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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

Broadening the World of Early Adolescents

Middle-grades students are ready for new challenges, if we give them the social support they need.

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Recently, I spent the day with a group of middle school students at an outdoor adventure site. Thirteen-year-old Jimmy claimed shotgun in the van and chatted ceaselessly during the hour-long ride. In school, Jimmy has a hard time socially and academically, and he needed the time to talk about the recent changes in his household. Showing little emotion, he spoke about his stepmother and brother's move out of the house and assured me, as if reminding himself, that his dad is like “Superdad” and he still gets to see his brother and stepmom.
At the site, as we prepared to launch the students one by one across a 100-foot treetop traverse 65 feet in the air, we warned them to stay off the three-foot-high platform—a directive that Jimmy ignored, promptly falling facedown to the ground. “That was fun!” he exclaimed, as I rushed to see whether he was hurt. When I admonished him to listen to our instructions, he declared, “You're just like all the other adults I know”—a remark that I assumed was meant to retract the implicit trust he had placed in me earlier when he spoke about some emotionally charged issues. Once Jimmy was securely attached to safety ropes and crossing high in the air, his face revealed fear, despite the fact that he had just announced to the group that he was absolutely not afraid of heights. He was exhilarated when he landed on the other side, where I was waiting to congratulate him.
Over the course of the day, the group needed to figure out a series of increasingly difficult challenges to successfully complete the activities. Jimmy was the one to come up with an important solution to the problem of how to get the entire group across a ravine and retrieve all the ropes without leaving someone on the launch side of the traverse. The perceptions of his peers shifted from “Jimmy as major annoyance” to “Jimmy as brilliant problem solver.”
At the end of the day, as we waited for his ride home, Jimmy commented that the trip had been “pretty boring.” But as soon as his dad drove up, he exclaimed proudly, “I was the first to go across!” As I waved goodbye, Jimmy was already too busy tuning in his favorite radio station to notice.
Here is the wonderfully complex early adolescent. Fiercely independent, yet yearning for meaningful relationships with adults; revealing emotional vulnerability, yet deeply self-protective; capable of complex analytic thinking, yet disorganized to the point of chronic forgetfulness; compassionate and altruistic in the desire to make the world a better place, yet capable of striking out cruelly at an unpopular classmate; able to understand and accommodate the needs of others, yet displaying a self-centeredness that seems regressive compared with the kindhearted 8-year-old we knew a few years ago. The early adolescent worries us and astonishes us at the same time.
As the people responsible for teaching middle-grades students, we take comfort in knowing that these contradictions are developmentally necessary and that some struggle is normal. Still, we wonder how to balance academic and social support to encourage and guide children during these years. Should we focus on moving students toward the rigors of high school, with more homework, less supervision, and academic grouping rather than teaming? Provide vigilant social and emotional guidance? Expose students to a variety of future career options? Our questions reflect the emotional, cognitive, and social complexity of the students with whom we work as well as a myriad of external influences, including pressures to meet standardized testing benchmarks, parental concerns about access to higher education, and the changing demands of the employment market.

Challenges of Early Adolescence

Early adolescents are naturally broadening their focus from a family-oriented context to school-, peer-, and community-oriented contexts. The middle grades come with new challenges and opportunities: managing lockers, changing classes, negotiating relationships with more teachers, using more advanced technology, and choosing from a wider range of after-school activities. Students begin to navigate many more environments with greater independence, including cyberspace. They experience more homework, less recess, and much more social and academic pressure (Daniels, 2005). Early adolescents become affiliated with an increasing variety of institutions and organizations; they gain new status and take on more complex roles, such as caring for younger siblings, preparing for confirmation or bat or bar mitzvah, and participating in competitive interscholastic sports. At this age, many children experience their first deeply meaningful friendships and powerful love attachments...and the first disappointing breakup of an important friendship or romance.
Simmons and Blyth (1987) used the term cumulation of stress to describe the challenges to equilibrium during early adolescence: It is understandable that youngsters are less able to cope if at one and the same time they are uncomfortable with their bodies, due to physical changes; with their family, due to changes in family constellation; with home, because of a move; with school, due to great discontinuity in the nature of the school environment; with peers, because of the new importance of opposite sex relationships and because of disruption of prior peer networks in a new school and the changes in peer expectations and peer evaluation criteria. (pp. 351–352)
But early adolescence is not only a time of turmoil; it can also be a period of tremendous resilience, productivity, cognitive growth, generosity, and increasing involvement. Freud (1958) and Erikson (1968) viewed periods of stress as growth-producing, as long as the stress is short-term and the individual has opportunities to master the new environment. When the middle-grades student finds himself or herself resourceful and competent in the face of a daunting social, academic, or emotional task (making new friends or learning a foreign language, for example), these stressful experiences can boost self-efficacy and build an important repertoire of cognitive and interpersonal skills (Bandura, 1972). Although the struggles of early adolescents are hard to witness, we should worry more about students who resist change and too frequently retreat to old, comfortable safety zones.

Study of Peer Relationships and Social Class

Middle-grades students tend to come into increasing contact with peers who differ from them. They commonly move to larger schools enrolling students from multiple towns or neighborhoods with diverse racial, ethnic, religious, social-class, and national backgrounds. They are becoming more aware of social status and of their position in the social hierarchy. The passage to middle school is thus an opportunity for exposure to diversity at a time when students are developmentally ready for more reciprocity in their peer relationships and a wider social range.
For two school years, I studied how students negotiated this kind of transition through interviews with and observations of 30 economically diverse students (San Antonio, 2004). The students were moving from grade 6 in one-town elementary schools to grade 7 in a multitown regional middle school. Historic tensions between wealthy towns and poor towns in the school district created heightened anxiety around this transition. The findings of the study shed light on the needs of early adolescents as they move into the larger arena of the middle grades, as well as on how schools can best respond to those needs.
Perhaps the most significant stress in a young adolescent's life is the sense of not fitting in. For most students, good adjustment and performance in school require some level of social comfort.
When I asked the study participants as 6th graders what they worried about the most when they thought about going to their new school, students from all backgrounds answered that they feared losing old friends, not being able to make new friends, being made fun of, and not making a good impression. When I asked what they were most excited about, they all named making new friends, meeting new people, and “being with kids from other towns.” The students' unanimous worries and hopes had much more to do with acceptance and friendship than with academics.
As the 7th grade year got under way, most students were elated to find that they had been able to adjust to their new peer group successfully and make new friends. Comments like these expressed pleasant surprise: “There are a lot of neat people out there; a lot are just like me”; “We're all pretty much the same”; “I can make new friends from six different towns”; “They're all very nice, no matter where they come from.”
As the year went on, however, the students expressed more disappointment. They began to find that their relationships were stunted by social-class stereotypes and misconceptions. Students from the poorest community in the district were surprised to find that their classmates from other communities knew very little about their town and made assumptions that reflected biases. One student, frustrated by these misperceptions, said that teachers needed to “help kids see they have common interests.”
Teachers can play a significant role in helping students find common ground by becoming familiar with their students' communities, and then sharing what they know in a positive way. They can also support the development of good peer relationships through such structures as small advisory groups and morning meetings.
With heartbreaking regularity, I have heard young adolescents in this study and elsewhere say that they experience harsh disconnections from their peers through misunderstandings among friends or through overt or hidden bullying. Usually, they say the adults in their lives don't know about it or do nothing about it. Relational violence has a profound long-term impact on students' identity development and ability to learn (Crick, 1996; Kupersmidt, Coie, & Dodge, 1990).
To help our students, we need to first grasp the disconnections they experience during the school day. We need to talk with our students about how they experience their less structured environments—lunchrooms, hallways, bus stops, and buses. In addition, we need to examine how school and classroom practices limit students' social integration. Two common school structures that reflect the social-class backgrounds of students with appalling consistency—both in my study and in other, much larger research projects—are selective extracurricular activities and ability grouping.

Extracurricular Activities

Finn (1989) used the term participatory belonging to describe active, positive involvement in school; he argued that extracurricular activities develop vital peer affiliations and can play a big role in engaging students and keeping them in school.
When I conducted a wider survey of students in the study school to assess their participation in extracurricular activities, I found lower levels of participation among low-income students, especially boys. The most common reasons for not participating were after-school responsibilities at home, lack of interest, lack of money, lack of transportation, and competitive selection processes that handicapped students who lacked prior experience.
One way students choose lunchroom seating arrangements is by sports teams. So I was curious about how well integrated the teams were by town. I found that the higher-status sports (soccer, field hockey, and basketball) were populated almost exclusively by students from more affluent communities. When it comes to sports participation, affluent children benefit from what I have come to think of as a system of affirmative action for people who have social-class privilege. They are more likely to have been on well-coached competitive town teams, to go to sports camps in the summer, to be known by the coaches, and to have proper sports clothing and equipment.

Broadening the World of Early Adolescents

Fifty-seven percent of children ages 11–13 say they would not want to be president of the United States. More than three-quarters say that good character, strong ethics, honesty, and trustworthiness are the most important attributes of a leader.

—Staples/Boys & Girls Clubs of America Survey on Leadership

These findings raise important issues concerning the goals of middle school interscholastic sports teams. At the middle school level, should we place a priority on having highly competitive, winning teams? On identifying the best athletes and getting them ready for high school teams and state and regional competition? Or should middle schools promote extracurricular participation as a way to be involved in the school community, interact with a diverse group of students, build important mentoring relationships, learn new skills, and develop new interests? I believe that we would gain more than we would lose if we made activities less competitive and more accessible to a wider range of students during the middle grades.
Of course, some students prefer going home at the end of the day, and some derive satisfaction knowing that they make an important contribution to their families when they care for younger siblings after school. But we need to rethink our extracurricular programs if students who really want to participate are excluded because of transportation, cost, or lack of interesting options. The students in my study said that they would participate more if they had opportunities to do meaningful community service; to develop skills they wanted to learn, such as photography; or to experience performing arts activities, such as drama, music, and dance. Schools can create vibrant after-school programs on small budgets—for example, by inviting high school students to teach younger students about something that engages their passion, or by asking local civic groups and faith-based communities to lend a hand when financial barriers prohibit some students from participating. If we provide activities that have high interest to students, make better use of the resources we have at hand, and give equal status and recognition to all activities, we will successfully involve a wider range of students and thus increase their sense of connection to their school.

Ability Grouping

No area of my study surprised me more than the connections among ability grouping, social class, and the development of social perceptions. Students in accelerated classes were more than three times more likely to be from wealthier communities than from poorer ones.
In my classroom observations, I noticed what tracking researcher Jeannie Oakes (1985) documented in much larger studies: Classroom pedagogy, peer relationships, student participation and freedom, and student-teacher relationships contrasted sharply in homogeneously and heterogeneously grouped classes. Students in homogeneous, accelerated groups were more assertive, shared a more egalitarian relationship with their teacher, and defined their classroom space more forcefully than students in regular, heterogeneous classrooms, where the teachers clearly and nonarbitrarily set the tone. Teachers in accelerated classes seemed more relaxed, friendly, and tolerant of behavior that might be considered out of line in regular classes. The accelerated classrooms reflected the perception, on the part of both students and teachers, that students were capable, intelligent, and likely to succeed.
Every classroom has an implicit social curriculum in which students are learning about themselves and their peers in terms of social power, perceived ability, who is worthy of teacher attention and approval, and the value of their and others' contributions. My observations and interviews led me to wonder whether ability grouping hindered social and moral development by decreasing students' exposure to diversity at exactly the time in life when social comparisons are heightened and students are at a critical juncture in their social development. Decreasing students' exposure to diversity through structured divisions in classrooms and after-school activities may threaten the development of compassion, which we so desperately want to encourage in middle-grades students.
  • There were many different people with the same goals as you.... We could really count on each other.
  • Having other students around you that were engaged in their work helped pressure and challenge me to succeed and try harder on my schoolwork.... It felt good to sort of stand out.
  • We weren't held back from moving forward. We finally had the group we wanted.
  • It kept most of the trouble students away from the people who really go to school to learn. The teachers should kick the slackers out.
  • With a laid-back atmosphere, I didn't get as much done in class as I had hoped. I was not able to get my math work done at home because I didn't understand most of it, and I had no one to ask for help.
  • The atmosphere was competitive. Everyone was competing for the role of the “smartest person.” If being the smartest was out of reach, they would try to be the funniest or something else. In the first quarter, I was making lots of new friends. . . . When I was moved to the “smart group” in Q2, I lost the friends I made and did not make any new friends.... I was not inspired and not engaged. For my socialization's sake, I would never want this kind of grouping again.
  • I will admit that I need to work on my homework skills and study skills, but it is hard when I never really see my parents and there are no good examples in my family.
  • In the beginning of the year, I was really looking forward to getting to know a lot of different people by the mixing up of the groups. So I hope that for next year, I might get more chances to meet people I don't know very well.
These powerful comments reveal quite a different social and academic experience for low-income students in the accelerated classes. These students talked about stress and scarce academic resources at home, alienation from their peers, and a sense that competition was valued more than community. Of the 34 students from lower-income communities who took accelerated 7th grade math, none of the male students and only 3 of the female students went on to 8th grade algebra, despite the fact that students had been selected for accelerated math on the basis of excellent math grades and high standardized test scores. Although the affluent students tended to absorb competitive and exclusionary values and unilateral ways of thinking, some of their low-income classmates were left questioning their ability and unable to integrate social values that were important to them.
Exclusive policies and practices can harm students in two ways. Many low-income students struggle without adequate academic support and worry that they are the “slackers” whom their more affluent peers disdain. As minorities in high-ability groups, these students experience social disconnection that threatens to undermine self-efficacy. On the other hand, among affluent students, the lack of social perspective is alarming, especially because students from privileged backgrounds are more likely to hold positions of leadership, authority, and power in the future. Such researchers as Robert Selman (2003) stress the importance of fostering interpersonal skills that increase empathic understanding across groups, thus promoting positive individual development and enhancing school climate.

Social Development and Academic Achievement

Middle-grades curriculum, structures, and pedagogy remain contested territory. At the elementary level, public sentiment favors inclusive practices, local control, child-focused pedagogy, and supportive discipline. In high schools, public expectations lean toward increased ability grouping, competitive sports, a vocational and college focus, a subject-centered curriculum, and more punitive discipline policies. In the ongoing debate, middle schools are caught between these two approaches.
In the early grades, teachers, families, and communities seem to actively guide social learning and to speak in one voice to students about cooperative social behavior. But as students progress through the grades, schools place less emphasis on social development. Academic and athletic achievement become more important goals, and competitive attitudes become more acceptable, even encouraged.
How should middle schools balance their focus on social and academic development? We need a full, well-informed discussion about what we gain and what we lose by emphasizing one over the other, and we need to think about how policies and practices affect our most vulnerable students. The current lack of consensus on the appropriate role of the middle grades may be a good thing—an opportunity to keep the debate on these important issues open. Perhaps this ambiguity provides a nagging moral voice within the broader discourse on education policy and practice, a discourse that requires the full input of diverse students, parents, and teachers.
After more than 30 years of teaching and counseling early adolescent students, I believe that we cannot accomplish our academic goals without a purposeful and thoughtful focus on social development. If we want our children to be smart but not arrogant, flexible but not easily deterred from their hopes and dreams, compassionate toward others but not overly accommodating, self-confident but not too preoccupied with themselves, proud but not exclusive, then we should provide early adolescents with diverse environments and the support to function well in them.

Bandura, A. (1972). The stormy decade: Fact or fiction? In D. Rogers (Ed.), Issues in adolescent psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Crick, N. R. (1996). The role of overt aggression, relational aggression, and prosocial behavior in the prediction of children's future social adjustment. Child Development, 67, 2317–2327.

Daniels, E. (2005). On the minds of middle schoolers. Educational Leadership, 62(7), 52–54.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Finn, J. D. (1989). Withdrawing from school. Review of Educational Research, 59(2), 117–142.

Freud, A. (1958). Adolescence. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 13, 255–278. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Kupersmidt, J. B., Coie, J. D., & Dodge, K. A. (1990). The role of poor peer relationships in the development of disorder. In S. R. Asher & J. D. Coie (Eds.), Peer rejection in childhood (pp. 274–305). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

San Antonio, D. (2004). Adolescent lives in transition: How social class influences the adjustment to middle school. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Selman, R. L. (2003). The promotion of social awareness: Powerful lessons from the partnership of developmental theory and classroom practice. New York: Russell Sage.

Simmons, R. G., & Blyth, D. A. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and school context. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Donna Marie San Antonio is associate professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University. She has previously taught middle school and been a school counselor. She is a consultant with schools and community programs, addressing social and emotional supports for children and youth.

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