By: Rhett Ladner
Research shows that middle school years matter more than any other time of a child’s life. How many times have we heard that middle school kids have “lost their minds?” I know this may be shocking, but brain research supports this. In Rebecca Robinson’s article “Implications for Middle Schools from Adolescent Brain Research,” she discusses how the middle school brain goes through the biggest changes of its entire life during these years. The brain starts dumping non-essential information and the emotional and social parts of the brain are more active than any other parts of the brain. A middle school student must have a social or emotional connection to information or it will be seen as non-essential and dumped. Thomas Armstrong’s fifth chapter of his book Best Schools is completely dedicated to the middle school model and meeting the social, emotional, and metacognitive needs of middle school children. He states for these students to succeed, they must be part of a school community that they have a voice in, have personal and positive relationships with adults, able to explore and be guided through character-building opportunities, and that there is healthy competition between students, classes, and schools.
Somewhere along the way, we have lost our purpose in the middle school model in our schools. Perhaps it was when high-stakes testing came into play. As educators, we thought we had to strip away the social and emotional part of education and put more time into academics. We forgot that we need a balanced approach that build skills and a foundation to help our middle school children to be successful socially, emotionally, and academically. Academics in the U.S. have fallen in reading and math for 8th graders on the 2019 NAEP. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 32% are proficient in reading and 33% in math. While that is terrible, the more pressing issues may be how the word bullying is being overused; and according to research, suicide rates have soared for children between the ages of 10 and 17.
Not all is lost and it is not too late to find our way and purpose in guiding children in the middle school. The answer comes in the 5 R’s of Renaissance: Respect, Recognize, Reward, Reinforce, Results. We have to change what we respect in the middle school or in other words, what we think is most important. If we have a balanced respect of the social, emotional, and academic parts of our school and recognize those people that are improving in those areas by rewarding them for those actions, we will reinforce our values and we will see our students flourish. Jostens Renaissance offers all the resources we need as educators to make the balanced effort, starting with the scientifically validated Pulse Survey that will tell you the heartbeat of culture climate in your school. Next, The Harbor hosted by Mike Smith that is a video series that helps educators introduce character-building topics for our students. Then the new and amazing Jostens Leadership Curriculum, a flexible online curriculum with lesson plans that can be adapted to stand alone in a leadership classes or in after school clubs. It will grow students to have a voice in their school and become future leaders. Finally, the Idea Exchange is where educators will find hundreds of ideas submitted by fellow educators from all over the country to help them recognize and reward students.
If we are going restore hope to our educational system and make it a place where students, parents, community, and Staffulty want to be, it starts in the middle because the middle matters most.