Friday, October 1, 2010

The Challenge of Middle School

“Caught in the Middle” is a phrase that is used in a variety of contexts to describe the in-between world people find themselves in as well as the title of a newly released album by Heath Forbes. The middle describes the creamy center of an Oreo, the place you find lunch meat in a sandwich and the TV series, Malcolm in the Middle. So what are some of the challenges that face young people in the after-school world who are caught in the middle between elementary and high school programs?

First, middle school is the place of extremes. One only needs to walk down the hallway of a middle school to see exactly what I mean. There are youth who look like adults walking next to students who still look like children. There are youth who are loud and commanding and whose behavior is over the top and others who walk unnoticed from place to place. The ability to think abstractly spans a large range, as does physical ability, and emotional development. Middle school students often hear the words, “You are not old enough to do that” when talking about going to the movie with a friend, staying out after 10:00 p.m., or choosing their own wardrobe without guidance. They also hear the exact opposite, “You are way too old to be doing that” when they want to Trick-or-Treat, “pitch a fit” to get their way, or leave their bedroom in a mess. It is a challenge for middle school students to balance these two messages. When working with middle school students it is essential that after-school providers do not have a one-size-fits-all attitude.

Secondly, middle school youth are changing rapidly, and this means interests are changing rapidly as well. What middle school students wanted to do last Monday may no longer be what interests them today, let alone 8 weeks from today. It is important as an after-school provider that you keep your “finger on the pulse” of the youth you serve. Middle school students love to provide input. They need to experience some reasonable sense of control. Check on them often to determine where the interest is. Change clubs every 5-6 weeks and find ways to engage youth in designing, planning and implementing the club activities. Engage these middle school youth in projects that include times to be social and interact with others. Choice is essential, even if the choice is a “forced” one such as asking, “Will you do academic tutoring support on Monday and Wednesday at 4:30 or would you rather commit to Tuesday and Thursday at 3:00?” The choice isn’t about whether or not to attend the tutoring, that is a given. The choice is about “when” they will meet the requirement, not whether or not to comply.

Third, middle school students are struggling trying to determine who they are and who they want to become. It is essential that middle school students develop a bond with a positive role model outside of family members. As young people mature they begin to look outside of the family circle for people to make a connection with. They are looking for people to help them navigate the world around them, and when they are in middle school, part of that world is the school day. Research has shown that this connection with a positive role model is the key to youth developing the resiliency to cope with the ups and downs of life—ups and downs that are incredibly apparent during the middle school years.

Designing a high-quality program to meet the needs of middle school students is not easy. There needs to be enough structure, enough choice, enough variety, enough youth leadership, enough opportunity to interact with peers, enough relevance and rigor, enough discipline to help youth make great choices rather than satisfy the adult, enough of an understanding that these young people are not “old children” but rather young adults. Step up to the challenge. It is some of the best work that you will ever do.

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