Dr. Ducharme’s blog November 4, 2019 Middle School A whole new world

November 4, 2019
Dr. Elaine Ducharme

Kids have been back to school for awhile and getting used to the changes that come along with a new school and a new grade. Moving from elementary school to middle school is often a time filled with angst for kids. Developmentally their bodies are changing, hormones are surging and many, especially girls, are being really mean to each other. They are becoming increasingly self-conscious and their thinking is becoming more critical and complex.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a Help Center that provides educational information on mental health issues for the public. This blog utilizes information that appears on their website on this topic.

According to the APA Researchers at the University of Michigan have studied the transition from elementary to middle school and have found that:

On average, children's grades drop dramatically during the first year of middle school compared to their grades in elementary school.

After moving to junior high school, children become less interested in school and less self-assured about their abilities.

Compared to elementary schools, middle schools are more controlling, less cognitively challenging and focus more on competition and comparing students' ability.

Through this and other similar research, psychologists have discovered a "developmental mismatch" between the environment and philosophy of middle schools and the children they attempt to teach. At a time when children's cognitive abilities are increasing, middle school offers them fewer opportunities for decision-making and lower levels of cognitive involvement, but a more complex social environment. At the same time, numerous teachers have replaced the single classroom teacher and students often face larger classes and a new group of peers.

Elementary schools and elementary teachers often tend to be more task-oriented in their teaching: The goal is to master a certain task such as learning addition or subtraction.

In junior high schools, however, the goal of teaching often becomes attaining a certain grade. Learning is still key, but measuring performance is also part of the equation. The pressure is suddenly on and rarely lets up as students move forward academically.

APA notes that many psychologists who study childhood education believe that an important key is how children think about their own intelligence and abilities. If a child thinks of his or her intelligence as fixed — I'm either this dumb or this smart — he or she will avoid tasks that challenge their ability or risk failure. Instead, they choose to work on problems that they already know how to solve.

However, if kids believe they can learn by putting in hard work, they are much more likely to succeed. Many of our magnet school programs around the country do just this. They let kids know they believe in them, provide interesting challenges and work with the kids to believe in their own abilities.

According to the research, reported by APA, children who believe that intelligence can change over time made the best adjustment to secondary school; this is true even if these children had low self-confidence. It was actually the high-confidence kids who believed that their intelligence was fixed who had the most trouble making the transition. These kids apparently believed that they should be able to do well because they were smart and that extra effort in order to learn a new skill was not necessary. When "effortless" learning did not take place, these students lost confidence, motivation and interest. Even smart kids have to recognize learning generally requires effort.

So how can parents help?

Encourage your child to try new things, learn new skills.

Tell them that it is OK to fail and act that way when they do fail.

Teach them that learning takes effort, time and practice.

Engage in problem solving activities with them. Let them be part of the process of decision making in your family. You don’t always have to take their advice or use their suggestions. But, if they observe how problem solving works and participate in brain storming they will become better problem solvers and that is a critical life skill.