Transitions with the Brain in Mind

Teachers can help students during developmental changes.

Research findings and ongoing studies provide middle level professionals with information to help them continue to develop their understanding about the significant developmental changes that take place during adolescence. However, many young adolescents may not yet fully understand the cognitive, physical, and social transformations they experience.

This transitional period also includes moving from one level of school to another—from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school. For some students, these transitions occur with ease. Yet, for others, these time periods present unfamiliar challenges.

Many young adolescents seek independence, yet still need adult guidance and supervision. Some may “test boundaries” in their efforts to obtain more control over their decisions and lives. Some may isolate themselves in order to avoid humiliation. Some discover new interests and passions during exploratory experiences. Some may crave and seek attention through both positive and negative means. Some may stride through these years with few major concerns or challenges.

AMLE talks with author Shauna King about Transitions with the Brain in Mind

As educators, we know that students’ developing brains and changing bodies strongly influence their behaviors and reactions. What can we do to support students during the transition from elementary school to middle school? This article discusses several strategies middle level teachers can use to help students thrive during this time.

Positive Perspectives

Unfortunately, some teachers might make such statements as, “You won’t be able to get away with this in middle school” or “If you think this is tough, just wait until you get to middle school.” Such comments can create misconceptions and misunderstandings as well as negative attitudes toward middle level schools.

As educators, we need to know how students’ developing minds receive and process information while also considering their emotional and physiological needs. It is important that we provide accurate information and positive views to promote optimistic attitudes rather than communicate ideas that may induce unnecessary anxiety. We also need to be mindful of our tone and body language because young adolescents can easily misread and misinterpret statements and expressions.

Teaching with the Middle School Brain in Mind

Eric Jensen’s book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, includes information about how students’ brains are highly susceptible to environmental influences. Educators need to remain attentive to the different ways in which these effect all areas of development—physical, social, cognitive, and emotional.

To address the physical needs of middle level students, teachers need to find and create opportunities for students to engage in movement. Have students stand up and walk to submit their work instead of having one student (or the teacher!) collect work. Design learning experiences that require movement and include music because both can stimulate thinking and engagement.

Encouraging the individual social and cognitive development of each student is essential as students continue to search for and shape their identities and “place” in school and classroom communities as well as in communities outside of school.

Providing students with opportunities to make decisions about their work—how they will demonstrate their learning, with whom they work on a project, or the content of an assignment—promotes autonomy as students become decision makers and involved in their learning rather than passive consumers.

Emotional and Physical Changes

Young adolescents’ emotional development often includes unpredictable moods and mood swings. They experience a wide range of positive and negative emotions. Many experience heightened levels of self-consciousness, particularly about their physical appearance and the ways they differ from peers. Their decision making skills are “under construction” and this may lead to frustration, fear, and uncertainty as they grapple with choices. Identity issues are prevalent as they experiment and explore options while also determining values and ideals, causing their self-confidence to waver at times.

Early adolescence is a time period consisting of a range of physical changes that occur at different rates and times for different students. Their voices alter, body shapes and heights transform, girls start their periods, and boys begin growing facial hair. Because of the varying rates of development, boys and girls can feel even more self-conscious comparing themselves to their peers. How do you balance addressing their cognitive development while also considering these emotional fluctuations and physical changes?

Practical Responses

While sometimes difficult, it is both possible and necessary for middle level teachers to identify and implement practices that help students develop management skills and strategies so they can learn how to cope, problem solve, and thrive during these middle level years and beyond.

Goal setting is one particular practice that teachers can use to help students develop these skills and habits. Goals should include a focus on academic growth, yet also address other areas of students’ lives and development. Setting goals and creating action plans that focus on the “whole child” acknowledges the connections between learning, relationships, and emotions. Goal setting also serves as a motivator whereby students have opportunities to develop a focus and purpose for their actions as well as experience success when they accomplish their goals.

At the beginning of the school year, have students create academic, personal, and class goals. Monitor progress throughout the year and establish new goals after reaching and celebrating previously set goals.

Including opportunities for students to set and supervise their goals builds awareness and autonomy. In addition, providing time and scaffolds for students to wonder about and visualize future ambitions may help them develop a sense of self.

As educators, we need to support our middle level students by helping them understand these developmental changes as well as recognize that this life stage is an important phase of their development. Instead of fearing the middle level years, we need to help students embrace these years.

Our attitudes regarding our students, their development, and their possibilities strongly influence how they perceive themselves and others. It is essential for us to possess and communicate optimistic outlooks and welcome the opportunities to influence social development with positive displays of compassion, honesty, and respect.