Why Is Middle School So Challenging?

February 1, 2013
by: Peg Dawson

When parents bring their son or daughter to my office for an evaluation, one of the first questions I ask after they describe their concerns is, “When did these problems first appear?” While the answer to that question varies from child to child, with older youngsters, a common response often is, “My child was doing great (or fine or hanging in there) until he/she hit middle school.  Then everything seemed to fall apart.”

            Why is that?

There are a number of answers to that question, but most have to do with brain development and school expectations—and the increasing divergence between the two as children hit the teen years. Let’s look more closely at what’s happening during this time period.

  • In the middle school years, the demands on executive skills (planning and organization, task initiation, goal directed persistence) become significantly greater. By the time youngsters reach middle school and high school, they are expected to work independently, to keep track of more complex assignments and responsibilities, and to plan and execute long-term assignments such as studying for exams and completing multi-step projects. Changing classes and having multiple teachers with diverse expectations place a great deal of stress on organizational systems that may be weak to start with.
  • Unfortunately, brain development, particularly in boys, is often not a match for the expectations placed on young people by both parents and teachers. By looking at MRI scans across the developmental period, neuroscientists have determined that it takes 25 years, on average, for executive skills to reach full maturation. Looking at it from this vantage point—middle school students are barely halfway there—and yet we expect them to function like adults when it comes to complex time and task management, decision-making, and planning and organizational skills.
  • The supports that both parents and teachers have provided in the past to accommodate immature executive skills tend to drop off at this time. Parents have trouble keeping tabs on their children’s assignments, while teachers often adopt the attitude that students should learn to develop their own organizational structures because they will have to be even more self-reliant when they reach high school. Unfortunately, we often leave it up to the students themselves to develop coping strategies, rather than teaching them what they don’t know.
  • The situation is complicated still further by the normal developmental progression that occurs at this age. Teenagers begin to resist the kinds of supports and supervision that benefited them when they were younger. This is consistent with a major developmental task of adolescence which involves achieving independence and breaking away from adult authority figures, particularly parental authority. When this is combined with the adolescent conceit that one knows far more than one’s parents, this age can become particularly challenging for parents. Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” It is difficult to preach patience to parents of early adolescence, but things do improve with maturity.
  • Youngsters at this age are also developing a far greater capacity to think abstractly; one of the ways they “practice” this newfound skill is through “argumentation,” and they seem particularly to enjoy practicing this skill with parents. Again, this ties in with the major developmental task of this period: asserting one’s independence from parents.
  • The peer group now becomes a more powerful and salient influence in the lives of many early teens. Kids at this age want to fit in with their friends and classmates, and may go along with suggestions made by peers without stopping to consider the consequences. When children have a peer group that doesn’t value school performance, it’s often hard for parents to counteract that influence.
  • Finally, teenagers have available to them a large number of interests and activities that compete for their time. Hanging out with friends, playing video games, surfing the net or instant messaging all are more attractive to teenagers than is the thought of doing homework. Young teenagers often have a “good enough” mentality when they approach their studies anyway. This becomes accentuated when there are an array of more attractive activities that they would prefer to be doing.

So what can parents and teachers do to help middle school be less frustrating for everybody—kids, parents, and teachers alike?

Teachers can:

  • Build in classroom routines to ensure that all students write down homework assignments and know what they have to bring home to complete them. Teachers should also have a classroom routine for handing in assignments rather than relying on the students themselves to remember (at the end of class, handing in homework is way less important to most students than what is going to happen between this class and the next one). Here’s a suggestion: stand at the door at the end of class and let students know that their ticket out of class is to produce their homework. And if a student doesn’t have it, send her to the end of the line and ask her to come up with a plan for when she will get the missing assignment to the teacher.
  • Teach students how to plan tasks and manage time. When long-term projects are assigned, a piece of the assignment should be to require students to make a plan for project completion, with realistic timelines and deadlines. When students are told about upcoming tests, ask them to make a study plan that involves studying for briefer periods of time several days before the test rather than cramming for the test the night before. There is massive amounts of research on massed practice versus distributed practice tells us this is the most effective way to study.
  • Set up an organizing structure for helping students keep notebooks and keep track of materials. Some schools do this on a school-wide basis, training students in the system at the beginning of every school year and having notebook checks several times a week with points allotted for maintaining all the critical elements of the notebook.
  • Place a priority on keeping the school website current. Parents often rely on accurate and timely information about their children’s grades and missing homework assignments in order to provide appropriate monitoring. Not only does this information make their job easier, the absence of this information can doom them to failure in their efforts to hold their children accountable.

 Parents can:

  • Ask their children to make a daily homework plan when they get home from school. This can be as simple as asking them to answer two questions: 1) what do you have to do; 2) when are you going to do it? If they discover their children are routinely not allowing sufficient time to complete work, they can also ask them to estimate how long each assignment will take and then to compare their estimates to reality in order to improve their time estimation skills (a critical component of time management).
  • Make a rule that homework gets done before children play video games or use the computer for recreational purposes. If this becomes too difficult to police, then create a common homework time when everyone in the family works on homework in a common room (e.g., around the dining room table), with parents present and engaged in comparable activities.
  • If necessary, arrange for regular contact with teachers to verify that their children are staying on top of assignments. Often, parents arrange to send out a mass email on Thursdays or Fridays asking teachers whether their children handed in all their homework that week. Teachers can write a brief response and hit the Send button.
  • Let their kids know they understand that middle school marks a dramatic change. Part of the transition from childhood to adulthood is that greater responsibility for decision-making now falls on their children’s shoulders. The job of a parent doesn’t end with this transition, however. It does become a more collaborative process, where input from children is sought and factored into the decisions that parents make. When this is done well, kids have a greater voice in their own affairs—but also a greater understanding of why their parents at times feel they have to override their preferences.

This blog, of course, barely scratches the surface. For more guidance on how to handle to middle school years, two useful references are Smart but Scattered and Smart but Scattered Teens.