Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Caught in the Middle: Part III

Social Factors

The following is a confabulated* transcript based on a conversation with one of my 6th grade middle school students. He was referred to me for special education testing because he was suspected of having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He reported hating his English teacher and was constantly being kicked out of class for getting out of his seat without permission and talking out. None of the other data supported a diagnosis of ADHD. He was attentive in his other classes and previous report cards from his cumulative folder never mentioned inattention or hyperactivity. But there was still the issue that he was disruptive in class and hated school.

Dr. Bell: Let’s play a game called ‘I start a sentence and you finish it’
Middle School Boy: Ok.
DB: I like to…
MSB: Play video games.
DB: My favorite part of school is…
MSB: Recess.
DB: If I were president, I would…
MSB: Cancel school forever!

(Interjection: Great, I have uncovered that he doesn’t like school. Not exactly new info)

DB: Teachers are…
MSB: Mean. My teacher is always mad.
DB: What makes her mad?
MSB: I get out of my seat to sharpen my pencil. I was allowed to in 5th grade!
DB: What else makes her mad?
MSB: When I ask my friends what they got for answers.
DB: What does she say?
MSB: That I’m cheating! But we always worked in groups in my elementary school so I thought it was ok.

This confabulated* transcript highlights what studies have shown about the difficulties that students have in making the transition to middle school. It has been shown that student motivation and attitudes toward school tend to decline during this transition. The theory goes that there is a poor fit between the developmental needs of preadolescents and the social environment of middle school (Eccles et al.).

Stage-environment Fit

Essentially, the theory goes, middle school aged students are beginning to want more autonomy, peer groups are becoming more important, and many middle schools are not set up to support these developmental needs. Beginning in middle school, there is more academic tracking, increasing competition, and fewer opportunities for decision-making. This is what was going on for the kid I was working with. His developmental need for independent learning and collaborating with his classmates was mismatched with the teacher’s style. Now there is value in him learning how to adapt to a mismatched teacher, so we had a consultation meeting and the two began to understand each other better.

Also remember that our friends with the developing prefrontal cortexes now have several classes and teachers and new procedures for each. We should not expect our middle school children to wake up for 6th grade with all the knowledge on how to navigate such a new environment and successfully organize all their materials for each class. There are some students who do have these skills already, but don’t assume. We didn’t expect our 4 year olds to wake up and know how to tie their shoes—we had to teach them.

Some tips for middle school parents (and educators) on how to help your middle school student if they are having difficulties adjusting can be found at a great website by the National Middle School Association.


I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss peers in a post about the social factors that contribute to adolescence. Unfortunately, this would take 6, maybe 7,000 hours and I have to go to work. Stay tuned for a snippet about peers for tomorrow’s post (It will be post 1 of a 7,000 part series). I will leave you with a teaser:

Ugliest Girl in School.

*I have always wanted to use the word confabulated. Thank you for the opportunity.

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