In their early teens, kids can be especially prone to “anxiety and stress due to social, academic, and societal factors,” writes sixth-grade ELA and social studies teacher Kasey Short for the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). It can be a difficult phase of adolescence as kids balance “rapid physical maturation, ever-changing friend groups, and navigating how they see themselves in comparison to how they are seen by others.”
This period of intense cognitive growth occurs at the same time as students are acclimating to the pressures of middle school with new teachers, complex schedules, and increased academic demands. And while teachers “cannot remove or alter many of the factors that cause students stress and anxiety,” writes Short, they can help by “creating a classroom environment where students feel calm, cared for, and safe.”
A good place to start is by letting kids know that you “value what is important to them, even if to me, it doesn’t seem like a big deal,” notes Short. “By listening to the little things, I am building an environment where they will feel safe sharing their feelings and ideas.”
To help normalize the heightened social and emotional experiences of her students, Short likes to assign a reflection exercise in which she asks students to respond in writing to a set of prompts such as: “What is stressful about school?” and “What aspects about school help you feel calm?”
Students’ responses to these prompts become a jumping-off point for a whole-class discussion about common stressors and how to move through these to regain a sense of calm. The activity gives students “a safe space to discuss their feelings,” and helps them realize they’re not the only ones experiencing difficult emotions. Short wraps up the lesson with a brainstorming session aimed at identifying stress-busting strategies that kids can use whenever they need to.
Research shows that reflective practices like this can make a significant impact among young teens. In a 2019 study, sixth-grade students read stories that featured older students describing their fears and anxieties related to middle school, and how they eventually managed to find their footing and fit in. Then the sixth graders wrote about “how they could address their own difficulties and how those difficulties will become easier to manage over time,” wrote study co-author Geoffrey D. Borman. Following the exercise, researchers noted significant boosts in grades, attendance, and behavior among the new students. The sixth-grade students, wrote Borman, learned that “middle school adversity is common, short-lived, and due to external, temporary causes rather than personal inadequacies.”
Build Peer Connections
Because young adolescents tend to put a high value on the opinions of peers, it can be a uniquely positive experience to pair young middle schoolers with older students for occasional or regular check-ins. Especially when sixth-grade students are transitioning from elementary into middle school, these check-ins with an older student can provide comfort and support. “Have older kids call, email, or videoconference incoming students to welcome them to school and tell them about the experience,” suggests English teacher Maze Cunningham. For kids who need more support throughout the year, consider asking “eighth-grade volunteers to be on-call as buddies for kids who need more mentoring.”
About one month into the school year, once students have built a level of trust with each other, middle school teacher Daria Pizzuto introduces mindfulness to her sixth and eighth graders. It’s a practice she says helps address students’ anxiety and stress, boosts focus and creativity, and fosters “stable behavior and patience.” Twice a week, her students practice different relaxation techniques like deep breathing or calming visualizations. “Teachers often ask how to create buy-in with their students,” says Pizzuto. “Making mindfulness part of a routine in your classroom is key: After a few giggles the first time, students will soon be asking for ‘that thing we do ... the relaxation practice.’”
But mindfulness isn’t just about explicit routines. When educators practice being fully present in the classroom, Short says it’s another way of modeling calm for students. “When a student has a question or wants to share something, I try to stop what I am doing, make eye contact with them, and listen,” writes Short. This subtle practice helps everyone “feel calm and models the type of social interaction I expect of them when they interact with each other.”
Foster a Mistake-Friendly Classroom
No one likes making mistakes—especially young teens in a classroom filled with 25 of their middle school peers. But when teachers create a mistake-friendly classroom, it normalizes failure for students and teaches them to persevere through tough problems, making mistakes and learning from them along the way.
In her classroom, Short frequently communicates to her students that making mistakes is a normal and productive part of learning, thereby building trust and reducing students’ anxiety when academic tasks become especially difficult. Once students know it’s OK to make mistakes—to forget a textbook in a locker or flub a multi-step word problem—it helps create an environment where they feel safe. “By showing them it is OK to make these little mistakes, they feel safe coming to me when they have made a bigger mistake, and they know I will help them work through it,” writes Short. It’s also a stress reducer because “they trust me when I say there is no reason to be stressed and that with mistakes come additional opportunities to learn.”