Recently I ran across a research summary in the Association for Middle Level Education newsletter by Micki Caskey and Vincent Anfara, Jr. titled “Young Adolescents Developmental Characteristics”.
In the summary Caskey and Anfara review the developments that occur in adolescent intellect, ethics, emotions, and social growth. They also list ideas for application in our classrooms.
They begin by noting that with the exception of the first two years of the child’s life, the middle grade years mark the most significant change in the child’s body. This we know. What is less understood is that research has found that many gender-specific differences occur in the child’s brain. Other researchers have noted that our current educational model unintentionally favors the female model of learning. Whereas boys tend to prefer competition and physical interaction in general, our schools offer social interaction and discussions that are more favorable to learning styles more commonly found in girls.
Arranging more hands-on learning opportunities will appeal to girls and is also more inclusive of the boys in a classroom. Recently in the eighth grade classes at my school, we separated the students by gender for one day of instruction. Both groups enjoyed the day, and I found myself interacting differently with the two groups. The noisy male environment didn’t bother me as much as their outbursts would have in a mixed class. The girls also said they liked the opportunity to “be themselves” and relax without having to worry about how the boys perceived them.
Regarding intellectual development, Caskey and Anfara stated that students “…tend to be highly curious and display a wide array of interests – though few are sustained.” In other words, they are a mile wide and an inch deep. I think of trying to train a dog to sit as it suddenly sees a squirrel.
During these middle grades, their brains are capable of transitioning from concrete models and experiences to analyze and interpret data, understand nuanced meanings, argue in support and opposition to a position, and, of course, question authority.
For this reason, students at this level need more challenging learning opportunities. The old models of rote memory and remediation are not stimulating to the brain. Students will benefit from experiences modeled after or based upon real-world experiences. In our school students are often taught about character, however it was when they got involved in supporting the Make a Wish Foundation for a local six-year-old that they showed the most engagement and character development.
“That’s not fair!” they cry at this age. They have an idealistic view of the world and have an increased ability to recognize the world around them. They begin to understand whom they can trust and whom they cannot. Moreover, they can see this not only from their own perspective but can also see the viewpoints of others.
“Because I said so,” no longer works as a justification for their cries at this age as they move away from simple explanations and begin to form their own reasons and understandings.
They develop the ability to judge a situation. Of utmost importance, Caskey and Anfara state, “They start to consider complex moral and ethical questions, yet are unprepared to cope with them.” This puts them at risk. Much like the fact that they develop adult bodies before they have the advantages offered by age and experience, they have the ability to question life as an adult but not necessarily to find the answers they seek. Children at this age need reliable guidance to navigate this treacherous period.
Designing curricula that satisfy their growing ability to think and reason is a good first step. However, schools should also provide both formal and informal avenues for advisory opportunities. Showing students how to respond to injustices such as bullying, racism, and sexism are an important part of this transitional time.
The emotional explosion that occurs at this age is well known even without the research to support it. Part of the reason for this is that the sphere of influence of the child grows from the vertical relationships with parents to include a new horizontal valuing of peers. Thus it often presents conflict. As adults, we are more concerned with our horizontal relationships than vertical ones – we no longer base our decisions solely on our parents but consider spouses, friends, and coworkers as well. So this transition is natural. However, peers don’t provide the best leadership models.
Students tend to rebel more at this age while still expecting parents and teachers to lead them and provide for them. Youth motivational consultant, Mr. Brown, recently told me in an interview that he asked students, “Would you rather have overprotective parents or under-protective parents?” To a person, they chose the former. When he asked why, they said, “Because we don’t always make good decisions!”
Schools need to ensure that every student has at least one person with whom they can connect – one staff person who knows them well. Advisory programs can help here, but even informal interactions are valuable.
Adolescents are growing socially too. Students seek a group identity. As young children, it suffices to be your parents’ child, but in teenage years, belonging to a peer group is important and natural. During this time, children adopt the characteristics of their group. Not only will they begin to act in ways acceptable to the group, even their language may change as they adopt the slang and lingo of their peers. Resistance to traditional authority is common. Their physical and intellectual development is more developed though than their social development. Again they have developed a tool without developing the maturity to use it to their best advantage.
The need for belonging is crucial in all age groups and more so in adolescence. Children will even seek affiliation with groups they know to be detrimental because the need to belong is greater than the need for safety. In fact, belonging is seen as a key component of safety. This helps explain the rise in gangs on many communities.
Steering adolescents toward positive and beneficial groups will go a long way to helping them navigate this transition. We encourage all of our eighth graders to join something. There are sports, clubs, elective groups, and other opportunities. We even explain to them that once they enter high school they will be confronted by many groups that encourage – either directly or informally – to join them. It is their responsibility to stand back and look at the benefit the group offers to them. Does this group have my best interest at heart? Are they directing me in the direction that I want to go?
We can see that young adolescents have needs that are unique to their age. How we interact with them during this time can help ensure they navigate these years successfully. Classroom experiences designed with this in mind will also help with this transition. Often our students are with us for more minutes per day than they are with their parents. As our society moves along at a faster and faster drive-through-window pace, our influence upon these children grows in proportion. For many of them, school is their sanctuary. We are their advocates.
 Hello Mr. Brown, hellomrbrown.com