October is known as “The Month of the Young Adolescent.” This designation reminds us to think about who our students really are and to consider the unique challenges of emerging adulthood. It is important to acknowledge that our middle level students live in a vastly different and accelerated world. This means that they face the same developmental tasks that challenged us, but within a different setting, at an earlier age, and with the world literally at their fingertips.
It was never easy entering adolescence, a life-cycle change of grand proportions that brings about physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes. The stage of development begins with the onset of puberty, which is happening sooner with recent generations and can begin at the age of 10. A powerful force for preadolescents is the task of defining who they are while also carving out a group identity (hence our selection of the wild beautiful Mustangs as our school mascot). While they seek independence and autonomy, they need and want their parents to be near, even if that means around the corner or out of sight.
Middle level learners are curious, earnest, caring, daring, and social. They are energetic, positive, friendly, resilient and hopeful. Cognitively, they are acquiring greater ability to conceptualize and understand abstract ideas. Physically, their hormones transform sixth graders who still look like elementary learners and turn them into young men and women ready for the challenges of high school at the end of eighth grade. It is an age of curiosity and taking risks.
As preadolescents emerge from their childhood cocoons, they are influenced by the actions of the adults in their lives as well as by the powerful pull of the media, especially social media, and a vast array of websites on the internet. Their striving for independence and to act like an adult present opportunities to experiment in ways that pose danger. The preadolescent stage – our very own middle schoolers – is when students begin to experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex. In their quest for acceptance, their decision-making can be impaired.
I doubt any of us would wish to return to this turbulent period of change in our lives. Those of us who work with middle level students know the challenges but also recognize how wonderful these emerging adults truly are. Our school, our curriculum, leadership, and guidance programs help students to think about how to make the difficult decision of “doing the right thing,” even if it means someone stands apart and alone.
The challenge for parents is to make sure that students are supervised after they leave school, and that parents of your child’s friends share the same values you do and actively supervise youngsters. I continue to believe that middle level students, especially sixth graders, should not be permitted to hang out in town or, likewise, in chat rooms, or on social media or on websites intended for adults. Middle level youngsters are also keen observers of adult behavior, which is why it is so important for adults in their lives to be positive role models. They will not take us seriously if we profess to believe something but our actions are not in concordance with that belief.
As parents we should recognize the difficulties of the changes they are undergoing, the greater challenges they face today, and a future that promises to continue changing. Kids need our love, support, and encouragement, but they also require our guidance, structure, and vigilance. Tell those stories from your own preadolescent experience and work to stay connected with your middle level son or daughter who is not a child any longer.