Student Well-Being

Middle School Is Tough for Kids. Here’s What Districts Can Do to Help

By Sarah Schwartz — November 04, 2022 3 min read
A black female teacher cheerfully answers questions and provides assistance to her curious and diverse group of adolescent students as they work on an assignment in class.
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The critical middle school years can be a tough time for kids—and the pandemic magnified some of those challenges. A new research brief aims to give districts strategies for helping students through.

The report from Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district leaders, outlines the unique academic and social-emotional support that middle school students need, and how schools can set up systems to provide it.

Research has shown that academic achievement in middle school can predict later success, and that poor attendance and behavioral issues in these years can be early signals that students may struggle in high school.

Intervening in middle school is especially important now, said Maria Vazquez, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., and a member of Chiefs for Change.

During this period, students are figuring out their identities and, ideally, setting themselves up academically for the more-challenging work of high school. “That’s difficult enough,” Vazquez said. “And then you throw in all these other factors related to the pandemic? That’s the perfect storm.”

In Orange County, students dealt with the stressors that kids across the country felt during the first few years of the pandemic—the difficulties of remote learning, caring for younger siblings, parents losing jobs, and fear about how getting sick might affect their families, Vazquez said.

Districts shouldn’t assume that having returned to school buildings erases the effects of these challenges. Last year, when kids were back in classrooms, Orange County surveyed students about their sense of belonging in school. In middle school, less than half of students said they felt that sense of belonging—a drop from the year before.

“We said, OK, this can’t just be the pandemic,” Vazquez said. The district has since built on its previous efforts to engage middle schoolers socially and academically.

Here are a few of the strategies recommended by the Chiefs for Change report. See the full brief here.

Intentionally set students up for high school academic success

The report recommends aligning middle school curricula with high school readiness standards, and building partnerships between campuses to help identify students who might need extra support during the transition.

In Orange County, the district has worked to both fill in any gaps that students might have when they get to middle school, and to give them a head start on high school courses, Vazquez said. One way it does that is through tutoring: Middle schools offer tutoring programs in reading and math, and access to high school courses like Algebra, geometry, languages, and advanced science courses.

Give staff the tools for relationship-building, and make sure teachers know about extra resources

Student-teacher relationships are important at all grade levels, but especially in middle school, the brief notes. Research has shown that young adolescents can be intimidated by the middle school experience and have a deep desire to feel like they belong within a school community.

One way to address this is to create interdisciplinary teacher teams that all work with the same students and plan together. The report also emphasizes the importance of guidance programs.

Orange County had all of the right staff in the building, Vazquez said: social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists. But they still weren’t seeing students access these services when they needed support.

This year, they’re involving teachers in that process—not to do the work of counselors, but to provide that key referral step.

“Our goal is to have 80 percent of all of our staff trained on mental health first aid, so that they can understand the signs of when a child is in distress, when a child needs help,” she said.

Create opportunities for parent involvement in a new landscape

The transition to a bigger building and a more complex schedule isn’t only intimidating for kids.

“Middle schools tend to be larger and more complex than elementary schools, making it more difficult for parents and caregivers to figure out where or how to become involved,” the brief reads.

Chiefs for Change recommends a few options that can help orient parents to a new, bigger school and the benchmarks that their kids will need to meet. They can sponsor events like workshops on graduation requirements, or hire dedicated staff who are assigned to check in with families periodically.

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