Over the past few years, there’s been a marked rise in disengagement and disruption in K-12 school experiences, particularly in middle schools. In recent weeks, educators in Oregon, California, and Tennessee petitioned their districts to do more to address the growing challenge of disruptive classroom behaviors.
Educators are reporting a rise in students walking out of the classroom, using harsh and profane language, refusing reasonable requests from adults, and responding with aggression. They’re also seeing an increase in cyberbullying, harassment, and pranking outside of the classroom. While behaviors like these have been observed across middle schools before, the frequency and intensity have increased dramatically.
While middle school education has always had a reputation for being challenging, what educators are experiencing today is outside the norm. Understanding how to address the difficulties middle schools are facing may be the difference between chaos and cohesion.
More Than Just Behaviors
Though we often acknowledge the physiological impact of puberty—with students seemingly growing overnight and suddenly needing deodorant—an even greater change is happening neurologically. The transition to adolescence marks the second largest growth in brain development (the first being the transition from infant to toddler). During this time, neural networks are developing that awaken awareness of the social world. Brain function increases in areas that help identify what people are thinking, causing a greater awareness of emotional cues and an increased sensitivity to the opinions of others.
Students begin to turn away from adult figures of authority and toward their peers for validation. Instead of living in their own imaginations, they become acutely aware of social hierarchies, inclusion and exclusion, and the judgments of others. While adults may no longer be “cool” during this period, they can still be a source of stability, understanding, and trust.
This shift toward social consciousness is in direct opposition to the changing dynamics of students’ academic worlds. For most students, the transition from elementary to middle school is a jarring shift from nurturing, relational learning to a much more impersonal delivery of information. The role of the educator becomes less about supporting students’ emotional growth and more about sharing their subject-area expertise. Connecting with peers is often seen as a disruption and an affront to the learning experience. In many ways, the traditional approach to middle school works directly against students’ developmental needs.
This dynamic was true well before the pandemic, but by the time most students make it to middle school, most have some self-awareness and self-management skills for the six years in the classroom. With the mass trauma of the pandemic, plus the missing social skills and awareness, educators are now faced with the unbridled force of the transition into adolescence. While additional student services and interventions are important, they are not enough to address the full scale of the need.
In a recent conversation with author and middle school principal Chris Balme, we identified three recommendations to help curb the behaviors seen in the classroom.
1. Understand the Drivers of the Adolescent Brain
Even though we were all once preteens ourselves, how middle schoolers navigate their world can seem absurd. They are often pushing boundaries and trying on new identities and beliefs to see what will work with an audience of their peers. While adults may roll their eyes and brush over the noise, understanding why students behave in this way may help us get to the root of their choices and help them redirect in a positive way.
In his book Finding the Magic in Middle School, Chris identifies three core psychological drivers, or core questions that emerge during adolescence:
- Belonging: How do I connect? Who are the people that I can trust? What is my role in my community?
- Purpose: Who am I? What do I care about? What’s important to me?
- Impact: What will I contribute? How do I feel valuable? How can I use my skills to positively impact others?
Our role as adults isn’t to provide answers to these questions but to create authentic experiences that can lead middle schoolers to craft their own. Learning how to tap into the power of these can make a monumental difference in the response received from students. If adults understand the developmental changes that are taking place in students' brains, they can work with those changes rather than against them.
2. Create a Safe Space for Discovery
As students begin looking outside of themselves to understand who they are, the response of their peers can have a long-term impact on how they choose to show up in the world. Every day, adolescents decide whether they show up as their authentic selves or veiled versions of themselves they think will be more socially accepted. To show up authentically, students need to feel they can safely be themselves and have space to explore their burgeoning identities without ridicule or shame. When students feel unsafe, they begin mirroring the behaviors and ideas of others in an attempt to stay out of harm's way.
The long-term consequence of this social masking is that students lose sight of their unique talents and abilities. In copying others, they risk missing out on their own potential and taking part in activities that move them further from their true wants and desires. Down the road, this dissonance contributes to students feeling disconnected and disengaged. This is part of what educators are seeing now: in a recent CDC report 42% of adolescents experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
To create safe spaces, educators can:
- Be comfortable being themselves and show students aspects of their authentic personalities. This can include sharing interests, hobbies, family, or experiences they’ve had. It shouldn’t be intrusive or overly personal, but it does have to be real.
- Lean into the social dynamics and influences. As students turn toward their peers, adults can turn with them and build an understanding of the people and ideas that influence their understanding of the world.
- Help students find their people. If students are struggling to navigate their social surroundings, use the objective birds-eye view of an adult to gently steer them toward warm connections across multiple groups. This can mean being more intentional with groupings, inviting students to participate in shared activities, or suggesting they connect with a peer.
- Model and defend respectful interactions. Even though students are looking to each other for validation, adults can still provide guidance and structure for what’s permissible and valued within the context of a classroom.
3. Invest in Building Skills
Helping students who are suddenly very good at perceiving things socially but not very good at accurately interpreting them is a challenging task. Students need social and emotional tools to deal with the new feelings and situations they are experiencing during middle school. They require guidance and support to learn how to successfully navigate social situations and make sense of their emotions in order to successfully juggle the multiple inter- and intrapersonal pressures they face.
Many of the behaviors seen today are a result of students missing out on both the implicit and explicit learning that happens in the classroom. Skills like self-awareness, adaptability, empathy, collaboration, and agency are required to smoothly navigate the evolving social landscape of middle school. While much attention has been paid to addressing academic gaps, efforts will land flat if students do not have the capacity to feel comfortable and confident in their physical space.
Social and emotional skill building can be integrated into advisory, academic instruction, study hall, specials, and even extracurricular activities. While it may seem counterintuitive, especially in content-focused environments, research has found that students who participate in SEL are less likely to experience emotional distress, hold more positive attitudes about themselves and others, exhibit fewer externalizing behaviors, and experience fewer discipline problems along with higher levels of “school functioning.”
To address many of the behaviors we’re seeing in today’s classrooms, we need to ensure we are creating conditions that mirror the developmental needs of students. Building connected school environments that are safe spaces for social and self-exploration can move the needle for students. By understanding the challenges and opportunities of middle school, parents and teachers can help students transform challenging behaviors into meaningful interactions and reach their full potential.