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Brains, Brains, Brains! How the Mind of a Middle Schooler Works

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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In honor of October's most awesome of holidays, I am going to begin a three-part series about the gentlemen zombie's choice of cuisine: the 'tween brain. However, I need to be frank. I'm not going to be able to teach you deeply about the 'tween brain here. I'm not a neurologist. What I am going to do is make an argument, hopefully a darn good one, as to why you should educate yourself further about it.

Imagine that this is the CliffNotes of 'tween brain research, but your research should not stop at this because, frankly, the more you know about how they learn, the more you can pass on to them the secrets of how they process and embed knowledge. In the end, this leads to greater achievement.

The following is an edited excerpt from my book on middle schoolers: 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. The chapter goes into more detail about how the tween brain works, but I thought I'd encapsulate it in this series of posts. So, in honor of Halloween, I present, The 'Tween Brain.

What are 'tweens most interested in? Please circle the correct response:


A. ancient history between the years of 400 BC and 1400 AD

B. how to write a literary analysis essay on the theme of Number the Stars

C. the definition of the term "quadratic equation"

D. themselves

Answer: D. It should come as no surprise that the most intriguing topic to a middle schooler is middle schoolers. I can't blame them. Their bodies are changing. Their priorities are changing. Their identities are mutating as fast as their bone structure, and they want to know about where they are going to land after their morphing is done, both mentally and physically. More importantly, they want to know how what we teach relates to them, not as people, but as tweens.

Tapping into 'Tweens

Look at it this way: your teaching every year is like a narrative, and ...if the A-story is the standards-based content, then the B-story is the tween-based content, and there is a huge difference between a middle-school classroom run by a teacher who takes on this added curriculum and a middle-school classroom that doesn't. It's the difference between silver and gray.

So when I realized this, I began to become a hobbyist in what a 'tween was and what made them tick. I began infusing my own professional development with brain research on how the 'tween brain works. I mean, if my job is to teach to it, I felt I should know more about it.

Therefore, my class became focused on not just what to learn, but how best to learn it. It became a class that taught students that they could, through using certain strategies, leave my classroom with greater intelligence than when they entered it, because they could control their own depth of learning.

It's this concept of "control" that's so fascinating to middle schoolers. For in every other aspect of their lives they are out of control. They wake up with different faces than the ones they went to sleep with, marked by zits while they slept. They don't drive but they want to go places. They can't get a worker's permit, but they need cash. Meanwhile, many adults tell them that they are too old for this but not old enough for that; so to realize that there is something that they can control, their own level of learning, is empowering. It's empowering for them to feel their level of intellect is in their hands and isn't a hand they were just dealt at birth. It's also empowering for the teachers to know that any student they get in the fall can have the ability to grow by the spring. All it takes is teaching 'tweens about what makes them tick and how they can tick better.

Changing Perspectives

The best resource I've found for brain research in regard to education is by Judy Willis. A neurologist turned teacher, Willis makes understanding all this stuff really relatable to the classroom. One of the most important points she makes is that people are not born at a certain intelligence level and stay that way. Intelligence is not gifted at birth, unalterable; and when students realize that they can alter their brain, it is absolutely empowering.

This myth that the brain is unalterable feeds into the insecure world of a middle schooler. To take from them that false burden of "that's just the way it is," is liberating. Anything you can do to help a 'tween feel more secure in their abilities and possibilities will potentially improve their achievement in your classroom. Anything you can do to make a 'tween feel more in control becomes a powerful tool for you and for them.

For this machine that is their brain is a tool, and it is one that, while it came to them from the factory all nice and new, can still be modified and souped up.

The 'tween brain is different developmentally than that of the elementary students and of the high schooler, and it must be treated as such. Even though we teach to the standards, our lessons should still reflect the existing solid science that proves how the brain learns best at this stage of development. If we want what we teach to be embedded into long-term memory instead of being discarded from short-term memory, we need to create lessons that send it to the area of the brain reserved for long term use.

For my next post, I will define some key phrases you should know about the 'tween brain and follow a memorized fact as it travels from point A to point B. And in the third post, I will offer some advice on activities to embed knowledge more deeply into the fickle and easily distracted middle school noggin.

What have you discovered about the middle schooler's mind? Please share your experiences and expertise with us in the comment section below.

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I just want to highlight this section:

"Anything you can do to help a 'tween feel more secure in their abilities and possibilities will potentially improve their achievement in your classroom. Anything you can do to make a 'tween feel more in control becomes a powerful tool for you and for them."

It seems to me that this is true across the age spectrum. At the same time, I can also see how the tween identity can be so precarious that the above becomes especially important.

Great article--I can't wait to read the next two parts!

Savio Rebelo's picture

Well written article. I would also add that middle-school is one of the more important periods in a child's life where parents need to keep communicating with teachers more often than sometimes. Parents also need to regularly talk to kids about their school life and listen to what they have to say in a welcoming setting. When kids (especially middle-schoolers) know that their parents are there for them they tend to talk if they need to kids an out to talk if they need to. Middle-schoolers face the challenging road through adolescence and strong parental involvement in middle-school years will develop stronger and confident adults.

Lisa Carey's picture
Lisa Carey
Education Consultant @ Kennedy Krieger Institute

Middle School teachers seeking additional information about the brains of their students should start their search with "Executive Functioning." While executive function (or dysfunction) is often a topic more associated with educational disabilities, the developing brain of a typical middle schooler is just bringing its EF skills "online" and supporting EF and its further development will only help your students to become more confident and independent learners. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has a wonderful (and free!) guide to EF on its website( titled "Executive Function 101". One of the most important concepts to keep in mind is that for a middle school student, you can have new and rigorous content, or you can have high EF demands, but you will never yield great results when you try to have both simultaneously.

Lynn's picture
Associate PProfessor of Applied Linguistics, Portland State Univesity

There's an interesting study Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) that actually taught 7th graders that intelligence isn't fixed but malleable. The ones that were taught that intelligence isn't fixed had more positive attitudes and stopped a downward trend in grades.
The link to the article is here:
The materials they used (or something very similar) is here:

It's a simple lesson that could be incorporated into a lot of middle school classrooms.

tamika's picture

Remembering the fact that middle schoolers brains are at a particular stage in its development, can help to keep adults patient and also a step ahead of these super savvy insane adolescents, who were no more different than many of us! So, thank you for reminding me that tweens aren't just deciding to give us a hard time, they are just undergoing a painful metamorphosis. We just have to give them the tools to manage this time and blossom into functioning young adults...

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