Characteristics of Middle School Learners

Middle school learners are qualitatively different than younger learners. Teachers and parents can significantly enhance the learning of students this age by understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of middle school learners. Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of middle school learners can make all the difference in their success.

Middle School Cognitive Development

By ages 12, 13, and 14, most students have begun developing the ability to understand symbolic ideas and abstract concepts. According to Piaget's classifications, students will range in development from the concrete operational stage of development to the ability to the formal operational stage. In fact, studies show that brain growth slows down during these years, so cognitive skills of learners may expand at a slower rate; however, refinement of these skills can certainly be reinforced. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

1. Curious and willing to learn things they consider useful
2. Enjoy solving "real-life" problems
3. Focused on themselves and how they are perceived by their peers
4. Resists adult authority and asserts independence
5. Beginning to think critically

Middle School Social Development

Most middle schoolers experience conflicting values ​​due to their changing roles within their family structure and the increasing influence of peers. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:

1. Need to feel part of a peer group, consisting of boys and girls, and are influenced by peer pressure and conformity to their group
2. Prefer active over passive learning activities that involve working with their peers
3. Need frequent physical activity and movement
4. Need adult support, guidance, and calm direction

Middle School Instructional Strategies

Middle school students are very concerned about the labeling that takes place, when one is identified as a remedial reader. Labels and stereotypes are both externally imposed (by other students and, sometimes their parents) and internally imposed (by the students themselves). Lack of reading ability causes more self-defeating damage to students' self-esteem as students grow older and the academic gap between themselves and good readers widens. Middle school teachers need to be extremely mindful of student self-perceptions and those of their peers. A few talking points may be helpful:

"All students need help in some areas."
"This class is not for dumb students; it's for students who just missed out on some reading skills."
"Unfortunately, some of your past reading instruction was poor; it's not your fault that you have some skills to work on." aka "blame someone else"
"You will learn in this class. If you come to class willing to try everyday, you will significantly improve your reading, I promise."
"You will be able to chart your own progress and see what you are learning in this class."
"You are not in this class forever. As soon as you master your missing skills, you are out."