The middle school years can be a tumultuous time for students. As they make the leap from childhood to adolescence, students experience physical changes and a roller coaster of emotions that can be overwhelming at times. In order to best support students during these transitional years, parents and educators need to work together to make middle schoolers feel known, important and challenged.
Recent research indicates that a pre-k – 8 school structure could be the best way to create the supportive school environment that middle schoolers need during the challenging tween years. The study shows that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders do better in school, feel safer and have a stronger sense of belonging in K – 8 schools when compared to traditional 6 – 8 middle schools or 6 – 12 schools.
So why does the pre-K – 8 model help students succeed? In my experience as an educator, I've found that a cohesive pre-K – 8 school structure provides the social-emotional support, sense of belonging and academic rigor that middle schoolers need to thrive.
Creating a Community
At any age, feeling a sense of community at work, school, or in recreational groups is important in order to feel like we belong and can relate to others. As middle schoolers transition into adolescence and start to develop their sense of self, it is more important than ever that they feel like they are part of a community where they are known and supported.
In a pre-K – 8 school, children start to form bonds with their classmates and teachers at an early age so by the time they reach sixth grade they have a strong sense of community at school. This community extends beyond individual grade levels so that students of all ages interact with each other.
At St. Thomas School (STS), students come together as a whole school every morning for Chapel to self-reflect and celebrate world cultures and religions. Older and younger students are also paired together through STS's Buddy Program and Leadership Lab. These programs allow middle schoolers to form bonds with younger students, helping them feel important and engaged. Knowing that they are setting an example for younger children gives middle schoolers a sense of responsibility and can help lift the mask of disinterest in academia that some tweens wear. This type of empowerment is difficult to achieve in a middle school-only or 6 – 12 setting.
Cultivating Confidence and Leadership Skills
As middle schoolers transition into adolescence and start asserting their independence, it's important they are given opportunities to develop leadership skills. Learning how to lead helps children build confidence and lays the foundation needed to be a successful leader throughout their academic and professional journeys.
In STS's Leadership Lab, middle schoolers learn about child development and how preschoolers and elementary children look at the world. STS also emphasizes public speaking, which can be an uncomfortable task at any age. As Mark Twain once said, "There are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars."
Learning to present with poise and confidence, despite feeling anxious, can only be achieved through repeated practice. At STS, we help students challenge their edges by pushing past the discomfort of public speaking. Middle schoolers are given the opportunity to lead Chapel on several occasions, and eighth graders persuade the school community on why their service learning cause is important. The culminating experience for eighth graders is a final, moving graduation speech that weaves in their personal journeys as well as honors how their acts of service and leadership have impacted their perspective.
The Right Amount of Academic Rigor
Studies show that students' scores in writing, social studies, math and reading are higher when they are enrolled in K – 8 schools than students who are enrolled in traditional middle schools. This could be because a cohesive educational journey allows for more personalized learning. Middle schoolers are taught by teachers who know their individual strengths and opportunities for growth, and the curriculum builds on the content and skills from the previous year.
STS's teachers communicate across departments to make sure students' interests are being integrated into the curriculum wherever possible. For example, if the drama teacher tells the social studies teacher that her student has a passion for theater, when the social studies teacher does a unit on Greece she can weave in Greek theater to spark that student's interest.
The middle school years are equal parts exciting, overwhelming and challenging for students, and it's important that they receive the right support during these transitional years. The pre-K – 8 model creates a cohesive academic journey that nurtures students while preparing them for high school and beyond by challenging them academically, giving them leadership roles that wouldn't be possible in a traditional middle school, and providing the social-emotional support and sense of belonging that middle schoolers need during a time that can be developmentally challenging.