The middle school years can be a tumultuous time for students. As they make the leap from childhood to adolescence, students experience physical changes and a roller coaster of emotions that can be overwhelming at times. In order to best support students during these transitional years, parents and educators need to work together to help middle schoolers feel known, important, and challenged.
Research published in the American Educational Research Journal indicates that a PreK-8 school structure could be the best way to create the supportive school environment that middle schoolers need during the challenging tween years. The study shows that sixth, seventh, and eighth graders do better in school, feel safer, and have a stronger sense of belonging in K-8 schools when compared to traditional 6-8 middle schools or 6-12 schools.
So why does the PreK-8 model help students succeed? A cohesive PreK-8 school structure provides the social-emotional support, sense of belonging, and academic rigor that middle schoolers need to thrive.
Creating a Community
At any age, feeling a sense of community at work, school, or in recreational groups is important in order to feel like we belong and can relate to others. As middle schoolers transition into adolescence and start to develop their sense of self, it is more important than ever that they feel like they are part of a community where they are known and supported.
In a PreK-8 school, children start to form bonds with their classmates and teachers at an early age so by the time they reach sixth grade they have a strong sense of community at school. This community extends beyond individual grade levels so that students of all ages interact with each other.
At St. Thomas School, a PreK-8 school in Medina, students across grades join together every morning for Chapel to self-reflect and celebrate world cultures and religions. Older and younger students are also paired together through the school’s Buddy Program and Leadership Lab. These programs allow middle schoolers to form bonds with younger students, helping them feel important and engaged. Knowing that they are setting an example for younger children gives middle schoolers a sense of responsibility. It also helps lift the mask of disinterest in academia that some tweens wear. This type of empowerment is difficult to achieve in a middle school-only or 6-12 setting.
Cultivating Confidence and Leadership Skills
As middle schoolers transition into adolescence and start asserting their independence, it's important they are given opportunities to develop leadership skills. Learning how to lead helps children build confidence and lays the foundation needed to be successful leaders throughout their academic and professional journeys.
In St. Thomas School’s Leadership Lab, middle schoolers learn about child development and how preschoolers and elementary children look at the world. The school also emphasizes public speaking, which can be an uncomfortable task at any age.
Learning to present with poise and confidence, despite feeling anxious, can only be achieved through repeated practice. Middle schoolers at St. Thomas School are given the opportunity to lead Chapel on several occasions. The culminating experience for eighth graders is a final, moving graduation speech that weaves in their personal journeys as well as honors how their acts of service and leadership have impacted their perspective.
The Right Amount of Academic Rigor
Studies shared by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute show that students' scores in writing, social studies, math, and reading are higher when enrolled in K-8 schools than students who are enrolled in traditional middle schools. This could be because a cohesive educational journey allows for more personalized learning. Middle schoolers thrive when they are taught by teachers who know their individual strengths and opportunities for growth, and the curriculum builds on the content and skills from the previous year.
St. Thomas School's teachers communicate across departments to make sure students' interests are being integrated into the curriculum wherever possible. For example, if the drama teacher tells the social studies teacher that her student has a passion for theater, the social studies teacher can weave in a Greek theater to spark that student's interest when they do a unit on Greece.
The middle school years are equal parts exciting, overwhelming, and challenging for students, and it's important that they receive the right support during these transitional years. The PreK-8 model creates a cohesive academic journey that nurtures students while preparing them for high school and beyond by challenging them academically, giving them leadership roles that wouldn't be possible in a traditional middle school, and providing the social-emotional support and sense of belonging that middle schoolers need during a time that can be developmentally challenging.