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Middle Matters

The middle school years are important – and there’s tools to help

There are a number of ways to tell just how important middle school years are, but one might be the repeated portrayal of it in a host of television shows and movies –  from Leave it to Beaver  and Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the recent movie PEN15.

You also might get a clear idea about the importance of early adolescence by asking a handful of people when they first really succeeded or struggled in school – and when they remember first developing their social and emotional patterns.

And, finally, you might look at the extensive research about how important – and different – the middle school student’s brain and emotional underpinnings are – and how important their education is.

“The middle grades were the last best chance that we have to get youngsters on the right path toward academic and career success,” writes Sandy Kress, a top Bush administration education official who was a key player in the development of the platform Middle Schools Matters. “It’s not necessarily early enough, but later is too late.”

Today, the significance of this period for learning – and learning good habits – is perhaps only surpassed by that of early childhood development, and its seen as critical for everything from developing personality traits, grit, curiosity and study habits to making decisions about a future after high school.

“It is such a critical time for learning,” says Molly Mee, head of the Middle School Education Department at Towson University in Maryland who has written about the various needs of middle school students. “What a student does in these three years can change so much in their future.”

There is plenty of research about how the brain develops but Jay Giedd, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and a leading expert in the teen brain, says parents and educators need to direct even more attention to middle school years.

The brain specializes during these years, he says. “The range of abilities the brain can learn is remarkable. It is a time of amazing opportunity for learning new skills and for our behavioral health interventions to have maximal impact.”

He notes that the middle school student’s brain is growing bigger, faster and more complex daily, but can't quite control itself. While it is growing and changing, and also quickly pruning and structuring brain cells to develop pathways in the brain that become patterns, some of the regulatory function develop more slowly – a circumstance visible in any middle school cafeteria.

It is a critical time for emotional development, as a study published last summer reported in detail.

So, school in this period, and the habits that adolescents develop academically and socially are critical. Parent play the most important role, but education is key.

Research on the significance of middle grades has been developed for decades but bumped up in the 1960’s, according to a recent study, when the middle school movement began. Since that time, organizations such as the Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE) and Middle School Matters have developed more research about its importance, while focusing on teaching practices and curriculum for this age group, where, as one middle counselor put it, you find “adult and childlike thinking and behavior within the same five minutes” and where very different educational approaches are needed

AMLE has four decades of research through its Research in Middle Level Education Online and a host of other material, including some such as its journal and magazine that require membership. It offers plenty of tips on curriculum

Middle School Matters has developed a comprehensive set of practices in its field guide that can provide a basis for schools and teachers to develop the structure to deliver appropriate content

“MSM’s two objectives are first to compile the proven principles, practices, and strategies that can improve student success and second to help educators actually learn, adopt, and master these strategies,” it notes.

The guide offers research-based instruction and interventions for reading, writing and math – and carefully conceived cognitive and advanced reasoning principals (which are critical to develop at this age) and a variety of other resources.  It also covers student supports and ways to assess a school’s efforts.

It also offers these principles for educators to help students develop their critical thinking skills, which are important at this age:

  • Ground ideas in active, engaging experiences.
  • Provide timely, qualitative feedback on students’ learning activities.
  • Encourage the learner to generate content.
  • Select challenging tasks that require explanations, reasoning, and problem solving.
  • Design curricula, tasks, and tests in different contexts, media, and practical applications.
  • Promote self-regulated learning.
  • Allow students to practice presentation and improve test taking

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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