Students’ Experiences in Middle School

Middle school is probably one of the most difficult times in a student’s life… and the most feared by parents. The middle grade years are like a roller coaster for everybody involved: teenagers, parents and educators. Early adolescents experience physical changes, strong emotions, and the need for social connection and recognition; questioning authority and searching for an identity becomes the main job of these young adults. Changes in the adolescent brain explain some of the behaviors we see in middle schools:  the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed during the adolescent years, which affect students’ ability to problem-solve, discern, regulate emotions and sustain attention. This is something important for parents and educators to remember, especially when we are in the midst of an emotionally charged situation with an adolescent!

Although the importance of creating safe environments where early adolescents can explore and connect with one another has been long recognized in education, little attention has been given to what students have to say about their experience in school during the middle grades. Due to this gap in the literature, a group of colleagues from Six Seconds and I have conducted a study that analyzes global school climate data for 20 schools and over 6,000 students, who completed the Educational Vital Signs Assessment. We are excited to be presenting this study at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC in just a few days!

This research is focused on identifying the things that matter to middle school students through the analysis of both quantitative and qualitative student feedback on school climate and their experience in school, in order to better design SEL programs in middle school.

Six points summarize the research:

  1.   School climate predicts 53% of the variation in Learning in middle school
  2.   Where 49% of elementary students are actively engaged, no middle school students are in the “engaged” category. They are split between disengaged (47%) and neutral (53%)
  3. A 12.7% drop in Trust occurs between elementary and middle school
  4. Middle school students are stressed about ACADEMICS and SOCIAL INTERACTIONS, including finding “real” friends and positive role models
  5. Middle school students see the importance of their TEACHERS AS MENTORS AND SUPPORTERS
  6. Middle school students have a need to feel CARED FOR by peers and adults and feel IMPORTANT to the school


We analyzed more than 2,000 comments from students; a task that helped us better understand students’ experiences, wishes and hopes. Six themes emerged from this analysis: their middle school needs, their desire for teachers to be supporters and mentors, the importance of inclusion/friendship, their need for belonging, and their clear vision for education. These initial findings suggest the need to involve students in strategic planning and program development, as well as to create the organizational and relational structures that allow for meaningful relationships between students and teachers.

Get in touch if you would like to get a copy of the paper or learn more about best ways to support students in middle school.

By |Published On: April 6th, 2016|Categories: Emotions, School Improvement, SEL|

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