Stacey Horn Credit: photo by John Booz

Anyone who has ever raised an adolescent knows that from one day to the next, you never know what you’re going to get. One day everything is fine, but in the blink of an eye, the world is coming to an end. Stacey Horn, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches adolescent development to prospective and current teachers to help them navigate this terrain. Horn talked to Associate Editor Debra Williams about what makes middle-grades students different, what teachers can expect and what schools and teachers can do to meet their needs.

How are middle-school students different from younger kids and those in high school?

The changes start with puberty, which leads to physical and biological changes. There are also cognitive changes that restructure how students think, so you get emergent abstract thinking, multi-dimensional thinking, like the ability to understand sarcasm and, hopefully, better decision-making. Second to early childhood, the most significant growth, both physically and cognitively, happens now. But in the early adolescent years, they don’t yet know how to necessarily apply their thinking all the time. They’re getting used to these new cognitive skills. They’re also making more bids for autonomy and freedom. Puberty hits at different times for different kids, so you get real variability in [development]. It’s probably one of the only times when it’s better to look at developmental stage, rather than age, as a marker of maturity.

How does that play out in the classroom?

Day-to-day changeability. The other thing that happens is the social stratification of the peer group—who’s popular and who’s not—and this intensifies quite a bit. You see an increase in bullying and peer harassment, and kids get smart about it.

How so?

Kids know if you physically bully somebody, they’re going to get in trouble, right? But if you spread a rumor about someone and they don’t know who started the rumor, you’re less likely to get in trouble. But you’re also just as likely to cause a lot of damage to that person potentially.

All this has got to be tough for teachers.

Since grades are organized by age, it makes the task of the teacher and the school really complicated. So the education they get can’t be like it was in elementary school. And it shouldn’t be like high school, because they’re not quite there yet.

What can teachers do?

As a teacher, you have to be able to differentiate instruction [and] the norms of the classroom—who are you extending autonomy to and who are you not, who can handle it and who can’t. And how do you help kids understand how to negotiate all of these physical and cognitive changes, while at the same time treat each other nicely?

What can schools do?

Schools should try to separate them [from their younger counterparts] so there’s some acknowledgment that, “Yes, you are going through these changes, you’re getting older.” The best model in a K-8 building is to have the middle school run differently. You probably want those students to be taught math by an expert math person. The middle school model should be a team of teachers who work with a group of kids and determine the curriculum. The kids know who their team is and who their teachers are, so they have continuity. You can, as a team, provide a safety net for kids.

What do you think about treating them like young adults?

A lot of our students in Chicago are faced with responsibilities at home really early on in their life. Both parents are working, or mom is working, and so they’re responsible for younger siblings. So it can get complicated in middle school because of the need for autonomy. Kids are getting it at home by necessity, but there’s a disconnect when they get to school and you need to walk in line to go to the bathroom.

What can teachers do about this?

The teacher’s job is to figure out how much autonomy kids can handle and how to negotiate the authority relationship with students. Part of the process is rethinking how to invite students into the decision-making process [regarding] what they’re going to be doing in class.

Do teachers understand this?

Some do; some just inherently naturally get it. Still, a lot don’t because [they think] “I’m the teacher—I should be in control.” There’s a developmental process for teachers. When you’re a new teacher, you want control because that’s how you feel safe. As you get more experience, you’re able to let go of control a little bit.

Do you have tips for schools?

Have students do problem-solving activities. Educationally, this is critical.

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