

The middle is where we lean on the memory of what was, to support the dream of what might be. It is something to be passed through - no one wants to be “stuck in the middle.” The middle school years have all of these attributes with the added complication of human development in overdrive.

In our lives, we will experience three basic types of development: emotional, cognitive, and physical. Throughout our lifetimes, we are consciously dealing with one or two of these at a time. During middle school, all three hit us at once, and they tend to hit us hard. 

Beginning around 10 years old, our bodies are flooded with hormones that affect not only our physical appearance, but also the functionality of our brain.

Inside the Middle School Brain

The middle school brain is operating with a fairly well-developed limbic system (a part of the brain that is particularly influential in, among other things, controlling our emotional health) and a fairly underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and our capacity for reflection). As author Thomas Armstrong put it in his book The Best Schools, “Young teens’ brains have their accelerators pressed all the way to the floor, while their brakes have yet to be installed.”  
Nowhere do we see this imbalance more than in the emotional growth of a child during middle school. These are the moments where boys and girls will decide, in part, what type of person they wish to be. This will cause them to try on many different personas, most of which they acquire from their peers. This is why an 11- or 12-year-old may vacillate between curling up on the couch next to his parents one moment, and wanting little to do with these same people the next. Identity is not an easy thing to develop, and a good deal of that development, on a foundational level, is happening during middle school.
The cognitive changes that take place during middle school are vast. Our sons and daughters are transitioning from a very concrete way of seeing the world to a more abstract way of thinking. At the same time, right around the Fifth and Sixth Grades, their brains are perfectly positioned to cement in place many of the all-important non-cognitive skills: organization, time management, self-advocacy, etc. These are the skills that, if taught well, will allow our students to focus on content in upper school and beyond.
Of the three areas of growth, the physical development is probably the easiest one for us to identify because we can see it. In the words of Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, “You have kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet, mixed in with these gorillas who have to shave twice a day.” Yet, apart from the social stress that comes with such differences, there are also real physical changes that impact a young boy or girl’s self-image. The growth associated with these years can lead to a physical awkwardness. A sport that once came easily may all of a sudden seem challenging, given the physical changes taking place. This alone can impact young adolescents at a time when they are attempting to define themselves within a context that is shifting, seemingly on a daily basis.

Overcoming Middle School Challenges

So now that we understand what is happening, is it possible to reverse the negative stereotype associated with middle school? The answer is yes! Celebrating its 17th year, the Calvert Middle School has made a science of middle school education, rejecting the notion that these are years to be endured or tolerated for the greater reward of high school.

Middle school does not have to be that thing that we pass through, quite the opposite. Middle school should and can be an incredibly rewarding time in a child's life. It may also be the last opportunity to establish the habits of mind that will carry your child successfully through high school and beyond. Being a K-8 school with teachers who are trained experts, dedicated to either lower or middle school education, Calvert has the ability to focus our attention on these all-important early years and the emotional, cognitive, physical changes that define them.

Beginning in Fifth Grade, Calvert provides middle school-specific programming designed to acknowledge and properly direct and manage the changes taking place in our students’ lives. Emotionally, Calvert provides a community where every student is known. People often talk of needing a ‘larger pond’ for the middle school years, while in fact, the opposite is true. Calvert’s Middle School is a place with rich extra-curricular offerings and a culture that encourages children to try the new without fear of failure. This is how our boys and girls will come to discover their likes, dislikes, and in many cases, their life-long passions.

Middle school students need small communities where they not only feel known and loved, but where they have room to try a variety of activities - art, music, drama, athletics, STEM-inspired clubs, community service, the list goes on. Each activity provides multiple opportunities for exploration -- for example, Calvert's annual middle school musical not only provides a platform for theatrical expression, but also a chance to try stage management and set design. Similarly at Calvert, our comprehensive Student Leadership Program is given even greater significance when tied into our community service and student-led diversity programs.

Students at this age are looking to experiment and to experience life; because of this, they still very much need guidance and structure. At Calvert, we appreciate this and design numerous opportunities that challenge our middle schoolers in healthy and appropriate ways. We understand that when schools do not provide students with opportunities to test their boundaries, the boys and girls are more likely to engage in unsupervised risk-taking behaviors.

We also see our coeducational model as an enormous benefit to young adolescent development. It is essential for boys and girls to be together during these formative years. Not only does this allow our students to see themselves and their peers as role models, but it normalizes and fosters appreciation, respect, and value for themselves and those of other gender identities. The world has recently shown us, and with far too great a frequency, the complicated and complex impact on both men and women who never learned to value and empower one another as equals in all aspects of life.

This understanding starts early and can be reinforced in rich and meaningful ways during these middle school years. At Calvert, we foster this understanding among our students in implicit and explicit ways.

Academic Support for Middle School Students

Middle School is a time when non-cognitive skills such as organization, time management, and self-advocacy must be explicitly taught. This is why Calvert introduces a comprehensive organization system and study skills program in Fifth Grade -- what we strongly believe to be the developmentally appropriate beginning of middle school. This program is taught and reinforced in all of our classrooms from Fifth through Eighth Grade.

Calvert also recognizes the importance of normalizing the need for academic support. Middle schools cannot be “sink or swim” environments. Beyond the explicit instruction of the classroom, students this age will need frequent reminders in how to be successful students. This is why Calvert offers an after-school homework center and mid-day “lunch and learn” study sessions in our faculty-run learning commons. These programs promote a culture of scholarship and learning that supports and celebrates skill development and a growth mindset. It is only with these skills in place that boys and girls can begin to understand the difference between “studying hard” and “studying effectively.” Without these tools, students are more likely to become frustrated and eventually disenfranchised by the learning process.

By the time our students reach high school, these organizational skills are squarely in place, so that the bulk of their cognitive energy can be focused on grappling with the sophisticated concepts of their academic courses.

Middle School Clubs and Athletics

Finally, the sudden physical changes can be just as challenging to address as the emotional and cognitive needs of middle schoolers. Calvert offers a vigorous athletics program that is founded on the idea that all children deserve a chance to play. In a world that asks our children to specialize in a sport from a very early age, we take the opposite approach. Calvert encourages children to try new activities, regardless of their ability level. We also have a no-cut policy, as we do not believe in keeping a child from his/her many potentials.

This approach allows middle school students to try sports that may better fit their rapidly developing bodies without apprehension or judgment. Part of this is offering non-traditional, coed sports such as squash, ice hockey, volleyball, and tennis. You can only imagine the relief that this philosophy brings to a young boy or girl who may be lacking confidence in the face of all the changes taking place in their lives. Calvert’s athletic program also stresses leadership, teamwork, and the idea that perseverance and practice, not simply raw talent, can lead to success.

Essential to all of these best practices is a faculty and staff that value the middle school years. This is why Calvert only hires middle school specialists to teach our students. It is also why we use the teacher/coach model for 100% of our teams. In order for our students to navigate these years, they must be surrounded by kind and caring adults who understand the ups and downs of 10- to 14-year-old children.

Our K-8 model of education also focuses our middle schoolers’ energy on leading the school community and not on emulating high school aged children, who are understandably at a different point in their development. In short, our K-8 structure keeps our students younger just a little bit longer in the midst of ever increasing pressure from our society to grow up too quickly.

For certain, middle school can be a confusing and challenging time for both parents and students. The good news is that in the right environment, these years can also be the best of childhood.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.