Food for Thought: Developing the “Whole” Young Adolescent

Every educational meal we create must begin with a redefinition of achievement. We typically equate achievement with grades, testing, and GPA scores. However, we know that if we place too much focus on numerical or grading success, we risk losing the whole student. Our young adolescents are trying to achieve in multiple areas—areas that demand our full attention. They are shifting, changing, and even molting in five distinct ways: physical, cognitive-intellectual, social-emotional, moral, and psychological. These critical areas are educational foods themselves, and we must explore their complexities and subtleties in order to meet our students’ unique learning needs.

The physical development of a young adolescent is like yeast. It’s the basis for many recipes, but by itself, it can appear aimless and unfettered. As a living organism, yeast needs warmth and a measured, consistent structure to activate and grow. The same can be said about the physical development of a young adolescent. Because middle school kids are active organisms (like yeast) they need us to plan thoughtfully and provide them with opportunities for physical engagement as they learn in a secure environment.

The cognitive-intellectual development of a young adolescent is akin to a Reuben sandwich. Corned beef. Sauerkraut. Swiss cheese. Thousand Island dressing. Rye bread. Separately, the Reuben makes no sense. However, when we put its pieces together, the sandwich is wonderful. The middle school student brain—and how we foster its growth—is very similar. Synapses firing and misfiring, lobes changing irregularly, hemispheres conversing sporadically, and connections often struggling to be made. Taken on their own, all those parts can make the young adolescent brain seem like a hot mess. But it is a wonderful mess—like the Reuben. In order to construct the best cognitive sandwich, we must acknowledge the separate parts that make the middle school brain work and plan daily activities with novel challenges to foster growth and make new connections.

Socially-emotionally, young adolescents are like chili. When making chili, the ingredients and basic process are clear. A great chili is born from a slow process: the most vital part is time. The same is true when we support the social-emotional needs of young adolescents. We must put them together in a safe, supportive environment and give them daily opportunities to talk, share, express, and debate with each other as they learn. In addition, like excellent chili cooks, we must give them enough time to do that critical work.

The moral and psychological development of a young adolescent are linked, like pancakes with mixed-in ingredients—like blueberries or chocolate chips. In terms of pancake batter, it is almost impossible to make it free of lumps; as a result, when batter hits a hot griddle, it’s bumpy, clumpy, and irregular looking. This is similar to the psychological development of our middle grades students. Their psyche is still forming, evolving, and being shaped by new moral challenges (the mixed-in ingredients). This includes the major war being waged within self—the battle between the ego and the id. Serving my wants versus serving others. Being popular versus being a true friend. The school environment can be a hot griddle, and these psychological pancakes with their morality mix-ins stack up, one upon the other daily. We must not only acknowledge this internal dialogue, but we must also help our students when the pancakes pile up too high by giving them the best support and utensils to handle the job. This supportive effort is not one person’s job; we are all wonderfully and joyfully responsible.