Head of School Blog
Susan Tyree Dempf, Ph.D.

Middle School Matters

The middle school years are a special time in the life of a child.  It is a time in their development when they are old enough to enjoy some independence while at the same time they are still fully provided for and protected by their family.  It is a critical developmental period when patterns of behavior are established and confirmed.

Ideally, the middle school experience is a blend of the excitement and fun of learning associated with the elementary classroom experience and the seriousness of purpose required in high school.  Middle school is the time when a student’s attitude toward a subject (albeit sometimes largely influenced by the characteristics of the teacher) is established and likely confirmed.  As such, it is essential that the learning opportunities presented are engaging, relatable and allow for collaboration among these young learners.

Even more significant than the firming of a student’s attitude toward a subject, the middle school years are the time during which a student establishes his or her perceptions about their own ability in that area of study.  Comments such as “I’m no good at math” or “I can’t write” can become self-fulfilling prophecies if a student is allowed to shy away from those areas in which they may initially struggle.  It is essential that teachers and administrators offer students and their parents a path out of this land of self-doubt.

The ‘coasters’ of middle school (those students who possess, or present, sufficient demonstrated knowledge to ‘get by’ without much effort) are likewise in need of notice. Skilled teachers motivate this group to see and believe in their own potential and to offer learning opportunities that move them from the sidelines and into the action.  For those students who excel at an area of academic or co-curricular interest, middle school is a great time to further develop skills that will set them up for advanced study in high school and later potentially set them apart from other applicants in search of college admission.

Dr. John Lounsbury, noted by the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) as one of the founders of the middle school education movement, summed up the significance of the middle school experience:

Of all the types and kinds of development that occur during these early adolescent years, one kind is of particularly critical importance, yet it has seldom been recognized. No other age level is of more importance to the future of individuals, and, literally, to that of society; because these are the years when youngsters crystallize their beliefs about themselves and firm up their self-concepts, their philosophies of life, and their values—the things that are the ultimate determinants of their behavior.

With this in mind, it is clear that middle school matters, it is not just a placeholder for the years between elementary school and high school. These are “the wonder years.”  This is the time when a world of possibilities can and should be opened to them. The curriculum, the learning environment and co-curricular activities offered must provide the necessary opportunities for discovery, exploration and growth. Who your child will become depends upon it…how your child will shape our world is resting upon it.

Dr. Dempf

Published in Streetscape Magazine in June 2018