This is the Biggest Challenge in Middle School

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently was name principal of our middle school.  This was a big transition for me, both into administration and working with a younger group of students, but one that I was excited for.

It’s been about two full months now since I’ve taken over as middle school principal, and I’m finally starting to get a handle on the scope of the job.  I’ve worked with middle school students for a good part of my life (mostly as a coach), and I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going into my new role.  As the school year is settling into a groove, I am starting to see some of the unique challenges presented in middle school.  And one, in particular, stands out above the rest.

What are the big issues?

Middle schoolers are awesome!  They are funny, often times uninhibited, and full of energy.  They definitely possess a different mindset than high schoolers.  At the high school level the stakes are higher, and there is an underlying seriousness around everything.  Yes, high schoolers have fun, but it’s not the same goofy fun that middle schoolers have.

But despite the silly vibe around the middle school there are some notable issues that consistently pop up more so than in high school.  Among them:

  • Peer relationships – how to treat each other with respect
  • Inhibition – how to say and do things in an appropriate manner
  • Differences in maturity – students are at vastly different physical and emotional stages
  • Personal responsibility – owning one’s mistakes and missteps
  • Academic challenges – the rigor of multiple classes and multiple teachers can be tough

Not surprisingly, many of these issues are related to social and emotional learning (SEL).  The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the leading authority on SEL.  According to CASEL, there are five main SEL competencies that help individuals understand and manage emotions, set positive goals, and display empathy for others:

  • Social awareness
  • Responsible decision making
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Relationship skills

What is the biggest challenge?

Social and Emotional Learning is by far the biggest challenge in middle school.  Just looking at the list above one can see how important SEL is at the middle school level.  Yes, it’s important at the high school, but by about 11th grade, most students have figured out how to function with an appropriate level of SEL skills.

But middle schoolers are just beginning to test the waters of SEL.  Kindergarten through 5th grade (elementary school in Texas) is a time that is still highly supervised by mom and dad and other authority figures (teachers).  Their level of autonomy is limited, at best.  Once they reach 6th grade, however, that level of supervision starts to decrease (appropriately so).  For example, we had a bus full of 6th and 7th graders take a 2 hour ride to their football game yesterday.  While there were certainly adults on the bus, there is still a degree of independence these students have on that 2 hour bus ride that they didn’t have in elementary school.  These opportunities offer a great chance for kids to test and develop their SEL skills.

We see these situations throughout the day.  Middle schoolers have opportunities to make decisions on their own, sometimes without the presence of an adult.  And developmentally they are just learning how to make these decisions.  So, it should not come as a surprise that their decisions are a trial-and-error process; we should not expect middle schoolers to get it right every time.  Fortunately we are a school that balances grace with accountability, which is exactly what middle schoolers need at this crucial time of development.

We want all students to read, write, and do math at a high level.  But in middle school the focus must be on developing character and preparing students for a successful transition to high school.  Learning kindness, respect and empathy are the hallmarks of a successful middle school student.  Everything else falls in line from there.

As the school year progresses I will be working closely with our school counselor to establish a culture of kindness and respect.  Our students are good kids that come from good families, which gives them a huge headstart on adopting these key SEL competencies.  I’ll be sure to report back later on specific ways we are teaching and implementing SEL in our school and how we can support parents in the same pursuits at home.