Knowing how to choose the right middle school for your preteen 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 significant
developmental brain changes due to hormone levels in puberty. These neuro-shifts
cause an excitement of executive functions, and young teenagers start to explore self-
awareness and self-motivation. Teenagers can develop poor self-confidence and
unmotivated habits if these executive functions are not nurtured and supported by
caring adults. Teachers and parents can be instrumental in steering this process in a
One could compare the pubertal experience of a maturing preteen to that of a baby
becoming a toddler. They grow 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 eventually mature and start to balance out some of those
hormones. We just have to be patient and kind, with clear boundaries and individualized
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 in creating a strong
and confident adolescent, prepared for their secondary school and college years ahead.
Providing 1-1 Pastoral Care
Having worked in international schools for several 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 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 when given the opportunity, students can creatively and honestly
express themselves without persecution, and they will continue to use their 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 preteens
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 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 BBC.com, 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 you see in the clouds will
undoubtedly be different from the image 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. This is 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 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 students 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.
Still, 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.
- Why Whitby?The Whitby Difference
- Whitby Montessori Children's House18 Months - Kindergarten
- Lower SchoolGrades 1 - 4
- Middle SchoolGrades 5 - 8
- Signature Experiences