Middle School Students and Their Developmental Needs

Students May Need Something Beyond What Most Schools Offer

Students typing on laptop in classroom
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Many studies show that tweens become less engaged in school after entering middle school. Some psychologists suggest this occurs because middle school teaching does not fit well with tweens' developmental needs.

Middle School Students vs. Middle School Teaching

According to psychologists, as they enter the middle school years, tweens begin to have two new needs. One is a need for increased independence. The other is an increasing need for meaningful interactions with adults who are not their parents. In other words, tweens crave freedom yet also want adult support. Unfortunately, though, middle schools have been found to fall short on both fronts.

Middle school teachers tend to offer less social support to students than do elementary school teachers.

In addition, the early middle school grades typically provide less independence to students than do the upper levels of elementary schools.

Are Middle School Teachers Less Supportive Than Elementary Teachers?

When surveyed, middle school students say that their teachers are less supportive of their psychological needs than do elementary school students. This is unfortunate since, due to the demands of puberty and the childhood-to-teenage transition, middle schoolers tend to have greater psychological needs than younger students. In other words, just when tweens need the most support from teachers they believe they are getting the least. Unfortunately, researchers have found that the more in need of support a student is, the less supportive they find their teacher to be.

Middle School Teaching Goals May Encourage Disengagement

In addition, the goals of middle school classrooms have been found to be different than the goals of elementary school classrooms. This is unfortunate since the elementary school approach tends to foster better learning and more appreciation for learning compared to the middle school approach.

Middle schools have been found to emphasize grades and correct answers while elementary schools place greater emphasis on enjoyment of learning.

According to surveys, students notice and respond to the difference in classroom goals. Unfortunately, this change in goals occurs at precisely the moment when students are becoming naturally distracted by non-academic topics, such as friends and romantic interests. In other words, just when students need classes to be at their most interesting and engaging, they may be less so than ever.

What Can Parents Do?

The goals of a school and supportiveness of a teacher are certainly well beyond a parent's control. Still, it can be helpful to understand the potential mismatch between tweens' developmental needs and what many middle schools offer. For one, you can watch for signs that your school is not meeting your child's needs, such as your tween having less interest in classwork or poorer grades.

If you think your child's school isn't meeting their needs, you could start a conversation with your tween about what they are expecting from school and the ways it isn't meeting up.

Simply opening this dialogue will help your tween feel heard and respected and may meet some of her burgeoning needs.

You might also discuss ways that your tween might make small changes to help make school feel better. For instance, could she join an extracurricular activity in which she would get to know her teacher or another teacher better and meet her need for non-parental adult support? Or could she talk with her teacher about doing a self-designed end-of-semester project instead of the dictated project, in order to better meet her need for autonomy?

A conversation with the teacher — ideally with your tween present — may also be welcome. Remember that teachers can only meet those student needs that they are made aware of.

5 Sources
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  2. McElhaney KB, Allen JP. Autonomy and adolescent social functioning: the moderating effect of riskChild Dev. 2001;72(1):220–235. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00275

  3. Anderman EM, Midgley C. Changes in Achievement Goal Orientations, Perceived Academic Competence, and Grades across the Transition to Middle-Level Schools. Contemp Educ Psychol. 1997;22(3):269-98. doi:10.1006/ceps.1996.0926

  4. Madjar N, Cohen-malayev M. Perceived school climate across the transition from elementary to middle school. Sch Psychol Q. 2016;31(2):270-288. doi:10.1037/spq0000129

  5. Katz, Idit, Kaplan, Avi, and Gueta, Gila. Students' Needs, Teachers' Support, and Motivation for Doing Homework: A Cross-Sectional Study. The Journal of Experimental Education. 2010: 78, 246-267. doi:10.1080/00220970903292868

Additional Reading

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.