Developing the Adolescent

Why Middle School Matters

September 30, 2021



The Role of Middle School in Adolescent Development


Middle school encompasses formative years, when students begin to contemplate and form a sense of identity. It is a time of rapid change and transition--at no other stage except infancy do humans develop so quickly in such a short period. Adolescence is often associated with the challenges surrounding this period of intense social-emotional, cognitive, and physical change. Research has shown, however, that adolescence is truly an opportunity for meaningful learning and growth.

Recently, school districts have started to abandon middle schools in favor of a K-8 education structure. These trends “continue to depersonalize the school climate for students at a time when they need personalized treatment more than ever.” (Best Schools, Thomas Armstrong)  Middle school plays a crucial role in guiding adolescent development and challenging young students to take risks and discover their passions. A supportive and safe middle school environment allows for students to see themselves as motivated and independent learners.

A successful middle school program recognizes the need to pair a rigorous academic program with developmentally-appropriate practices that facilitate social and emotional growth. The best middle schools promote a positive youth development framework, in which young students are given opportunities to enhance their skills, interests, and abilities while building healthy relationships with their peers and mentors. Five key features necessary for a healthy and stimulating middle school environment are 1) supportive adult relationships, 2) growth mindset, 3) a challenging liberal arts curriculum, 4) mindfulness practice, and 5) social- emotional learning.



1. Supportive Adult Relationships

Upon leaving elementary school, young students often enter new and unfamiliar school settings as they begin to navigate pubertal changes and a search for identity. During this period of transition, students’ relationships with their teachers have shown to be important predictors of student motivation, academic performance, and psychological adjustment (Development and Psychopathology).
Positive student-teacher relationships are characterized by student perception of teacher support. When students feel supported by their teachers, they are more motivated to succeed in the classroom and to ask their teachers for assistance in academic and personal matters (Goldstein and Brooks). Also, middle school students who perceive warmth and support from their teachers have fewer adjustment difficulties during their transition and report positive changes in self-esteem, declines in depressive feelings, and the adoption of positive values (Development and Psychopathology).
Researchers found that students’ perceptions of support from their teachers were the most influential component of belonging and support in the classroom.
(Goodenow, 1993)
Middle school teachers educate students at a critical time in their lives. Strong middle school programs offer opportunities for supportive relationships to emerge between students and teachers. These relationships provide the foundation for engaged learning in the classroom.

Unlike other schools, the faculty of Waterford’s Middle School teach courses in classes six through twelve. The only exception is in the Foreign Language, where all Middle School students study Latin and all Upper School students are enrolled in a modern language. The benefits of a shared faculty are seen at a couple of levels.

Teachers come to know students throughout their extended growth and development. It is not uncommon, for example, for a Class 6 student to have the same Science teacher in Class VIII and then again at some point in the Upper School. It is evident to us, that knowing students through both their Middle and Upper School years, allows teachers to better meet individual needs and also appreciate each student’s growth and progress over time. As a result, our Middle School students are known and understood in ways that are meaningful and unique. Naturally, teacher-student relationships are deepened and often last for years beyond graduation.

At Waterford, Classes VI through VIII fall under the watchful eye of the Dean of Students. In addition, each grade level has a Class Dean charged with specific responsibilities over that class. Additionally, all Middle School students are grouped in small grade-level homerooms which meet together three times a week. The role of the Deans and the Homeroom Advisors are vital as we work to see that every Middle School student finds success and that difficulties of any kind can be addressed directly and carefully. Because we know that these years can be difficult in many ways, deans and homeroom advisors are uniquely positioned to offer strength and guidance throughout the Middle School day. We understand that we are preparing young students for life as much as their further education.

2. Growth Mindset

As students enter middle school, their brains are rapidly expanding. In order for students to be engaged in the classroom, students and educators must work to adopt a growth mindset.

A growth mindset, a term based on research by Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck, implies an understanding that intelligence can be developed. Adolescents are extremely sensitive to their intellectual weaknesses and often stop trying when confronted with a challenge that exposes a weakness. For example, a student who identifies as “bad at math” will give up easily when challenged by a math assignment. When students adopt a growth mindset, they believe they have “the ability to solve problems and make thoughtful decisions and thus are more likely to view mistakes, setbacks, and obstacles as challenges to confront rather than as stressors to avoid.” (Mindset of Resilient Children and Adolescents).

The brain, like a muscle, can grow stronger through hard work. Middle School teachers need to supply students with the tools and strategies to strengthen their new cognitive abilities and encourage students to take risks and welcome challenges. Student confidence grows through competence. When students find success in academic areas they previously thought impossible, they shift from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset”. Achievements in the classroom demonstrate to adolescents that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but rather a trait that can be developed through mistakes, perseverance, and initiative. Students who believe they can grow intellectually remain more engaged in the classroom and open to learning.

“One seventh-grade girl summed it up. ‘I think intelligence is something you have to work for...it isn’t just given to you...Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.”

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, p.17

At Waterford, a growth mindset requires us to focus on learning as a process rather than focusing primarily on the end result or grade. In praising effort and process, we teach and commend competency and growth. We celebrate progress, personal motivation and striving. We recognize that time, creative strategies, additional coaching and practice are a student’s best resources. We help our students understand that while they may not have mastered something yet, the transformative power of effort over time is behind all meaningful growth and achievement.


3. Challenging Liberal Arts Curriculum

A child’s transition to middle school should signify a shift in academic expectations. Given the expanding and developing adolescent brain, middle school is the ideal time to embrace a rigorous, in-depth problem-solving curriculum (Association for Middle Level Education). When middle school teachers “demand high expectations from their students and engage them in tasks that interest and involve them, they will promote self-esteem and build students’ confidence and academic performance” (Brophy, 2008, 2010).

Successful middle schools not only set high expectations for all students, but also provide opportunities for students to succeed. When students are given challenging, yet achievable tasks within a supportive classroom environment, they are motivated to engage in their own learning. Educational research has shown that teachers who maintain high expectations and make relevant connections with a meaningful curriculum foster a love for learning in their students (Lumsden).

A rich, challenging, liberal arts curriculum asks students to do hard things. The classroom should be a safe space for productive failure, where students understand that failure is often an important step on the way to true learning.

Waterford is not afraid to ask Middle School students to work hard and engage in intellectually stimulating course work. While these years undoubtedly hold challenges for young adolescent students, we understand that engaging in meaningful academic course work is not only age appropriate, but also yields great rewards. Middle School encompasses formative years, where students begin to see themselves as motivated and independent learners. They begin to experience the joy and excitement of intellectual pursuits and they begin to develop and refine skills vital to their future academic success. In the world of Middle School students, where the ground always feels like it is shifting, we know that engaging minds intellectually directs students to safe, solid ground. Because of that, intellectual risk taking is fostered in a safe and dynamic learning environment.

Because students develop self-esteem only through genuine achievement, Waterford Middle School students grow in confidence as they grow in competence. The Waterford Middle School curriculum doesn’t skim the top or rehearse what has already been covered. Instead, it delves deeply into the Liberal Arts and asks Middle School students to go for depth as well. Guided and supported by extraordinary teachers, the curriculum is enriched by visual arts that are often linked to Middle School coursework and performing arts that give students experience in vocal and instrumental music, as well as in dance and theater. At Waterford, intellectual and creative growth go hand in hand. This means that Middle School students are immersed in a Liberal Arts curriculum designed to help them discover and develop interests and talents early and then offers significant opportunities to develop them deeply. Challenge begets achievement. Achievement begets confidence and self esteem. We see it every day in our Middle School students.

4. Mindfulness

Adolescents undergo a major shift in their capacity for metacognition. For the first time in their lives, adolescents can think about thinking. Young students move from concrete to abstract thinking and develop the capacity to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.
The adolescent capacity for metacognition makes middle school a great time to introduce mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is a mental state reached through the awareness of the present moment. Instead of acting on impulse, the mind can be trained to observe its surroundings and take appropriate measures. Adolescence can be intense and unpredictable; adolescents often demonstrate erratic and inconsistent behavior. “Their emotional variability makes young adolescents at risk of making decisions with negative consequences and believing that their experiences, feelings, and problems are unique.” (Developmental Characteristics of Young Adolescents) Mindfulness practices help students to become more self-regulated and react to situations in a meaningful and thoughtful way. These practices are important in helping students resolve conflicts, manage stress, and build self-compassion.
“We live in a digital age filled with endless distractions which leave little time for solace or silence. As adults, we must do a better job helping our students learn what it feels like to give their full attention to the tasks before them. As a parent myself, I know that teaching a child to listen and attend begins when our children are very young. The distractions, however, of this digital age has only made our job harder given the fact that our culture in many ways now brags about our seemingly endless capacity to multitask. Adapted from remarks given at
Middle School Orientation 2015 Nancy Nebeker, Dean of Students

I have learned that mindfulness creates peace and relaxation in my body that allows me to be less stressed, but at the same time more attentive and creative in class when doing homework.
Waterford Class VII Student

At Waterford, to counteract ‘the myth of multitasking’, Middle School students spend time learning about mindfulness during advisor groups. Students practice and learn what it feels like to fully attend to a single task or focus. Waterford is led by the research to believe that making time for mindfulness will assist students  manage the stress, challenges, and distractions that they confront on a daily basis. Learn more about Waterford’s commitment to mindfulness instruction in Middle School.

5. Social-Emotional Learning

Most middle school students perceive their school experience as a social one. Young adolescents prioritize their social interactions and relationships with peers and their communities. “Successful middle school programs work with, not against, the adolescent interest and engagement in their personal and social development,” explains Casey O’Malley, Waterford Academic Dean. Schools that focus solely on cognitive development and academic achievement do a disservice to their students; learning is the product of continual interaction between cognitive and noncognitive factors (Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners). The way students think and feel about themselves influences how receptive to learning and capable of growth they are, in any given situation.
“Unlike the physical changes of puberty, emotional and social development is not an inevitable biological process during adolescence. Society expects that young people will learn to prevent their emotions from interfering with performance and relate well to other people, but this does not occur from brain development alone—it must be cultivated.” The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, Johns Hopkins University, Center for Adolescent Health

Adolescence is a critical period for the development of neurobiological processes that regulate social and emotional behavior (Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd). Although the adolescent brain develops emotional and social capacities, the skills necessary for managing emotions and building positive relationships must be taught.

Middle schools need to play a key role in adolescent social-emotional learning (SEL). CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging, and meaningful. The best middle schools create opportunities for collaborative learning and plan activities through which adolescent students interact productively with their peers. (Developmental Characteristics of Young Adolescents)

While Middle School students may be too “old” for recess, they are still very much in need of active and engaging fun. Middle School lunch at Waterford (over one hour in duration) is extended in a way that allows students to catch up on assignments, get extra help from teachers, participate in fun, small group activities or enjoy a game of soccer on the quad. We recognize that physical activity helps Middle School students reset their brains for focused learning. We also know that the social landscape of these years is improved when fun activities are organized for them to interact with their peers in healthy ways. Deans, homeroom advisors and faculty all help support fun organized lunch time activities because we see clear benefits for the Middle School learner. Our model is designed to create and sustain a safe, supportive and engaging environment uniquely suited for these formative years.

Making the Middle School Transition


Middle school coincides with a critical time in human development. Adolescence encompasses physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and psychological development. Successful middle schools recognize the developmental shifts of adolescence and perceive the middle school grades as a key window to create opportunities for students to encounter, engage in, and overcome new challenges.

Research shows that middle school students are developmentally ready to take on and solve a variety of new types of problems. Students are ready to take on a rigorous academic curriculum if they are equipped with a growth mindset. Students are ready to build meaningful relationships with their peers and adults if they are taught social-emotional skills. Students are ready to make thoughtful, positive decisions if they are mindful.

When educators supply students with the skills to tackle new problems in a safe and supportive environment, students begin to experience the joy and excitement of intellectual pursuits. Adolescents graduate successful middle school programs with a sense of purpose and a deep love for learning.