Recently I was asked to do a presentation with a large corporation, with the focus on how to raise children successfully during the middle and high school years.  As a former high school counselor and middle school principal, I was excited for this opportunity; I know firsthand how difficult it is to navigate these years, both for parents and for students.

When considering the successful navigation of the middle and high school years, we must first understand the inherent obstacles children and adolescents experience during these times.  While there are countless theories that breakdown the development of children and adolescents, my two favorites have stood the test of time.   Additionally, these two go hand-in-hand as we consider the middle and high school years.

Framework of Development

Jean Piaget – Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget is one of the grandfathers of psychology whose work focused on cognitive development throughout the lifespan.  Perhaps his most famous theory is his Stages of Cognitive Development.  This theory suggests that an individual’s intelligence changes throughout one’s lifespan depending on the stage he or she is in.  The four stages identified by Piaget are:

  1. Sensorimotor:birth to 2 years
  2. Preoperational:2 to 7 years
  3. Concrete Operational:7 to 11 years
  4. Formal Operational:12 years and up

Piaget posited that every individual goes through the same four stages, although not necessarily at the same rate.  Furthermore, each stage presents its own form of intelligence with its own set of challenges.

The type of intelligence encountered at each stage is:

  • Sensorimotor: object permanence (objects exist even when the infant leaves the room)
  • Preoperational: symbolic thought (words and symbols mean things)
  • Concrete Operational: logical thought (problem solving emerges)
  • Formal Operational: scientific reasoning (abstract reasoning and higher-level cognition)

When looking at the middle and high school years, it is clear that they fall in the Concrete Operational and Formal Operational stages.  And, if we look more closely, the middle school years are split between the two stages.  From the middle school perspective, this has tremendous implications for academic and social/emotional development during this time.

Erik Erikson’s Sages of Psychosocial Development

Another prominent psychologist during the early 20th Century was Erik Erikson.  While Piaget focused on cognitive development, Erikson focused on the social and emotional development of individuals through the lifespan.  His theory boiled down to one main idea:

Identity Crisis

Erikson believed that an individual’s personality developed in a pre-determined order through eight stages. And each stage is characterized by a specific conflict that the individual must resolve:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust:birth to 1.5 years
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame: 1.5 to 3 years
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt:3 to 5 years
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority:5 to 12 years
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion:12 to 18 years
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation:18 to 40 years
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation:40 to 65 years
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair: 65 and up

The two main stages relevant to middle school and high school are:

  • Industry vs. Inferiority: social relationships begin to matter and are shaped by competency in society
  • Identify vs. Role Confusion: begin to establish the roles he or she will occupy as an adult

Once again, the middle school years encompass both of these stages, which explains, in part, some of the messiness of middle school.

Now that we have a framework for understanding child and adolescent development, we can begin to see the challenges and obstacles at each stage.  This is particularly true during the middle school years, during which an individual passes through two stages in each theory.

When examining these theories and how they apply to the middle and high school years, the big key word is TRANSITION.  In both theories, the individual’s development relies heavily on his or her ability to transition smoothly from one stage to the next.  Not coincidentally, the most successful middle and high school students are the ones who embrace these transitions and utilize as much support as needed.

As we consider the successful navigation of the middle and high school years, I want us to keep the word TRANSITION in mind.  This will be the primary focus of my next two posts:  How to Navigate Middle School and How to Navigate High School.

If you would like a more comprehensive overview of either theory, I recommend  For Piaget, you can click here.  For Erikson, you can click here.