The effects of middle school on students’ self-esteem, school behavior, academic performance and later life adjustments have all been well documented. These transitional years from grades 5-9, depending upon the individual school, do show that there is an increase in stress, a decrease in academic performance, and an increase in behavioral problems, especially in the first year. This comes as no surprise to the many people who found their own junior high experiences unfortunate or difficult.
Many people, though certainly not all, have bad memories of the middle school experience, and there can be numerous reasons why these experiences seem common. The age range of children attending junior high, usually from about 12-14, is one of major physical change, due to growing bodies and onset of puberty. As any parent can attest, a child entering puberty is not necessarily the easiest person to deal with in family or social settings. The hormonal spikes and changes, as well as greater body awareness and possibly discomfort with the changing body can easily translate to less than perfect behavior in the school setting, either toward teachers, and most commonly toward peers.
In fact, children tend to organize themselves into peer groups in the middle school years, and students who seem different in any way are often not easily accepted by fellow students. Bullying is more common and more difficult to excise from junior high schools because of less supervision in the school setting. Students at this time, despite zero tolerance policies, may show less likelihood of reporting bully behavior for fear of recrimination.
Further, especially in that first year, students are also under the stress of great transition. In fact, studies have certainly shown that students in the 6th grade who are in elementary school, and students in K-8 settings tend to perform better in mathematics than do children who make the transition to junior high school at this point. Needing to keep track of classes, dealing with multiple teachers, and being held more responsible for actions can all negatively contribute to a student’s ability to learn.
In addition, the average elementary school student comes from a classroom of no more than 40 students, with usually one teacher. Once in middle school, the student moves to multiple classrooms where each teacher can have 150 students or more. This means despite the best effort by teachers, not all students are as well known by their instructors. This can translate to a feeling of isolation in each child.
Essentially, then there are several major stressors common to the middle school environment:
- Physical changes.
- Dramatic transition from elementary school setting.
- Greater demands emotionally, behaviorally and academically.
- Less individual attention from teachers.
Even though each individual responds in different ways to stress, higher levels of stress tend to correlate to negative response, and for the most part, teachers and parents must evaluate this child as being under a great deal of stress.
Behaviors that we would much prefer our children to avoid like sexual activity, and drug and alcohol use become more common in middle school. Children at this age may not become sexually active or illegally use controlled substances, but they very likely know children who are engaging in these behaviors. Older students in the school setting may also contribute to this negative peer effect since incidence of drug use and sexual activity increases by year in adolescence.
It does make sense then, that even when each individual child may be delightful and wonderful on their own, in a highly pressured setting with so many stressors, they may respond by acting negatively toward peers, by having poor grades, and by becoming more emotionally distressed in the home and school setting. This translates to a difficult and negative time for many students, and accounts for the many of us who have bad memories of these years.
Since so much research exists on this matter, some school districts have begun eliminating middle schools. Studies do show that students are better able to make the transition to a larger school setting as high school freshman than they can as 5th, 6th or 7th graders. Yet, it should be noted that people from K-8 settings often report similar emotional turmoil, especially around peer relationships, to that reported by students in 5th through 7th grade years.