Middle School: Misunderstood or Magic?

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Is middle school misunderstood — or magic?

For most of us — and many of our kids — middle school is a pretty miserable time. But that’s largely because most educators and parents misunderstand middle schoolers & these critical years.

“This is a very pervasive story, that middle school is terrible. But it doesn’t have to be. We make it terrible by working directly against the developmental needs of middle schoolers and designing these buildings and classes in way that make their lives really hard,” says veteran educator Chris Balme, author of Finding the Magic in Middle School: Tapping into the Power and Potential of the Middle School Years.

Middle Schoolers Have Unique Developmental Needs

There are two time periods in our lives when the brain is growing the fastest: the early childhood years (approximately ages 0-5) and early adolescence (approximately ages 11-16). In early adolescence, “the brain reforms itself as a social brain,” Chris says. That’s why middle schoolers are so acutely attuned to their peers (and seem more interested in social situations than academics).

Middle schoolers progress through predictable developmental stages:

  • Belonging. A middle schooler “needs to feel as if there’s one group, or at least one person, that they feel safe with, who wants them to be here and is consistent,” Chris says. If they don’t have that sense of belonging, they can’t show up to their full potential.
  • Achievement. During this stage, kids “try to show what they’ve got,” Chris says. They want to show that they can do things of value. Note: Kids can only move into achievement once they feel a solid sense of belonging.
  • Authenticity. This stage involves figuring out what they really like (& don’t like.). Kids eventually learn to express more of their authentic self in their daily lives.
Helping Boys Thrive Despite Less-Than-Ideal Middle Schools

“If a school doesn’t give at least a third of the day for social and movement time, it is holding our kids back developmentally,” Chris says.

Of course, many of our boys attend middle schools that don’t prioritize movement and socialization. So, it’s on parents to help them thrive. One way we can do this, Chris says, is to be weird. Middle schoolers can (& should) see their parents pursue hobbies and interests — and see us resolve conflicts and cope with challenges.

If your son is getting into trouble at a school that doens’t respect his needs for movement, socialization, belonging, and achievement, your number one priority should be to “not make it worse,” Chris says. “School has made this child’s life harder than it needs to be.” Instead, work with your child to understand what’s beneath his behavior. Help him figure out other ways to meet his needs.

We can stress a little bit less about academics in middle school,” Chris says. “If we actually help someone finish middle school feeling like they have some sense of who they are authentically, and they’re confident and skillful enough to put that out in the social world, and they’ve got some friendships based on their authentic sense of self, that is such a win.

“That is really what I think the goal posts should be for middle school.”

In this episode, Jen, Janet, & Chris discuss:
  • Why modern middle school is a miserable experience for many middle schoolers & their families
  • Developmental needs of middle schoolers
  • “Twinning” — when tweens copy others’ look or behavior
  • How parents & educators can help tweens & teens work toward belonging, achievement, & authenticity
  • Giving middle schoolers more responsibility
Links we mentioned (or should have) in this episode:

Finding the Magic in Middle School: Tapping into the Power and Potential of the Middle School Years, by Chris Balme

chrisbalme.com — Chris’s website

Growing Wiser — Chris’s Substack newsletter

What Middle School Boys Need — ON BOYS episode

Braden Bell Explains Middle School Boys — ON BOYS episode

Middle School Matters w Phyllis Fagell — ON BOYS episode

Phyllis Fagell Discusses Middle School Superpowers — ON BOYS episode

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