Where the action is: Exploring adolescents’ perspectives of middle school social venues

Busy High School Corridor During Recess With Blurred Students And Staff

This article originally appeared in the February, 2021 issue of Middle School Journal. AMLE members receive full access to Middle School Journal as a benefit of membership. Explore Middle School Journal. Explore AMLE membership.

This article supports an understanding of the following characteristics of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe :

  • Educators respect and value young adolescents.
  • Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about young adolescents, equitable practices, and educational research.
  • The school environment is welcoming, inclusive, and affirming for all.

“They think we’re being overdramatic—that it ain’t that hard—and it really is. People fail for a reason—it’s hard!” –Brooklen, 7th grade student

“They compare us to them when they were in middle school. But it’s totally different now! That was like 20-some years ago!” –Sharkah, 7th grade student

Navigating a multitude of dynamic environments throughout their days at school, young adolescents negotiate various authority structures, cultural norms, and peer group standards in non-academic school spaces. Experienced in bathrooms, hallways, cafeterias, locker rooms, school buses and other venues, the opportunities and risks of these places deeply influence young adolescents’ middle school lives. Laden with culture, history, and value, these spaces are important to the young adolescents who daily interact in them (Craig, Gregus, Elledge, Pastrana, & Cavell, 2016).

Though less adult-structured than classroom settings, these venues have highly organized and intricate adolescent-directed processes (Bettis & Adams, 2005; Parault, Davis, & Pellegrini, 2007). It is the relative lack of adult-directed structure that allows for increased adolescent-directed structure, resulting in increased opportunity for student socialization processes to occur (Parault et al., 2007). Unfortunately, these opportunities often result in non-academic school spaces serving as venues for sexual harassment and bullying in addition to other negative and positive social processes (American Association of University Women, 2001; Bettis & Adams, 2005; deLara, 2008; Letendre, Ostrander, & Mickens, 2016; Migliaccio, Raskauskas, & Schmidtlein, 2017; Parault et al., 2007; Perkins, Perkins, & Craig., 2014; Vaillancourt et al., 2010; Williford, Fite, DePaolis, & Cooley, 2018). Supporting the need for educator exploration into these spaces, young adolescents describe adults as ignoring, misunderstanding, trivializing or not perceiving social processes in various school environments such as hallways, cafeterias, bathrooms, and other physical spaces in and around schools (Kantorová, 2009; Pearlstein, 2003; Ramsey, Spira, Parisi, & Rebok, 2016).

Providing support for young adolescents to practice the complex nuances of social interaction is an essential charge of middle level educators. To more effectively serve young adolescents in these spaces and to grow and maintain positive school climates, educators need to explore the perspectives of the individuals who are most impacted by the policies, procedures, and social processes of these places—the students themselves (Johnson, Burke, & Gielen, 2012).

While much research has focused on varying perspectives of school climate, that perspectives of these spaces differ between young adolescents and adults reinforces the need for continued investigation into non-academic school spaces (Carter Andrews & Gutwein, 2020; Cash, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2015; Cash, Debnam, Waasdorp, Wahl, & Bradshaw, 2019; Kantorová, 2009; Letendre et al., 2016; Ostrander, Melville, Bryan, & Letendre, 2017; Ramsey et al., 2016; Riney & Bullock, 2012).

Exploring the perspectives of four young adolescents, this case study highlights the need for educator inquiry into young adolescents’ perspectives of the social processes of their specific and unique non-academic school spaces. Investigation into spaces such as buses, hallways, cafeterias, locker rooms, bleachers, and other spaces in and around their school grounds grows educator understanding of the holistic student experience. Three anchor questions informed this exploration:

  1. What non-academic school spaces and activities therein are important to young adolescents?
  2. How do young adolescents describe adults’ approaches to rules in these spaces?
  3. How do young adolescents describe ways to improve interactions between adults and students in these spaces?

Called to work toward establishing and maintaining welcoming, inclusive, and affirmative school environments, (Bishop & Harrison, 2021), educators do well to explore the non-academic spaces within their schools. Employing a theoretical lens viewing all spaces and places as pedagogical (Gruenewald, 2003), this case study explores important school places, spaces, and social processes of adolescence.

The importance—and complexity— of non-academic school spaces

Within non-academic school spaces are complex and evolving authority structures, histories, peer group norms, and self-identities. (George, 2007; Kalish & Cornelius, 2007; Tarrant, North, & Hargreaves, 2004). Impacting their social, emotional, and academic development, these spaces are important environments for the work of young adolescents (Bettis & Adams, 2005). Though much focus of educators and educational research is on academic processes and achievement in schools, attention focused on the social processes in various school spaces is vital to informing educators understanding of their students’ overall emotional and social development (Catalano, Haggerty, Oesterle, Flemming, & Hawkins, 2004). For example, Jewett (2005) described the school bus—a social site generally overlooked by education researchers—as “a mobile threshold where multiple social meanings relevant to the lives of passengers overlap and congregate” (p. 50). Like the school bus, other spaces in and around schools—and the social processes within them—deeply inform the lives of middle school students. Friendship building and ending, romantic relationship processes, bullying, peer and gang formation and activity, and informal and underground economies all take place in these school spaces. Water fountains, bus loading areas, independent and small group work environments, and other spaces unique to middle schools serve as the sites for adolescent social activity and identity formation. Educator exploration of adolescent perspectives of these spaces can reveal unseen or misunderstood social processes fundamental to the social and emotional growth of— or damage to—students. Inadequate understanding of these spaces by educators may perpetuate the often-described “aloof and ignorant” adult stereotype. More worrisome is that lack of understanding of the complex processes and student perspectives of these spaces may lead to inadequate or wholly inappropriate policies, procedures, and educator/student interactions.

Illustrative of persistent popular media portrayals (Fellows, O’Dowd, & Westerkamp, 2007) and broad societal assumptions (Orenstein, 2015) made about the social processes in these spaces, Mann’s (1995) stereotyped description of a middle school dance, without providing or acknowledging adolescent perspective, may be entirely contrary to the students’ experience.

The conventional wisdom is that a school dance allows students to learn lifelong social skills. Maybe, but that’s not what happens at our middle school dances. The usual scenario is that the boys stand in one part of the decorated gym and the girls stand in another part. They rarely talk to each other and they rarely dance. Is it possible that students don’t know how to dance, especially slow dances? (p. 14)

Gaining a better understanding of young adolescents’ perspectives of these spaces and their processes assists middle grades educators in moving away from persistent assumptions such as Mann’s (1995) toward better-informed practice. Layering their own understandings with adolescent perspectives of these spaces, educators can become more attuned to the lived experiences of students at school. A result of this balance of perceptions and understandings may be creation and maintenance of more flexible, equitable, just, safe, and developmentally appropriate policies and procedures.

Each non-academic space has unique characteristics informing the social processes taking place within it. Influencing social interactions in these spaces are characteristics such as; physical size of the space (a cafeteria or gym compared to a music practice room), the size of the population in the space, (hallways filled with students compared to outdoor nooks that have few students), lighting, surveillance, and supervision—or lack thereof— of the space, location or lack of windows, opportunity for seating, the obligatory nature of the space (students required to meet in the gymnasium before the start of school compared to voluntary meeting of friends at a locker in-between classes), and available time, (30 minutes for lunch compared to 4 minute passing periods), and other physical characteristics (such as temperature of the space or its proximity to other spaces).

The characteristics of the young adolescents and adults who occupy these spaces also impact the social processes that occur within them. The number of participants, age, gender identities, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic identifications, cultural standards, socioeconomic status, academic standing, school-discipline histories, extracurricular interests, and the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the participants influence how individuals interact. Of particularly acute need for educators to understand more deeply are the perspectives of young adolescents who identify with historically and contemporarily disadvantaged or targeted identities or groups such as racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, individuals who are transgender, and students of disadvantaged socioeconomic status. Genuine dialogue and subsequent deeper understanding of these spaces may assist educators in building more positive relationships with students, and, subsequently, more just policies and practices (Carter Andrews & Gutwein, 2020).

Combined, the physical characteristics of non-academic school spaces, the characteristics of the individuals who occupy them, the tacit and overt rules and authority structures—both adult- and adolescent-directed—create unique environments where deeply meaningful friendships, breakups, isolation, underground economies, illegal activity, self-discovery, growth, and, most generally, adolescent development occur on daily bases.

Combined, the physical characteristics of non-academic school spaces, the characteristics of the individuals who occupy them, the tacit and overt rules and authority structures—both adult- and adolescent-directed—create unique environments where deeply meaningful friendships, breakups, isolation, underground economies, illegal activity, self-discovery, growth, and, most generally, adolescent development occur on daily bases.

Unfortunately, young adolescents describe these settings as locations adults do not always see and do not often understand.


Conducted in a medium-sized city in the Midwestern United States, this qualitative case study employed researcher observations and small group interviews with four 7th grade students. Consisting of a 47.5% White, 23.4% Black, and 15% Hispanic population, 61% of students in this 6th-8th grade middle school qualified for free or reduced lunch programs. Having a student population of 1,200, this school is in an urban environment surrounded by rural communities.

School building layout, observations, and participants

With classrooms in three separate areas, the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes have few opportunities for inter-grade interaction during passing times. Further divided into interdisciplinary “pods” the 7th and 8th grade students have brief opportunities for intra-grade interaction during 4-minute passing periods and at lunch. With team entry and exit to and from lunch staggered by 5 minutes, students sat with their teams in the same portion of the cafeteria but selected their own specific seats. In each hallway was an adult monitor who checked for written hall passes during class periods and supervised student movement during passing periods and in transition to and from lunch. Three or four supervisors, an administrator, and a school resource officer were present during lunch. Dividing their time between standing on the periphery and pacing among the tables, adults would frequently socialize with students and one another. In hallways and pods, teachers and administrators would often place themselves at hallway intersections.

Used to inform the semi-structured interview questions and to assist in the contextualization and articulation of participant perspectives, I conducted observations three times a week for 7 weeks in various non-academic locations throughout the school. Observations in the cafeteria, hallways, and locker areas in the “pods” of academic team classrooms focused on patterns of physical location of adults and students, enforcement of overt and tacit rules and procedures such as student-directed seating and table dismissal during lunch, verbal exchanges between students and between adults and students, and instances of rules violations (such as hood-wearing, running, or physical contact) both addressed and not addressed by adults. Working to balance a naturalistic observer role with respect for student and adult comfort and understanding of my presence, I happily responded to any student or adult inquiries regarding my observations but did not proactively engage with students in these spaces.

The four participants, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah, (self-chosen pseudonyms), were 7th graders on the same team. Bridgit, Brooklen, and Sharkah are Black girls and Dwayne is a boy of Indian descent. Engaging in two semi-structured small group interviews of one hour each, these young adolescents described their experiences in non-academic spaces throughout their school day. Developed for this case study and useful for exploration of all school settings, Table 1 presents three broad areas of inquiry and specific statements and questions used to guide the interviews.

Canceled were interviews with additional students due to school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Despite a relatively small number of interview participants and small amount of audio-recorded and transcribed interview data, I identified three themes drawn from Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah’s perspectives of their school’s spaces.


Used in the analysis of observation notes and interview transcripts was a two-phase coding process. Line-by-line open coding revealed key locations (such as bathrooms and water fountains), activities (such as social media creation and posting, primping, and fights), physical distance from adults (such as “right there” and “down the hall”), and perspectives on adult interpretation of rules (such as “unfair,” “ignored,” and “not a big deal”). The second phase of coding employed researcher (etic) observations to contextualize, clarify, and articulate participant statements (Carter Andrews & Gutwein, 2020). In this second phase, conceptual coding brought student perceptions into categories such as “important spaces,” “student/adult interaction,” and “ways to improve spaces.” Upon clustering of these codes and comparison to the research questions, I identified three persistent themes from the data regarding the four young adolescents’ perceptions of their school spaces.


Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah described activity-filled venues with complex student political dynamics, deep engagement in social media, and student navigation of arbitrarily adult enforced rules. Rather than conceptualizing these spaces as utilitarian, (for eating, using the restroom, or as storage places), these young adolescents viewed multiple non-academic spaces as venues vital to their social lives at school. Central social locations included bathrooms, water fountains, and specific student lockers. Though they spent 30 minutes each day in the cafeteria, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah viewed this space as adult-owned rather than student-owned. The physical openness of the cafeteria space combined with continuous observation from multiple adults influenced the framing of this space as less student-owned in terms of authority structure and social processes. Of greatest importance to these students were venues with little, infrequent, or “check-in” supervision by adults. Described are three themes related to these student-owned spaces: Spaces as playgrounds, adult enforcement of trivial rules while overlooking important ones, and need for balance between supervision and autonomy. Balanced with perspectives of adults in these settings, these perceptions provide fodder for dialogue into the improvement of these non-classroom settings.

Sometimes our space, sometimes their space—bathrooms, water fountains, and lockers as “playgrounds”

“The only thing I look forward to is the passing periods. And art.” –Brooklen

Described by Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah as “playgrounds,” bathrooms, water fountains, and specific students’ lockers were valuable venues for students to interact and express themselves with relatively little adult influence. Every individual described a specific location as “theirs,” viewing their spaces as personal and student-owned. Isolation from supervision was a fundamental factor in the use of these spaces as social venues. Indeed, only utilized as social venues when adult supervision was distant, the more publicly visible water fountains and specific students’ lockers were—paradoxically—cherished spaces often avoided.

Within these spaces—particularly bathrooms—the students described social media video creation, specifically Dubsmash and TicTok videos, primping, gossip, and fights as frequent activities. Deeply influencing the social processes in these spaces was the need to shift quickly to acceptable behaviors in the event an adult entered the space. Positioned as lookouts, students would alert others to impending adult entrance to these spaces. Though conceptualized as student-owned spaces, these locations often immediately shifted to adult-owned spaces upon entry by educators. Influenced by the possibility of immediate shift from student-owned to adult-owned, the purposeful and intense activities could usually shift to legitimate activities at any moment, but often with only limited success. Bridgit’s comments exemplify how students in these spaces worked to employ the utilitarian nature of these locations to their advantage when challenged by adults:

There this one teacher. She looked through the stall … .and she’s like; “Come with me.” And I was like; “What if I was really using the bathroom? You still going to look through the stall?” She said; “But you’re not.” But what if I was?

Under the guise of legitimate activity, Bridgit employed the space for social media use in this instance. Perceived as an adult hijacking of spaces, these young adolescents viewed the shift from student-owned “playground” to adult-owned “legitimate” space as an affront to their right to social autonomy. This affront led to student-described animosity between students and educators as each worked for space ownership. As important venues, these spaces require balance between supervision, safety, and student autonomy.

It’s the small stuff that matters—to the adults

“They care more about hoods than bullying … . [Y]ou can see somebody getting bullied and they don’t do anything about it.” –Dwayne

Described as trivial or arbitrary, rules regarding individual behavior, rather than relational behavior, were the focus of adults, as perceived by Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah. Enforcing rules regarding wearing of hoods, swearing, talking about teachers, and phone use—actions that were easily observable and less focused on peer relations—adults often did not address more subtle but important concerns such as bullying, intimidation, or ostracization. Summarizing this concept, Dwayne stated “They care more about what you [sic] doing than what someone else is doing to you.” Likewise, Bridgit viewed adults as focused on the wrong actions in these spaces: “It’s like the opposite stuff of what they are supposed to see, they see.”

Perceiving adults as focused on enforcing trivial rules while overlooking consequential processes, the young adolescents described non-classroom spaces as places where adult and student priorities differed. This difference informed their understanding that adults and students—though in the same physical space—viewed what students were doing in very different ways. Adults, whose focus was on outwardly observable behaviors either did not see or chose to ignore more nuanced processes described by the students. With their focus on nuanced relational behaviors such as peer interactions, social negotiation, and relational bullying, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah viewed adults as focused on trivial infractions while not addressing important issues.

Increasing animosity among the young adolescents interviewed was the view that adults treated students differently, based on student race. Reflecting the classroom findings of Carter Andrews and Gutwein (2020), Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah described teachers as enforcing non-classroom rules differently with students of color than with White students. Dwayne stated, “They don’t see the White kids doing bad things. When a White kid does something bad, they just give them a warning. They let them keep doing it and give them second chances all the time.” Summarizing views of individuals in the group, Dwayne continued, “They need to not to be racist and bogus—[adults] never get the White kids in trouble.” The young adolescents viewed adults as adversaries who arbitrarily focused on trivial rules while using a student’s race to determine whether to enforce those rules.

Finding balance between supervision and stifling students—improving non-academic school settings

“It’s like they smother us. It’s like I can’t breathe. I’m gonna suffocate. It’s like they’re all up on you, wanting to know what you’re doing every second. Just leave me alone!” –Sharkah

Acknowledging the need for adult supervision in these spaces, students described desire for increased student-autonomy in non-academic settings. Rather than describing the need for increased or decreased supervision when asked how to improve these locations, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah placed emphasis on improving communication with adults regarding the social processes and behaviors in these settings. Similar in concept to perceptions that enforcement of rules by adults focused on the trivial while not addressing the important, they described the need for more meaningful conversation with adults regarding root causes of behaviors and social processes. Encouraging them to probe beyond the observable to obtain deeper context when enforcing rules, Brooklen described desire for adults to engage in dialogue with students: “These teachers need to be focused on what’s wrong with the students instead of what they did, and [on] like why they did it. They should pay more attention to how kids react to each other.” Paradoxically, the young adolescents also described desire to be “left alone” by adults who were probing into trivialities of students’ days. When Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah complained about adults “getting up into their stuff,” cited as topics of conversation were trivial subjects such as the lunch menu and “how is your day?” Conversely, the students expressed desire for adult understanding and acknowledgment that their lives outside the classroom were complex and difficult.

Parallel to their perceptions that enforced were trivial rules and not addressed were important issues, the students stated that adult attempts to understand students focused on the unimportant while overlooking the important.

Broadly, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah stated that improvement to the climates of non-academic spaces required adults to shift their focus away from rules students viewed as trivial and arbitrary toward appreciation for the complexity of students’ lives and social interactions. To improve non-academic spaces such as bathrooms, water fountains, and hallways, adults in these places need deeper inquiry into student perception and experience. Rather than focus on supervision and rules, these young adolescents described improvement in these spaces as needing adults who better understand the context and culture of students, their behaviors, and interactions.


Obliged to balance safety through supervision with student access to peer socialization, educators must blend student perceptions with their own experience, expertise, and responsibility to individual and school needs. To this end, Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah described a desire for a balance of autonomy with supervisory adults who better understood behaviors and processes at deeper levels. Broadly, the young adolescents described adults as hijackers of their social venues, who focused on “the wrong rules’’ and who arbitrarily enforced those rules. To address these perceptions, dialogue between adults and students regarding how each perceives these venues may uncover discrepancies and work to inform all stakeholders. Rather than taking an adversarial right/wrong approach to perceptions of these spaces, both students and adults benefit from using differing perceptions as springboards to dialogue and improvements in policy, procedure, and interaction.

Differences in perception reinforces the need for educators to seek deeper understanding of the student experience throughout their schools. Proactive inquiry into diverse and complex student-centered settings such as buses, hallways, cafeterias and locker rooms can facilitate meaningful improvement in these spaces, empower students, and grow perceptions and reality that educators are in touch with the social lives of their students. Presented in Table 1 are inquiry statements educators may use to explore their non-academic environments. Rather than framing the socialization processes in these spaces as negative in orientation, the intent of the inquiry statements is to deepen understanding, not to pass judgment or serve to justify increased surveillance. Indeed, increased surveillance without ongoing dialogue with student-stakeholders may harm trust and overall school climate. Preservation of adolescent-directed positive social spaces is vital to allow important work to take place.

Indeed, increased surveillance without ongoing dialogue with student-stakeholders may harm trust and overall school climate. Preservation of adolescent-directed positive social spaces is vital to allow important work to take place.

That every school has unique cultures, histories, physical layout, and other characteristics informing its social processes, investigation into each specific setting is essential to gain a deeper understanding of its climate. While academic literature may point to broad themes of school socialization, only actual inquiry with students in their own schools will provide enough context to affect deeply meaningful change.

There is a continued need for systematic research into the social processes of non-academic school spaces (Bettis & Adams, 2005; Cash et al., 2019). Changing societal norms, evolving technology and social media use, and school architecture and interior design trends continue to influence the social processes that occur in these spaces (Altenburger, 2019). Additionally, the unique cultural, historical, and physical aspects of various school settings make generalization of results problematic, supporting the need for research in a wide variety of venues. To serve their students better, educators need to understand adolescents’ perspectives more fully and consider how those perspectives might differ from their own.

Through describing their views of these non-academic school spaces, young adolescents may reveal a lack of understanding of administrative rules, policies, procedures, or adult perspectives of the spaces. An added benefit of two-way dialogue regarding these spaces and their social processes may be an increase in student knowledge of policy, procedure, rationale, and adult perspective of these spaces. As adults learn more about student perspectives through dialogue, so too might students learn more about adult perspectives.

Though it may not be possible, feasible, or advisable to make changes young adolescents describe, committing to ongoing dialogue with sufficiently transparent rationale for decisions, can grow a culture of mutual understanding and collaboration. Having deeper knowledge of these spaces and their processes informs educators’ approaches to policies, procedures, and interactions in these important social venues.


Limited by the historic COVID-19 school closures, the small number of interview participants presents the largest limitation to the generalization of the identified themes. Though as researcher I spent significant time in systematic observation of these spaces before the school closed, additional perspectives of young adolescents would bolster or confound the themes identified. Though numerically small, the authentic and impassioned perspectives of Bridgit, Brooklen, Dwayne, and Sharkah serve as springboards for further research in these important spaces. Tantalizing, the stories and perspectives of the four young adolescents interviewed provide glimpses into their individual and collective realms and may serve as catalysts for future lines of inquiry. Supporting the value of even small numbers of interview participants, Wolcott (1997) states: “The question (as) Margret Mead once noted is not ‘Is this case representative?’ but rather, ‘What is this case representative of?’,” (p. 166). Future research and school practices may indeed benefit from the perspectives of these four young adolescents. Additionally, not formally investigated were perspectives of adults of these settings. With these important perspectives, gained would be a more complete understanding of individual behaviors and social processes. Exploration into how young adolescents and adults view the same venues would provide practitioners and researchers with valuable insights into the complexity of these spaces.


Throughout their school days and overall school experiences, young adolescents engage in positive and negative socialization in a wide variety of non-academic spaces within their schools. Informing these complex and ever-evolving processes are the physical layout of the school, cultures and histories of the school community members, administrative rules and processes, among other factors. An element important to promoting healthy non-academic social spaces is proactive adult understanding that may support positive environments and addresses negative environments. To demonstrate authentic acknowledgment of the importance of these spaces, middle grades educators must deeply explore how young adolescents perceive them. Working to identify hidden and misunderstood spaces, then actively supporting positive spaces and addressing negative spaces, educators can empower students and demonstrate deep commitment to the social, emotional, and academic development of the young adolescents in their charge.

Benjamin R. Wellenreiter, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University, Normal, IL. E-mail: brwelle@ilstu.edu


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