Enhancing the Social and Psychological Development of Young Adolescents

Addressing the social and psychological development of young adolescents is critical.

How are you addressing the social and psychological development of your middle grades students? The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation caused many schools to place an enormous emphasis on promoting academic skills at the expense of addressing the needs of the “whole child.” With the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), local schools are likely to have some flexibility to develop comprehensive plans to better address the holistic needs of their students.

Five areas that affect students’ social and psychological development are self-esteem, achievement motivation, social skills, coping skills, and aspirations. Although we will look at these five areas separately, in many situations they compliment each other.


Although school achievement affects self-esteem and vice versa, the focus on improving student self-esteem should not be connected solely to improving academic achievement. A formal program is not necessary to nurture students’ self-esteem; daily interactions with teachers and the environment they create in classrooms have a significant effect on self-esteem.

Although positive feedback from others is important, how students interpret and process the feedback ultimately determines its effect on their self-esteem. Teachers can help nurture students’ self-esteem in several ways. For example:

  • Use learning activities for which students receive feedback that helps build confidence.
  • Work with students’ “significant others” (parents/guardians, grandparents, family members, and other students) to reinforce their positive accomplishments in school.
  • Share success stories of adults whose childhood backgrounds and accomplishments were similar to those of your students.
  • Help students identify their strengths and resources, and consider how to use them to achieve educational and personal goals.
  • Emphasize the relationship between success in and outside of school.
  • Reduce competition between students; cooperative learning takes place in groups under the teacher’s guidance.
  • Monitor interaction in the classroom to eliminate teasing, bullying, and negative feedback.

Achievement Motivation

Achievement motivation is the student’s drive, desire, and persistence to master a goal or task. Students with high achievement motivation have “stick to it” behaviors (sometimes referred to as grit) that often lead them to accomplish what they set out to do.

It is important for students to believe they can be successful in school and that their goals are worthwhile. Further, students need positive feedback for what teachers may view as a small accomplishment to prompt the student to put forth continued effort to accomplish the next tasks. It is also important for students to have input about what happens in their classrooms. Strategies to enhance achievement motivation include:

  • Structure activities so that every student’s achievement is recognized.
  • Create challenges that build on students’ existing strengths.
  • Create ways for students to assess and discuss their progress.
  • Offer “personal best” awards and other incentives for attendance, grades, and/or achievement.
  • Structure classroom experiences so that students feel responsible for their actions.
  • Have students evaluate their own work performance as they work to produce a quality product.
  • Structure lessons to prompt active participation from all students.

Social Skills

Social skills pertain to students being able to work and interact productively with others in meaningful ways. Students who have good social skills know how to develop positive interpersonal interactions, avoid using negative and violent behaviors, and have tolerance for those whom they may view as “different.” Productive interpersonal relations often contribute to a positive self-esteem.

Strategies for enhancing students’ social skills include:

  • Assign informal small-group learning activities in space for groups to congregate and to cooperate in developing peer-help programs.
  • Use activities that emphasize social interaction with a heterogeneous mix of students.
  • Eliminate social subgroups that ostracize others.
  • Help students accept and appreciate individual differences.
  • Emphasize the need to be sensitive to the feelings of other people.
  • Reduce competition when it can lead to negative relationships.
  • Teach diversity in the context of showing how differences among people are strengths, especially for problem solving.
  • Demonstrate positive social skills in the way you interact with students and others.

Coping Skills

Students who consistently experience failure at tasks can fall into a state of “learned helplessness.” They may feel they have so little control over outcomes that are important to them that they develop the attitude of “why even try?”

Coping skills can help students overcome adversity. Strategies for enhancing coping skills include:

  • Incorporate activities that encourage students to talk about their emotions, listen to their classmates express their feelings, and reflect on what motivates people. Provide stress-free learning environments.
  • Encourage nonjudgmental and non disruptive venting of emotions rather than negative verbal and physical aggression.
  • Stress to students that they can have control over what happens to them.
  • Teach students various t methods of relaxation, such as deep muscle relaxation and deep breathing, for times when they need strategies to reduce anxiety.
  • Foster a sense of belonging for the students in the classroom so they feel a connection to school.


The current emphasis on college and career readiness focuses not only on academic skills needed for students to maximize their potential, but also on the aspirations students need to develop the knowledge, drive, and motivation to pursue future endeavors.

It is important to help students set aspirations for their future and to help them understand what it takes to reach their life goals. Strategies to help students enhance aspirations include:

  • Demonstrate the relationship between schoolwork and careers by using vocational, career, and other job-related examples in classroom activities. Talk to students about their interests and relate those interests to possible vocations, careers, and college programs.
  • Point out the relationship between success in school and success in the real world. .
  • Assure students that everyone has positive attributes and that those, coupled with training and aspirations, can lead to a successful and rewarding career.
  • Expose students to a variety of careers and avocations so they can become “career wise” across curriculum areas.
  • Explain to students what “career and college readiness” means by using activities designed to pique their aspirations.
  • Use advisory time to teach life and employment skills.

Taking the Time

Self-esteem, achievement motivation, social skills, coping skills, and aspirations are critical to the development of middle school students. Teachers make important contributions to students’ present and future lives through these five areas. Reviewing and reflecting on the practices presented here will be beneficial to teachers and, in turn, students.