Why Middle Schoolers Are Frustrating But Endearing

By Ashley N. Leonard and Jennifer Ciok

What do you remember about being in middle school? Was there a teacher or mentor who inspired you to do better? Were you navigating new friendships or shifting social cliques? Or was your middle school experience fraught with loneliness? Were you awkward and unsure of who you were? Did you lack the confidence to seek support when things got tough?

No matter what your experience, middle school is all about relationships. The relationships students have with their peers, teachers, and families are incredibly influential during this period. It is also a time of tremendous physical and developmental change. Research shows that early adolescence (9–14) is the second most critical time for brain development outside of early childhood (birth–3). The period is marked by exploration, reward-seeking, and risk-taking, as well as an increased ability to learn and adapt to new environments. It’s why middle schoolers are both frustrating and endearing.

Some will say an intentional focus on relationship-building means lost academic time, but relationships are the foundation for academic achievement.

Research affirms this inextricable link between emotion and cognition. According to the Search Institute, middle grade students who reported high developmental relationships with teachers are eight times more likely to stick with challenging tasks, enjoy hard work, and know it’s ok to make mistakes as compared to students with low-level developmental relationships. Relationships drive academic learning by helping teachers better understand students’ motivations, goals, and interests.

The global pandemic and our nation’s racial reckoning highlight the importance of strong relationships, especially for Black and Latinx middle school students. During adolescence, young people start to look outward to discover who they are and the impact they want to have in the world. They question why under-resourced communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and what they can do about it. They connect the dots between their own experiences with police to the demands for reform across the country. The relationships middle schoolers develop with peers and trusted adults are essential for creating brave spaces where they can grapple with these challenges and make sense of the world.

Building and nurturing these authentic relationships is a challenge when students and educators are together in school buildings, but doing so in a remote learning environment is even harder. The casual but crucial interactions of physical proximity are hard to come by when class ends with the click of a button.

Yet, it is possible to thoughtfully develop relationships in remote learning environments.

As professionals who have spent more than 30 years focused on the unique needs of middle school students, we see the 2020–2021 school year as a critical time to focus intentionally on the relationships necessary to prepare students for success in an increasingly complex world.

We see early signs of how relationships positively shape the trajectories of adolescents in our work in the To&Through Middle Grades Network (MGN). Launched in January 2020, the MGN is a cohort of schools dedicated to creating more equitable learning environments where middle grades students thrive. We work with teams of educators at six Chicago Public Schools to design solutions for a challenge unique to the middle grades students they serve. The goal is for schools to create sustainable systems that increase student achievement during a critical period of development that, if supported thoughtfully, maximize current and future success.

This spring, the pilot cohort of MGN schools surveyed and interviewed students and parents about the middle school experience. Across all schools, students said they did not always feel a sense of belonging and were often disengaged from their peers, teachers, and school staff. The level of disengagement has only intensified with the pandemic as students face increased anxiety about the physical, mental, and economic health of themselves and their families.

So how are schools approaching this extraordinary challenge?

Through the Middle Grades Network, each of our partner schools committed to using what they heard from students to strengthen relationships in ways that make them equal partners in the process.

A middle school in a community with a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants is implementing talking circles to allow students to connect with one another while sharing their thoughts and feelings about the world around them. At a school on Chicago’s South Side, a getting to know you questionnaire will be used to design interest-based lessons and identify staff who can serve as mentors for Black middle school boys. A third school will purposefully integrate student identity into the 6th grade reading curriculum to spark motivation and engagement as students transition into the middle grades. These practices, based in research about the power of middle school as a time of exponential growth, represent three of the plans our schools will implement that respond directly to the needs of students now and moving forward.

The work these schools have embarked on shows that we must discard the binary distinction of “either or” when it comes to social, emotional learning and academics to embrace “both and.” We must invest in schools and create the conditions necessary for educators to reimagine, test, and refine ideas that create more equitable spaces where all students thrive. Radically reimagining what’s possible in education through relationships will not only prepare middle schoolers to navigate school in the age of coronavirus but all of the challenges this moment in history requires of them as our future leaders.

Ashley N. Leonard is the Associate Director of the To&Through Middle Grades Network at the University of Chicago. Leonard began her education career at Chicago Public Schools, leading several district-wide initiatives like the launch of Mentoring the Next Generation, and served as Special Projects Manager for the Chicago Public Education Fund. Most recently, Leonard was the Executive Director for Spark in Chicago, a career exploration and self-discovery program that helps middle school students understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible.

Jennifer Ciok is the To&Through Middle Grades Network Coach. Ciok began her career in a middle school classroom. During her 15 years as an English and history teacher, she served in several team leadership roles. Most recently, Ciok was a Social Emotional Learning Manager for Umoja, supporting Chicagoland high schools in building connected classrooms and adult accountability to lead to sustainable whole-school change.

To learn more about the To&Through Middle Grades Network and what strategies other schools in MGN’s pilot cohort are implementing this year, visit our website.

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.

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