Student Wellness

The Challenge of Middle School Entry

School is beginning and hundreds of thousands of kids are about to enter middle school. It’s my hope that the schools are ready for them. But are they?

I recently revisited a short film, "Before," which captures the voices of 11-year-olds who are about to enter middle school. It was made by a father who got the idea for the film as he listened to his son’s friends talk about how they felt the summer after they graduated from 5th grade. Available as a free download, http://thebeforeproject.org, the film focuses on their apprehension about middle school.

The years of pre-and early adolescence are filled with anxieties about body changes, relationships, and popularity. They also grapple with stories they’ve heard about negative peer pressure and bullying in middle school. As one girl in the film comments, “I think everybody starts to worry what they look like more, even the boys do.” And another 11-year-old says “It kinda feels a bit awkward because you’re stuck between two areas, child and teenager….it feels weird.”

The middle school entry process needs improvement. Middle school educators who watch Before may get a better idea of what needs to be done to meet the social and emotional needs of entering students. Middle schools need to re-evaluate and strengthen the assistance offered to students as they make the leap from elementary to middle school. Every middle school should have a comprehensive orientation program for entering students facilitated by a teacher or counselor who understands the socio-emotional components of learning. What can schools do to make kids feel safe? How can they be helped in the transition to separate subject area classes with a variety of teachers? How can they be helped to build connections and support for each other? How can we best allay their concerns?

"Before" could be used to stimulate discussion. What would you say if you were interviewed? Which student did you identify with most? Discussions could take place in small student support groups. Those groups, formed during the orientation, can then be linked to an Advisory “class” that meets regularly. These should be facilitated by teachers with the ability and commitment to focusing on the concerns of entering students. Kids need to feel safe and have some sense of community. Talking with kids from schools where this exists, I repeatedly hear that the sense of community has helped them not feel isolated and, in some cases, helped them resist joining a gang.

Bullying should be a primary focus of the orientation. Both verbal and physical bullying is rampant in middle school. Many students have anxiety about being bullied based on what they’ve heard about middle school. Verbal put downs of other students and physical attacks have to have consequences. I’ve had students read the part of Catcher in the Rye in which Ackley, a verbally abused kid, commits suicide. Students need to know how it feels to be the victim of bullying.

There also needs to be discussion about the use of tweets, Facebook, and other popular internet posting sites for critical comments of other students. Much bullying, negative pressure, and malignant shaming that kids fear occurs on these social media platforms. I’m aware that all the kids in Before are white, a function of their neighborhood. A group of black, Latino, and immigrant kids might have concerns related to the social environments they live in. But the concerns I’ve mentioned are also universal.

Every middle school should address this challenge. Educators and parents need to recognize that in the first year of middle school the emotional lives of kids should be primary. Without a nourishing environment both the lives of the kids and their academic achievement will suffer. It takes work to create a healthier environment, but the results will greatly improve the lives of entering middle school students.

(Please note that this commentary originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on August 14th.)

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.