It’s a phrase that makes every mama’s heart skip a beat.
After all, the middle-school years abound with phenomena that might challenge the confidence of most mature adults. Puberty, of course, is a dominant influence, as the social pressures and dynamic moods and bodies that accompany this biological transition are disorienting. Neuroscientists might also blame the young brain; the frontal lobes, which could be described as the seat of wisdom and decision-making, are not fully developed until later in the teen or young adult years.
Together, a pubescent body and underdeveloped frontal lobes make…well…a perplexing stage of life. More succinctly, as a friend of mine recently put it, the middle-school stage is “weird.” For parents who want to raise confident, well-adjusted human beings, that means the middle-school years are a particularly trying phase of parenting––second only, perhaps (and I do mean perhaps), to the toddler years. As tweens and teens struggle to navigate the academic, physical, emotional, and social challenges of middle school, parents can only act as guardrails to steer their 12-14-year-olds on the right path.
That’s why a recent NPR article that offers “ways to make [middle school] better” caught my attention. In short, the writer challenges the notion that the “traditional” 6-8 grade middle-school model is the best educational approach for 12-14-year-olds. It was the second such article I read in a year. In an earlier piece, NPR cites other research to contend that a K-8 school model is better for academic performance and social/emotional development than either 6-8 or 6-12 models. Indeed, there is an entire body of research that suggests that when 6th and 7th grade students are not the youngest students in the program, they tend to report a better learning environment and, subsequently, they perform better academically and behaviorally.
As a mom of three teenagers, these claims resonate with me. My youngest, age 13, is currently an 8th grader at RCLS, and I can tell you that I am seeing the value of such a model. In fact, I would say that one of the things RCLS does best is to shape students who are both confident and well-adjusted, and I am convinced the PS-8 model is a framework that facilitates this.
RCLS capitalizes on the fact that they have PS-8 grade levels in a single building, and they use it as an advantage for both younger and older students. One of the more notable ways they do this is with “Chapel Families,” each of which consists of an 8th-grade leader, a 7th grader serving as reinforcement, and a student from each grade (PreK-6) below. Together, Chapel Families attend weekly chapel services, participate in monthly lunches or service projects, and learn to practice grace and friendship with students they might not encounter otherwise. Older students practice service and leadership skills as they shepherd younger students, and younger students delight in affirming bonds with their older counterparts. Many times, I have watched an excited kindergartner or 2nd-grader happily greet my 8th-grader and introduce her as their “chapel leader” to their parents. In that moment, I see not just a delighted younger student, but also a confident older student, happy that she is playing such a role in another life.
To be sure, as I gratefully watch my 13-year-old thrive at RCLS, even amidst the “weird” middle-school stage, I consider that there are a number of reasons RCLS consistently produces confident, responsible students:
· An atmosphere of grace ensures that students can be confident of their value.
· Instruction that is grounded in the basics of “reading, writing, and arithmetic” and designed to foster a love of learning equips students with an academic foundation that enables future academic success.
· Differentiated instruction means students have access to resource support and enrichment opportunities.
· A structured learning environment and an emphasis on work ethic and character offer a context in which students can be positively influenced by peers.
· The school’s guiding principles; comprehensive curriculum (music, Spanish, technology, and more); and extensive extracurricular options ensure that the whole child is educated.
· An exceedingly attentive faculty strives to meet the needs of each individual child and to shape hearts and minds for the plan and purpose in students’ lives.
There are few things that will shape your little one more significantly than the learning environment in which he/she will spend the next many years. A safe learning environment, a foundational curriculum and skilled teachers, affirming peers and community: it’s so very helpful to have these guardrails in place––you know, before things get…weird. RCLS really is, as current parents like to say, “more than just a school.”
*A version of this article first appeared on the Rochester MN Moms Blog on January 7, 2018.