Op-Ed: ‘You just have to get through it’: Letting go of enduring stereotypes about middle school

Young adolescents are capable of so much more than people think.

Nancy Deutsch

One afternoon during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, my daughter showed me a comic book she was writing titled Middle School Jitters. She was in 3rd grade but was a frequent consumer of books and television shows that featured young people navigating middle school. The illustration she had drawn for the cover was a scene from a middle school hallway. On one side was a large boy who had a smaller boy in a headlock and was yelling “nerd!” On the other side two students were kissing. Behind the students were rows and rows of identical lockers, making the scene look like it was taking place in an impenetrable fortress. In the foreground stood a girl, eyes wide, with a terrified look on her face. When I asked my daughter to tell me more about the picture, she said, “Mom, you’re remaking middle school. You should know how bad it is!’”

My heart sank. Over the past few years, I have been deeply involved in an initiative at Youth-Nex at the University of Virginia to help reshape middle schools. We use the science of adolescent development to engage middle grades educators in rethinking their schools’ structures and practices so that they’ll better align with young adolescents’ needs. And yet here was my own daughter parroting back all the stereotypes about the middle school experience that we are seeking to challenge.

The enduring narrative about middle school is that these years are extremely difficult, and the best students can do is power through them, hoping for some relief in high school. That stereotype is incomplete, and perpetuating it can have significant negative effects, including creating unnecessary anxiety in younger children. Talk to anyone who works in middle schools or with young adolescents, and they will tell you that these young adolescent years are more than what these stereotypes would lead you to believe; in fact, they are a time of tremendous potential and opportunity.

This article was originally published and featured by Kappan. Read the full article here.

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