The Importance of Early Adolescence

Dr. John Lounsbury was a middle level education advocate and founding member of the Association for Middle Level Education, previously National Middle School Association. The following is excerpted from his article “Understanding and Appreciating the Wonder Years.”

Growing Up Forgotten, as Joan Lipsitz titled her landmark study, captured the major reality revealed by her research. This 1977 publication was instrumental in bringing recognition to early adolescence as a distinct stage of human development.

While our language limited the classification of human to infants, children, adolescents, and adults, the years of transition between childhood and full adolescence comprise a unique stage, one not well served by our society and its institutions.

In fact, these years have not been seen as constituting an important period at all. Lipsitz’ study documented the limited research, attention, and advocacy focused on young adolescents.

The beliefs generally held about young adolescents have been largely negative and are more myths than realities. Gradually, however, in recent decades society has come to acknowledge this stage of life as a period that warrants special attention. The booming middle school movement is focused on providing an appropriate educational program for 10- to 15-year-olds.

Young adolescents do not just get bigger. Distinctively different bodies emerge from these growing years. More extensive physical and personal changes occur during this time than at any other time of life. While the physical changes are the most obvious, profound changes are taking place in mental, social, emotional, and moral development.

The dramatic physical changes do not occur at the same time or at the same rate. The fact that girls mature a year and a half to two years ahead of boys is widely recognized, but the tremendous variation in the rate and timing of the developmental processes of both boys and girls is not so well known.

Some boys have achieved puberty before some girls have started. And what one child accomplishes in growth in 18 months may take up to three or more years in another.

As a result, a seventh grade class is likely to include men, women, and children. It is virtually impossible for young adolescents to keep their chronological age in conformity with their social age, physical age, intellectual age, and/or social/sexual age. The priorities of young adolescents tend to be on their social and physical development, a fact many teachers unwisely ignore.

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.

And having left these formative years, individuals change very, very little in significant ways in values and standards. Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed that these are the years “during which the lines of character are graven.”

Albert Schweitzer also considered that “The most important years in life are those between nine and fourteen. This is the time to plant the seeds of knowledge in the mind—afterwards it is too late. This is the time to acquaint the young with the great spirits of mankind.”

More recently the early adolescent years have been viewed as the second and last chance to influence youth, to set their direction for the future.

In light of this reality, the case for declaring the early adolescent years as the most important period of life is clear.

John Lounsbury, dean emeritus of the School of Education at Georgia College (now the John H. Lounsbury College of Education) in Milledgeville, Georgia, was the publications editor for AMLE (formerly National Middle School Association) and remains active in middle level education.