The Boy in the Middle

The social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of middle schoolers

The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) emphasizes that attending to the social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs and assets of middle school children is central to their intellectual development. As middle level teacher educators, it has become apparent to us that there is great diversity in how teachers attend to these, if at all. Further, as parents of middle school children, we have insight into how middle school student needs and assets are addressed.

In this article, we view the middle school experience through the eyes of one boy. This is not meant to neglect girls. We have chosen to focus on a boy’s experience because as parents of middle school boys, we feel most qualified.

We constructed this diary of a typical seventh grade school day from a fictitious boy’s experience based on what we have observed and heard from our own children. In closing, we discuss the major features of the middle school child’s experience that deserve further attention from practitioners.

Thursday, September 17

Well, the first few weeks of seventh grade aren’t so bad. Last year, I was pretty nervous about starting middle school. The first day was kind of confusing. In middle school we have to switch classes, and we have lockers. Some of the eighth graders seemed big and scary. I feel more used to it now. I’m in seventh grade and I’m not as low as a sixth grader, but the eighth graders still pick on us. Jameel was book-checked yesterday by an eighth grader. That is when someone smacks down really hard on your books when you are carrying them and they all fall to the ground. Everyone laughed.

Mom got me up to catch the bus early today because I missed it yesterday. I am hardly ever hungry for breakfast so I skip it and am starving by lunch. There are some bullies on the bus, so I usually sit by myself in the middle so no one will notice me too much. Sometimes Jason sits with me and we talk quietly. He likes Minecraft too, and he even can record his games and put them on YouTube!

1st Block Math 8:20 am
Anyway, we have four periods a day, because we have this weird block scheduling where we have “odd” and “even” days. First block today was math. I can’t really remember what we did. Something about fractions and ratios? It seems like it’s always fractions. Who cares about fractions? I have a hard time paying attention too. Ms. T is nice, and she only yells when people start to talk too much, but it’s always the same. She tells us we’re going to do something, then she shows us how to do it, and then we do it. Alya sits next to me, which is totally awkward because this summer I had a crush on her and asked her to go to a movie with me. She turned me down and Ms. T insists on having us sit in the same seats all quarter. So I am stuck next to her and it’s so embarrassing.

2nd Block PE 10:00 am
Second block today was PE but we only get it every third time because we have to rotate with Art and Spanish. Ms. P is cool. She pretty much lets us play whatever game we are learning about for the unit. She just kind of sits in her chair and watches. Jason’s in that class and I always try to get on his team. Today Ms. P was out and there was no sub, so Mr. G had to teach our class. He’s kind of bossy. We were doing basketball and he made us write a paragraph about how to pass the ball. We didn’t even get to play until the end of class! At least it was better than the puberty and drug units we did in Health.

Lunch 11:45 pm
I get to sit with my friends at lunch, which is cool because in sixth grade we had assigned seats. A bunch of the really popular kids sit together. Today they sat with the girls and Jason went over to sit with them too, but I stayed in our group. Lunch was pretty rushed today though, like it usually is. Mom didn’t have time to make me lunch, so I had to stand in line at the cafeteria, and by the time I got through there was only about 10 minutes left. Lunch is like the only time we have to talk to our friends so I hardly ever eat much. It was worse today. They actually cut our lunch by 5 minutes because we have state testing next week and they needed to have us do some drills or something in our 3rd block classes.

3rd Block English 12:15 pm
Mr. A, my English teacher, is pretty nice and he is also my advisory teacher, which is pretty cool because he was a baseball player so we talk about that. He even came to one of my games when my dad was deployed and couldn’t come. He lets us sit wherever we want but we have those stupid desks that have the attached desk and chair and I’m getting tall and hardly fit. Mr. A is always bugging me to sit still but I can’t in those weird desks. Anyway, we are reading Flowers for Algernon. Spoiler alert, the mouse dies. I know this because my grandma gave me the book last year and I already read it. Mr. A told me to read it again. Ugh. Mr. A gives us time to read in class, so I’ve been daydreaming lots and doodling. Then, I started nodding off and my stomach was growling. I was worried people would notice. I kinda started paying more attention when we were allowed to talk in our groups to plan our final project. It is more fun and makes the class go by faster when we can work with other people.

4th Block Science 1:45 pm
Last block was science. Mr. R … I don’t know what to say about him. He’s kinda strict most of the time, and we have to do some boring stuff, but then sometimes it’s fun. Today is a good example. He showed us a bunch of slides about disease and wanted us all to be quiet. I don’t really remember what he said. He didn’t tell us to write anything down. And then all of a sudden, it got fun! We did this activity where we got to get up and go around and spurt water in each other’s cups with eyedroppers. Then Mr. R put some drops in everyone’s cups and they all turned pink! Mr. R explained how it had to do with disease, but Jason and I were trying to squirt each other without Mr. R seeing, so I didn’t really hear it.

I did all my homework in advisory, which is totally cool. That way I can go home and play Minecraft before baseball practice. All my friends get on and we can talk to each other while we play. It’s cool ‘cause you can build stuff together and battle each other. Totally psyched for a weekend to chill out and sleep and not have to deal with any teachers or annoying people from school.


Growing understanding of young adolescents’ social, emotional, and physical needs and assets suggests that if these are not addressed, children may not reach their full capacity to learn in school. Here are some examples of this boy’s needs and assets and ways in which the school could better serve him.

Like many young adolescents, the boy is social. He wants to sit with his friends and he responds well to learning activities that are social. He enjoys working in groups in English and science while goofing around with his friends. At the same time, though, he is self-conscious. He is embarrassed about asking out Alya, distracted about his hair, and concerned about interacting with bullies. His teachers could take more advantage of opportunities to have students collaborate socially in positive ways. The school might think of ways to alter the school day, or create cooperative projects that engage students socially and benefit the school and community.

He is also developing intellectually. Most adolescents have the intellectual ability to understand even very abstract concepts. Merely focusing on social activity that is fun is not enough. These social activities must have some intellectual purpose that motivates the students to think. The science teacher, for example, seemed to have a creative activity for demonstrating the spread of infectious disease, but he made the connection to the disease concepts for the students. Instead, during the activity, he could have had the students discuss and explain how the disease was spreading throughout the population. With their attention focused on this task, the boy and his friends might have been less likely to be distracted by squirting each other.

Young adolescents are usually in the middle of puberty, and can be prone to emotional outbursts and mood swings. The middle school child may be seen laughing one minute and crying the next. A teacher might try to make herself aware of particularly difficult situations. For example, the math teacher might be more flexible with her seating chart. Even if she doesn’t know about the boy’s history with Alya, she might create a structure where students can change their seats throughout the semester. Maybe they can even “earn” the opportunity to choose their own seats. Mr. A’s efforts to connect with the boy when his father was deployed are notable. By attending to children’s emotional needs, we can support their academic potential.

The growing adolescent boy encounters boundaries within the middle school structure that physically impact him or otherwise constrain his need for physical activity. For example, the desks in English class are constricting. He is physically uncomfortable, which causes him to fidget and his teacher to become annoyed. PE is only offered every three days, and not all the class time is dedicated to physical movement. At lunch there is not enough time to eat; good nutrition is particularly important at this age.

These are just a few examples, from this single short diary, to illustrate the importance of attending to young adolescents’ needs and assets. Motivated middle school teachers might want to think of one of their own students as a “case study.” How is that boy, or that girl, being appropriately served by your school and in your classroom?