Why Is Middle School So Hard for So Many People?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Simon Montag / The Atlantic

Middle school. The very memory of it prompts disgust. Here’s a thing no one’s thinking: Geez, I wish I still looked the way I did when I was 12. Middle school is the worst.

Tweenhood, which starts around age 9, is horrifying for a few reasons. For one, the body morphs in weird and scary ways. Certain parts expand faster than others, sometimes so fast that they cause literal growing pains; hair grows in awkward locations, often accompanied by awkward smells. And many kids face new schools and a new set of rules for how to act, both socially and academically.

But middle school doesn’t have to be like this. It could be okay. It could be good, even. After all, middle schoolers are “kind of the best people on Earth,” says Mayra Cruz, the principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a public middle school in Washington, D.C.

The notion that middle school deserves its own educational ecosystem at all dates back to the 1960s, with a campaign to better accommodate the specific learning needs of children ages 10 to 16. The movement drew from the work of two psychologists, writes Phyllis Fagell in her new book, Middle School Matters—a movement prompted partially by a quest to strip intermediary grades of their “Jan Brady” syndrome, and by the sense that they were overlooked as the middle child of the K–12 family, an afterthought or a means to an end.

Take the massive variation in grade figurations. Some middle schools are combined on a single campus with their elementary- or high-school peers; most are siloed institutions grouped into two, three, or four grades—or just one. Starting a new school in middle school—a common experience for many students—can be devastating. That’s in large part because of how important social currency is at this age—starting school on a brand-new campus with unfamiliar people is bound to upend kids’ existing popularity hierarchies.

A 2016 American Educational Research Association study of 90,000 students in New York City, for example, found that one’s status as a “top dog” has the most positive academic and social advantages in the sixth grade. And not only do kids at this age place a greater premium on popularity than their younger counterparts; they also benefit immensely from stability. A separate 2014 study of 6,000 K–8 students in small towns throughout Pennsylvania and Indiana found that starting a new school in the sixth or seventh grade can undermine kids’ motivation and confidence; those who didn’t have to transfer from their elementary school fared better.

More recently, the psychologist Marisa Malone, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, found that sixth and seventh graders who started at separate middle schools were less likely to pass tests than those who were still grouped with their elementary-school peers. The transition to a new school, she concludes in her September 2019 paper, may be exacerbated by the disproportionately high rates of bullying and pervasively low self-esteem that occur in those intermediary years.

“They have this heightened need for autonomy, yet suddenly their lives are so constricted and their every movement is really controlled,” Fagell told me in a recent interview. Middle schools often “infantilize the kids … and treat them like young children who cannot be trusted to problem-solve or to lead”— even though middle schoolers yearn for opportunities to step up. And when middle schools aren’t infantilizing students they’re treating them like little high-schoolers, discouraging academic risk taking and pigeonholing students by achievement level before giving them a chance to figure themselves out. Neither approach suits middle schoolers’ needs. Many kids also lose recess around this time—which erases an important opportunity for physical release and social bonding.

Any human past the age of 13 can tell you that navigating social settings is fraught for even the most well-adjusted middle schooler. “Most adolescent friendships are poor quality, defined not just by the presence of aggression, but by the lack of reciprocity,” Fagell writes in her book, citing research suggesting that kids’ best-friend lists change every two weeks. Classrooms with chair-desks arranged in fixed rows don’t help promote socializing. And middle schoolers end up feeling, as one seventh grader Fagell interviewed put it, simultaneously “judged and ignored.”

That seventh grader may have a point. In the annals of education, middle school often is disregarded. Mary Beth Schaefer, an education scholar at St. John’s University, has studied the progress of the movement to better accommodate middle schoolers over a 50-year period beginning in the 1960s. Schaefer tells a story of fits and starts: Efforts to reform middle school regularly made their way into national policy debates, but those conversations always dissipated quickly, resulting in stagnation or even skepticism of the cause’s validity. Middle School Journal, Schaefer notes, dropped by close to 100 pages per volume from 2010 to 2013. And yet we know that middle school is a pivotal time for children, whose bodies and minds develop more rapidly during early adolescence than at any stage other than the first two years of life.

So it doesn’t help that adults often dismiss middle school as the nightmare they remember it to be. “They tend to fear this precarious age range,” Cruz, the D.C. principal, says. “[Adults] misunderstand those years” as a chapter that these days is defined by sexting and narcissism, poor critical thinking, and civic apathy.

“Adults want to control,” Cruz says. And that may be why grown-ups struggle to adequately serve middle schoolers, whom she describes as “consistently inconsistent.” Yet Cruz is optimistic that middle school could be great.

One easy fix: a little bell-schedule rejiggering so that middle-schoolers can fuel their growing appetites when their bodies need it. Cruz’s school, Oyster-Adams, decided to implement a 20-minute snack break at 10:45 a.m. so the district’s existing lunchtime for the school (which also serves younger grades on another part of campus) wouldn’t leave her with hangry tweens. Another change: Middle-school classrooms should budget for air conditioning—tween bodies do not smell or feel good when it’s stuffy inside. Of course, the structural changes that benefit one community of preteens may not make sense in another.

One common denominator across the middle-school crisis is a simple empathy deficit. “Little people have all the feelings that adults have—[just] with way less world experience,” Cruz says. The principal told me parents of younger students elsewhere on campus often complain to her about the middle schoolers cursing and being haughty when they “drop off my innocent, little, tiny fourth grader.” She addresses the issue, but when this happens she thinks to herself: denial. “Everybody struggles with [early adolescence],” she says. “It’s not like you can just skip that.” She often notices a similar attitude in public spaces—when adults are on a bus with middle schoolers, for example, they often glare and shake their heads at the tweens, who if they’re in a group are very likely causing a ruckus. But those insolent preteens? “That’s gonna be your kid in a few years!” Cruz thinks to herself. Or: “I bet you acted kind of like that [in middle school], too.”

The middle-school movement has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. For these efforts to be successful, adults will have to embrace the messiness that is middle school. Tweenhood is torturous, and tending to those in the midst of it can be excruciating and embarrassing: Tweens will make lots of mistakes, and they’ll learn from them, and still make more mistakes after that. Yet those mistakes—and the growth that follows—are precisely what give middle school its meaning.