Middle School Matters: Affecting Change in How We Teach Adolescent Learners

Savvas Insights Team

It’s no secret that middle school is one of the most challenging times in a student’s academic career. Yet, most middle schools are hanging onto a traditional model where students’ schedules are packed, rules are strict, academic learning takes priority over the learning of life skills, and where learning is no longer as fun as it was in their previous, elementary school years.

“I think we put too much on these middle schoolers,” said Rebekah Poe, a 6th-grade teacher at Hueytown Middle School in Hueytown, AL. “They come in from fifth grade where they’ve had one classroom with one teacher. Then they go to middle school and they have lockers, eight different teachers, and they’re changing classes all day long. There’s not really an easy way to transition into that. And no one is taking into account that they’re still kids. Sixth graders are eleven years old. They’re little.”

We spoke to Rebekah, a national educator's conference presenter and award winning special education teacher, as well as E.L. Adams II, a psychologist who specializes in adolescents, about what makes the middle school years so challenging in a student’s life and strategies on how to teach today's adolescent learners so we’re making those critical transitional years as successful as possible.

Supporting the Whole Child

Research shows that when educators integrate lessons to help students develop effective communication skills, how to negotiate conflict, and how to manage emotions, it can lead to better academic outcomes. But when educators are tasked with meeting curriculum goals and standards, it may be difficult to weave those skills into the instruction.

“If a child isn’t feeling well emotionally, then how can we expect them to do their best in class?” asked E.L. “There needs to be a holistic approach to teaching the individual. We need to help them develop those life skills as they get older.”

middle school students engaged in group work

Rebekah has found that while it takes a lot of practice and patience, it is possible to teach those life skills, and that they’re just as important as teaching academics.

“Being able to regulate emotions and take accountability for your actions is a skill that needs to be taught, just like academics,” she said. “And if we’re ignoring one and only focusing on the other, then we are doing the child a disservice. Because, chances are, if they aren’t able to regulate their own emotions, they’re not learning the academic content, so they’re falling behind in every area.”

Rebekah acknowledges, however, that teachers don’t typically get professional development on developing these skills, so it can be difficult to know how to work it into instruction. It may help to research educational resources that are already embedded with life-skills lessons. In the meantime, she is starting to see the beginning of a shift happening in schools embracing the idea of supporting adolescents as a whole, and not just their academics.

“If a child isn’t feeling well emotionally, then how can we expect them to do their best in class? There needs to be a holistic approach to teaching the individual. We need to help them develop those life skills as they get older.”

“We need to think about the individual we’re trying to help develop — a child who will need to learn to interact with people,” said E.L. “A child who will need to navigate uncomfortable social activities, and be around someone who they don’t like but also have to coexist with. They need to learn how to interact and socialize in a positive, acceptable way.”

Student Choice and Voice

Creating classroom environments that welcome individual voices and promote student agency through choice are also important elements in successful middle school instruction. By teaching to support autonomy with a more student-centered approach, students will take a more active role in their learning.

“Give them life-like situations where you can tap into their emotions,” suggested E.L. “Tap into their decisions. Tap into their identities. For example, ask them three questions about themselves. Not only will their answers help teachers get to know them better, but the other students will understand each other better too.”

middle school student working on computer with head phones

Rebekah suggests that educators stay on top of trends and learn what their students are interested in. She even has a TikTok account so she knows what new viral video the kids will be talking about. She also attends her students’ sports games so she can talk to them about it afterward and they know she went to support them.

“Be approachable,” she said. “Show them you’re a safe space. Sometimes there will still be bad behavior. But if you have that relationship as a foundation, then you have that to fall back on and you have something to build back up from.”

Real-World Application

Instructional models that enhance student engagement and application of skills in real-world settings is a great way to reach middle-school students. If they can’t see a purpose to their learning, they’re likely to not be as engaged and not learn what’s being taught.

“My co-teachers and I really strive for making the learning relevant to the students,” said Rebekah. “Because if they don’t see a use for it, they’re not going to want to do it.”

For example, when giving her students a math word problem, instead of asking her students: What’s 60 divided by 12. She asks how they would make a 60-second TikTok video with 5 segments and how long each segment would be. “When you use things they’re more interested in, they’re more eager to do it.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Overall, Rebekah believes that middle school needs to be a little more fun. Teachers know what students are interested in, like videos and games, so perhaps incorporating those things into the instruction will get them more engaged in their learning.

“If they’re enjoying it, and learning from it, and I’m getting good data that I can use moving forward — then we’ll do that. If they’re having fun, they’re going to be more engaged. And if they’re having fun, I’m having fun.”

middle school student working on computer in class

Rebekah also realizes that it’s going to take time to make changes in the way we teach middle schoolers. But if educators take the time to incorporate practices and resources into the instruction that are designed to help students to build self-regulation skills and build relationships, then everyone will benefit.

“We’ve become more tech-savvy in classrooms. Along with that change we need to also be aware that what students are facing now is different from what we faced in middle school. It’s even different from five years ago,” Rebakah said, referring to, among other things, the growing influence of social media on kids. “So we need to make sure we are addressing the change. And middle schoolers are very quick to tell you what’s working and what’s not working. And when an entire generation of students are telling you something’s not working, you need to listen.”