Middle school often gets a bad rap. It’s a time when students begin questioning rules and the world around them, becoming increasingly focused on fairness, equity and forming closer, yet fewer relationships.
In the classroom, this might play out as a student getting upset when a teacher tells her to stop chewing gum despite a classmate chewing gum beside her. Or it might emerge through the development of cliques and increased drama among friendships. Middle schoolers are frequently described as defiant, rebellious or melodramatic—and these characteristics often challenge educators.
There’s a scientific explanation for all of this.
It is common knowledge that the body goes through significant physical changes during adolescence, but it is less recognized that the brain is also developing and changing significantly. In his book, “Age of Opportunity,” Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology and expert on adolescents, says that the brain during early adolescence is like driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes. I see this often in my students, a brash reaction with little thought or evidence of self-regulation, and Steinberg’s analogy always helps me reframe my reaction.
The brain is highly malleable during adolescence, meaning it is especially sensitive to experience—both toxic and positive. During this time, the brain is undergoing a process called synaptic pruning, where it is deleting unnecessary and unused synapses, so the experiences a student goes through during this age range is literally impacting the structure and composition of the brain. It’s a critical window of time when regions of the brain are evolving.
This malleability during adolescence is similar to the developmental period from birth to 3-years-old, and the impact of experience during these stages is likely to have enduring effects. That can be concerning because extended exposure to toxic environments, for example, can lead to prolonged challenges in life, such as depression, substance abuse and aggression. But there’s also reason to be optimistic. Emotions are more intense and developmentally, students are building their identity. As a result, adolescents create deeper relationships, so it is a time of opportunity to build strong relationships, connections and experiences that put students on a path towards success in college and career.
Unfortunately, the challenges of early adolescence are often misunderstood, which too frequently results in negative experiences for educators, families and students. But what if we understood the neurological reasons behind the bizarre middle school behavior we often see? Would our response as educators change? Would we be able to leverage their identity development and the fact that they’re more attuned to issues of equity and justice during this age range as an opportunity to help students develop a strong set of values?
Developing a better understanding of how the brain works—especially during the middle school years—has helped me normalize my students’ experience and prepare thoughtful strategies to support them when opportunities arise. About two years ago, I started wondering if helping other educators learn more about the adolescent brain could result in a totally different experience for middle school students and educators. So, after a decade as a teacher and administrator, when I was presented with an opportunity to start a new middle school, I seized it.
With a founding team of teachers and school leaders, I began programmatic planning for Ida B. Wells Middle School. As I created a vision, I reflected on my experience in schools and what I’d learned about adolescent development. I considered how the same brain research that indicates the middle school years are a time of identity formation also makes this developmental stage ideal for service learning. Students are eager to address inequities and their tendency to move towards action can be harnessed to make positive social change. Providing students the opportunity to engage in service learning helps them envision themselves as service-oriented leaders and advocates.
That’s why I designed a model that leverages research about the adolescent brain to create a culture of social action and service learning. During the planning phase, the staff read excerpts from Dr. Steinberg’s book, which shares some of the challenges that adolescence brings, including an increase in mental health needs, aggressive behavior and in some cases, low achievement. We also discussed strategies from “Middle School Matters," a book by Phyllis Fagell, school counselor and author who focuses on adolescence, which echoed that adolescent students are more attuned to equity and justice issues and that during this age range, they solidify values they will hold for life.
Our school opened its doors in August 2019 to 180 sixth grade students, 30 students above expected enrollment. The school will grow to include grades six through eight over the next two years, serving as a traditional neighborhood school.
Along with nine other D.C. public schools, Ida B. Wells Middle School is a social action enrichment school, meaning we utilize the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) to develop individual talents and interests and we guide students to find connections between these interests and social justice needs. SEM was developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli out of the University of Connecticut as a more inclusive alternative to gifted and talented education. Our SEM coordinator works to design interest-based workshops for students and supports our staff with developing enrichment clusters for students.
Considering Dr. Steinberg’s finding that the brain is likely to hold onto experiences and adapt to environments during this developmental stage more than other stages of adulthood or youth, and Fagell’s findings about the importance of fostering kindness and empathy during adolescence, we designed enrichment clusters to hook middle school students with the focus on student interest and the ability to address inequities and we hope that our students will take the values of service and pursuit of justice with them for the rest of their life.
This past fall, all students were divided into 15 enrichment clusters, or small groups based on interest for a weekly 45 minute class. The cooking cluster spent the semester learning about the principles of baking, baked many delicious dishes, but also learned about food insecurity in D.C. and food deserts in our community. As a culminating project, they mass baked granola bites and delivered them to an organization feeding individuals who are food insecure in D.C. The video game and coding cluster learned how to code and ended their cluster by visiting a local elementary school and teaching younger students how to code.
Through our enrichment clusters, students have opportunities to engage in high-interest, project-based instruction, developing their natural creativity and internal motivation while directing these strengths towards problem-solving and critical thinking skills which grow our scholars' empathy and love of learning.
Recently, we led our first schoolwide day of service, with students performing various community service activities in small groups across our city. Our students bundled up and braved the biting wind to commute to their service locations, delivering hygiene packs to people who are homeless, cleaning up the community, serving at animal shelters, nursing homes and more. When we offered to head back to the school early, students asked to continue their work, and suggested heading to a nearby community park to pick up trash. This kind of dedication isn’t uncommon. Many of our students regularly give up recess or another preferred activity to help serve our school community in some way.
Designing experiences that promote self discovery through service and learning is critically important during the adolescent years as research shows how sensitive the brain is to experience during this age range. Most middle schoolers have an inherent desire to do good, to see themselves as community leaders and to continue learning about the world around them.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for students—so much is changing in their bodies and minds, but it can also be a time when students discover that empathy, service and love already lies within them.