Talk to me about your Middle School experience. What do you remember? In what significant ways did you grow as a Middle Schooler?
The general narrative proliferated by adults and popular media in the U.S. is that the Middle School years represent the worst and most challenging stage of human development. Some hyperbolically reference the lingering post-traumatic stress they experience to this day when they call to mind their personal journeys through “the middle years.” Others recall uncomfortable feelings of insecurity, compounded further by the cruelty of peers wrestling through their own struggles with confidence and self-image.
If you’re like most, you may find it difficult to think introspectively about your “tween” years (ages 10-14). This stage is responsible for generating the most radical physiological and psychological changes in children since infancy. Accordingly, as adolescents navigate their daily lives within the eye of this whirlwind of change, they naturally tend to react to situations on impulse, leaving minimal time for forethought and perspective.
Amidst this disorienting whirlwind, the middle school years, and particularly the middle school environment in which students are planted, is critical to their formation into strong, rooted, adaptable adolescents.
Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, elaborates:
We need to address the wholesale drop in performance and decrease in connection to adults and turn this time [middle school] into one that builds on and secures the investment of our elementary school education. This is the perfect time to shape adolescent idealism and their growing interest in the wider world into commitment to work, engaged citizenship, and care for others.
I like to think of students moving from elementary to middle school as seedlings. Throughout their early years, students have been intentionally watered and nurtured, enabling them to exhibit the early promise of beauty and productivity. Once a seedling breaks through the soil, it is ready to burst forth in exponential growth.
As such, the best and most effective Middle Schools should function much like excellent tree nurseries. The purpose of a tree nursery is to maintain a safe, vigilantly cultivated environment where vulnerable seedlings can grow optimally. If exposed to a broad spectrum of threatening elements in the wild too early, especially outside the purview of expert caretakers, seedlings’ long-term flourishing is at risk.
Excellent tree nurseries grow seedlings into strong young trees, ready to be transplanted and ready to thrive in a new and more demanding environment. In the same way, excellent Middle Schools partner with families to ensure that students’ middle years are marked by exponential growth in the areas of courage, integrity, joy, optimism, and compassion. Though trees in a nursery may still be exposed to challenging elements periodically, caretakers are attentive and prompt to address needs, just as inspired educators lean into students’ lives and point them back to a vision of the good life of which students may lose sight otherwise.
As a parent, you are ardently invested in your child’s precious childhood and life-long flourishing. You vigilantly cultivate your home environment with love and wisdom, which is why it is critical to partner closely with a Middle School committed to re-envisioning the middle years, fostering an environment aligned with the values you have instilled in your child from seed to seedling, and soon enough, into the strong, rooted, adaptable adolescent you know he or she can be.