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Middle school: The awkward years


The early teens are just… awkward. It’s hard enough going through it yourself, but when you’re a parent of a middle-schooler, it can be downright confusing. The crazy hormonal changes are bad enough. But how do you know if they’re getting the right education?

Middle school girl in class

What it’s like in junior high

You were in junior high once, right? It probably combined grades seven through eight or nine and resembled a mini-high school. You probably moved from class to class throughout the school day and had a different teacher for each subject.

Changes in education

During the past 20 years, many changes have taken place in how young adolescents are educated. These changes continue as we find out more about how these children develop and learn.

Today, fewer and fewer young adolescents attend junior highs. Instead, a growing number attend middle schools. Most of these schools are for grades 6 through 8, although some may have grades 5 through 7, 5 through 8, or even 7 through 8. As the middle-school movement has accelerated, many high schools have moved from serving grades 9 through 12 to grades 10 through 12.

What’s a parent to do?

As a parent, you may wonder whether one grade structure is better than another for your child. Most educators believe (and research confirms) that the way a school organizes the grades is not as important as what goes on inside the school. That is, what gets taught and how it gets taught matter more than how the school combines its grades. Furthermore, the grade-span of a school doesn’t tell you much about the quality of the school and whether its educational practices are well-suited to young adolescent students.

Most young teens entering a new school find that it’s a big change. They’ve gotten used to being one of the big kids; once again, they’re the youngest. Many classmates are new, as are the routines and the schoolwork. Coming at a time when young teens are undergoing many other stressful changes, the move to a new school can be overwhelming and have a negative impact on motivation and self-esteem.

Because of this, many middle schools have programs to ease the transition. For example, they might invite elementary school students to visit the middle school to become familiar with the building, lockers and changing classrooms. Or, administrators of the middle and elementary schools might meet to discuss programs. School counselors might meet to talk about how to help students make a smooth transition. These and other practices can help make the new school seem friendlier.

Hormones may be fluctuating, but young teens of all backgrounds and with a broad range of personal characteristics still absorb vast amounts of information. They can also benefit from a strong curriculum. As young adolescents develop their cognitive skills, they are able to complete longer and more involved projects and to explore subjects in more depth.

Expose your kids to a variety

Young teens generally benefit from being exposed to a broad range of experiences and programs — academic, recreational and vocational. These opportunities take advantage of their natural curiosity and can be invaluable in familiarizing them with new worlds and possibilities. These exploratory programs can also be fun. Some schools even provide opportunities both in and out of school for students to participate in sports and programs to learn subjects that range from foreign languages to music to drama, or even technology. Many schools also encourage students to participate in volunteer or community-service projects. Exploratory programs can help young teens figure out where they fit in and allow them to think about their future plans.

The future of education

There’s still plenty of room for improvement in middle schools. Test scores suggest that many young teens lack the skills necessary for high school success. In international comparisons, they aren’t scoring as well as we would like in areas like reading and math.

More educators and policymakers are becoming aware of the high levels on which young teens can achieve. This awareness is leading to still more change in middle-grades education — in what gets taught, how it’s taught, how teachers are prepared and how to assess what students know and can do.

More about transitioning to middle school

Elementary school to middle school: What moms need to know
Helping your middle schooler have a peaceful school year
Tips for managing the middle school transition

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