Choose the Right Middle School: Two Characteristic Catalysts for Success

Gloria Arpasi

Gloria Arpasi

Knowing how to choose the right middle school for your pre-teen can be a scary time for a parent. You might be observing big personality changes in your once sweet and loveable elementary student, leaving you wondering what to do next to ensure your young person has the greatest environment for success. As a middle school educator for more than 20 years, I would argue that choosing the right middle school environment for your young adolescent is one of the most important decisions you can make in their lifetime. A decision that can provide them with the skills and motivation they need to be successful, no matter what path they may follow into high school and beyond. These are the crucial formative years, and middle schools which pay attention to unique preteen needs can provide effective catalysts to success.

 During the transition to adolescence, pre-teenagers experience large developmental brain changes due to hormone levels in puberty. These neuro-shifts cause excitement of the executive functions and young teenagers start to explore self-awareness and self-motivation. If these executive functions are not nurtured and supported by caring adults, teenagers can develop poor self-confidence and unmotivated habits. Teachers and parents can be instrumental in steering this process in a positive direction.

 One could compare the pubertal experience of a maturing pre-teen to that of a baby becoming a toddler. They are growing in cognitive function and sometimes become frustrated with the world around them. Therefore, they throw a 12 year old temper tantrum! When middle school students seem bored out of their minds with content at school, we must remember to make the topics relevant and hands-on for their immediate experience and surroundings. Our children do eventually mature and start to balance out some of those hormones. We just have to be patient and kind, with clear boundaries and individualized support.

 We take great care in choosing the right high school program for our teenagers, but I would argue that choosing the right middle school is a far more important decision. A middle school that provides focused pastoral care for your young tween and specifically supports the journey of identity formation will pay unique dividends into creating a strong and confident adolescent, prepared for their secondary school and college years ahead.

When choosing a middle school that is right for your young adult, it would be wise to ask yourself the following question…. In what ways will this middle school program provide a rigorous learning environment, coupled with 1-1 pastoral care for my child, in an effort to help them develop confidence and a positive self-image?

 Providing 1-1 Pastoral Care

Having worked in international schools for a number of years, I have come to know a term that my British counterparts use quite often: pastoral care. In the educational world, this term translates into ‘the help given by a teacher with personal needs and problems’. Usually coined as ‘advisory' in American education, this term refers to going the extra mile in offering your students personalized 1-1 care as they navigate the confusing world of middle school. Examples of this could be assigning 1-1 mentors, organizational reminders, social conflict guidance, communication strategies, individualized support plans, and more. Adolescent cognitive development rushes pre-teenagers towards young adulthood, even when they are sometimes not ready for mature, stable decision-making. Often led by surging emotions, teenage behavior can sometimes be unsafe, unwise, and unkind. Teachers and parents need to extend a significant amount of pastoral care and guidance so that they can be safely led to young adulthood. The middle years, prior to the higher stakes of high school, are a time that schools can be flexible in the best interest of each child, rather than adhering to rigid policies and rules that may not serve their dynamic needs at the moment.

 When choosing a middle school that is right for your young adult, it would be wise to ask yourself the following question…. In what ways will this middle school program provide a rigorous learning environment, coupled with 1-1 pastoral care for my child, in an effort to help them develop confidence and a positive self-image?

In my experience, if teenagers are given an environment where they feel safe and supported, even when they make poor choices, they will be more likely to learn from their mistakes. Teachers who take the time to develop real relationships with their students, beyond academic content, will allow them to develop a level of trust in them as role models. And if then, students are given an opportunity to creatively and honestly express themselves, without persecution, they will continue to use their own experiences to develop a supportive self-image. Overall, providing an educational environment that supports a teenager’s emerging self-view, allows long-lasting change and confidence.

Student-Led Identity Formation

For the better part of the last 20 years, I have worked directly every day with pre-teens and teenagers in an educational environment. The struggles these young adults face are real and confusing. When attempting to support our students in developing a healthy identity, I strongly feel that our most impactful actions will be ones that come from a place of thoughtful empathy and allow room for student self-growth.

 Reflecting on the identity process that early adolescents must endure will help parents and educators to develop a deeper level of empathy for how challenging it is to be a teenager in 2023. While our young people may have the ability to honestly identify with their own image because our modern world is more open to the acceptance of gender, sexuality, and race; at the same time they are faced with a barrage of identity expectations coming from social media and our 21st century online lives. It must be more confusing than ever to be an adolescent going through puberty.

Found on, Why We See Faces in the Clouds (Mosaic Films, 2019), demonstrates how our reality is simply our own perception of the world around us. Our own experiences shape the way we see the world. The face that you see in the clouds will undoubtedly be different from the image that your friend or family member sees. From Seed + Spark, “We are born learning beings — powerfully shaped by the environments in which we learn.” (180 Studio & Saunders, 2020, p. 13). Our own identities are deeply rooted in the type of environment in which we grow and learn, in addition to the multiple expectations that extend from those around us. All the more reason to carefully choose the middle school environment that is right for your child, allowing them a safe space and guided freedom in which to grow into their own identity. Prepare them now, before high school, so that they build the grit and resilience needed to handle anything that is thrown their way. This is the key to a happy, healthy teenager.

Our adolescent students, today more than ever, are facing merging expectations that ask that they unrealistically balance numerous demands of childhood, adulthood, responsibility, honesty, self-discipline, safety, expression, success, failure, and more. Finding one’s way through this maze of expectations are the seeds that give rise to our future selves. Middle schools that take the time to provide their kiddos with a toolbox of personal skills beyond academics are the ones that will create the most successful young humans. This is easily overlooked in the hustle and bustle of today's busy world, but middle schools which provide individualized pastoral care and student-led identity support are crucial for growing dynamic young adults. It’s quite simple, actually: an intriguing learning environment where kids feel safe and supported with the tools they need to thrive = student success.

Gloria Arpasi

Gloria Arpasi

Originally from Colorado and Montana, Mrs. Gloria Arpasi has spent the last 25 years making her home in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. Gloria holds a Bachelors of Science in Marine Biology and holds a Masters of Education in Advanced Teaching and Educational Leadership. Mrs. Arpasi enjoys the continual challenge and reward of leading change-making education and is honored to have joined the Whitby School family as the Head of Middle School