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How Can Middle Schools Best Organize to Help Young Adolescents Thrive?

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Middle school is a particularly stressful time for young adolescents. (LA Johnson/NPR)

Middle school is tough. Bodies change. Hormones rage. Algebra becomes a reality. But there are things schools can do to make life easier for students — like this big study we wrote about showing that K-8 schools may be better for kids than traditional middle schools.

But aside from re-configuring an entire school system, are there other ways to make the sixth-grade experience better?

To answer that question, I called up Dru Tomlin, a director at the Association for Middle Level Education — an organization that's been researching best practices for middle grade students for decades. Tomlin knows middle school: He's been a middle school teacher, an administrator, and he's the parent of a seventh-grade student.

What do you think about the idea of K-8 schools as opposed to the traditional 6-8 middle school set up?

Our research shows that when the school is made to feel smaller, that's when young adolescents flourish more. With a K-8 school you have potentially more students in the school because you have all the way from 5-year-olds to 13- and 14-year-olds.

Dru Tomlin, Ph.D. Director of Middle Level Services Association for Middle Level Education.
Dru Tomlin, Ph.D. Director of Middle Level Services Association for Middle Level Education. (Illustration by Lara Tomlin/Courtesy of Dru Tomlin)

An effective middle school, or middle grades, program needs to go beyond the grade configuration change. You can change the grade configuration of a school all day long. But you can also do some other things, and should do some things, that are developmentally responsive to young adolescents.


Of course safety and security is paramount, so we want students to not feel like they're going to be bullied or picked on or harassed in a school setting. But if you just change it to a K-8 school from a 6-8 school it doesn't guarantee that there is going to be less bullying and less transition issues for kids. There need to be other characteristics in place.

So how can we design middle schools to make the sixth-grade experience better?

It starts with identifying what their unique characteristics are. Identifying that they are trying to achieve not just academically or cognitively, but they're achieving and really working on social, emotional, behavioral, psychological, ethical — all that stuff at one time in a rapid way. So, we start with that understanding, plus a shared vision of what type of programs and what type of people we need to have in our buildings to serve those kids, that's where it really begins.

Without a common language, a common understanding and a common passion, then it's really not going to work as well as it should. It might function, but it won't help them flourish.

You talk about keeping schools small — what does that look like?

There are a couple of different structures that a middle grades program can put into place to make the learning community smaller. One of those key structures is called interdisciplinary teaming. It has both an academic focus as well as a social and emotional learning focus. Interdisciplinary in place of departments, because that's the junior high model, where you have separate departments that really never meet.

Instead, you take a large student body and you create a smaller learning community through interdisciplinary teams. Those teams can be two people. So for instance on a sixth-grade team, you have two teachers: One teaches English, language arts, reading and social studies and the other teaches math and science. Then, they can just really focus on those kids.

So how do you make a K-8 school feel small?

What it takes to make that happen is a master bell schedule that provides common planning. Which sounds like a mundane logistical piece, but that's where really creative work happens in a middle grades program — to have a schedule where those grade level teachers can meet across the content areas.

But the point is if it's just about the grade configuration but no attention is paid to interdisciplinary teaming or other developmentally responsive programs and initiatives, then you're really just putting more grades in the building.

What are some other structures that would help?

Another structure that is imperative, I think, is something called advisory or advisement. In the Utopian sense of it, it [a middle school] really should have a dedicated time during the day when students are meeting with an adult advocate in the building. That could be a teacher that they have or, it could be a teacher that they don't have that just meets with them. In these advisory periods, they work on social-emotional learning, behavioral issues, they work on skill development, they work on character education.

That's the environment in which young adolescents flourish: When they feel like they have a personal connection and someone who really cares about them. It's that old adage of they don't care to learn, unless they learn that we care.

When sixth-graders go to a new school they may not have those relationships that they had at their old elementary school. Is that part of the problem?

It really depends on what they call the "feeder patterns" of the school, so how the elementary schools matriculate up to the middle school. I've been in a middle school where they had five elementary schools feed into the school. That can be an issue. So that means even more that there needs to be a dialogue between elementary and middle grades to make sure those transitions are smooth.

Now in a K-8 structure, those conversations still need to happen, but the benefit of that is that everyone's in the same building. Transition conversations need to happen to ease the transition of sixth-grade students regardless of a 6-8 school or a K-8 school or whatever it is.

Sixth grade can be a rough time. Is being a sixth-grade student just always hard?

Well, they're a young adolescent first. So a young adolescent has unique characteristics that the school needs to recognize and respond to. For instance, they're undergoing the most rapid physical and cognitive change in their life in this grade. The only other time that it's this fast is birth to 3.

So, having a difficult time as a sixth-grader is in some ways regardless of the grade configuration. They're going through a massive identity shift with friends, with family, with their relationship to academics, to other adults in their lives, to other kids in their lives, trying to figure it all out.

Having difficulty in the sixth grade is part of that young adolescent journey. How we respond to and support them on that journey starts with an awareness that they're on it.


Quite honestly, one of the first things that a middle grades program needs to do is just to remember that. Have the teachers and administrators and staff members in the school take those characteristics of young adolescents that they have and remember what they were like at this age too.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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