By Bill Waskowitz
6th – 8th Grade Middle Schools are Getting it Right.
Here’s Why …
What an MRI teaches us about letting Middle School students be Middle School students
Have you ever taken a look at a scan of a Middle School-age student’s brain? I have. And, even after studying brain-based education for decades and serving as a school principal, I can say the strongest case for keeping sixth- through eighth-graders together in the same three-grade middle school points back to a look at that brain scan.
My belief in the effectiveness of the sixth- through eighth-grade school is grounded in what I know about the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex—two areas of the brain that detect fear and help regulate appropriate social behaviors, respectively. As our brains grow and mature, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex connect, which means people are more able to manage stress and anxiety.
But in the brain of a middle school student between the ages of 11 and 14, the prefrontal cortex is not yet hard-wired to the amygdala. That means students in grades six through eight may have seemingly irrational fears race through their minds throughout the day. They may blurt out inappropriate comments, and, when compared to a typical high school student, they may at times be overwhelmed with impulsivity.
In other words, they’re normal 11- through 14-year-olds.
What does this tell parents and middle school educators? While some middle schools house seventh through 12th grades, sixth- through eighth-grade students are the most comfortable with students in their age group. No younger, no older.
And because teachers and administrators are serving only students of a certain age group, they become experts on that age group, guiding mindfully, with an eye on changing relationships within the student body and how adolescents are constantly responding to what is happening in their worlds. I firmly believe It’s a comfort zone for learning that can’t be attained in any other grade configuration.
In time, our middle school students will be ninth-graders, and then 10th grade will come. The awkward feelings will subside and, once the amygdala and prefrontal cortex mature and are communicating with each other in the high school student’s brain, other social considerations, like driving and dating, will take center stage.
But for right now, students in grades six through eight should be together in their own space. They’ll thrive in educational settings with other middle school students, feeling slightly uncomfortable, constantly testing social norms, and, quite simply, being a little silly. Leading educators know that, by neurological design, their middle school students are quirky, gifted, and brimming with unbridled curiosities.
And, at this age, that’s just how they should be.
Bill Waskowitz is the Head of Middle School at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio. A progressive school administrator and self-proclaimed student of brain-based education, Waskowitz encourages his students to use empathy to improve the lives of others. Waskowitz employs the philosophy that a student’s social-emotional health is just as important as his or her academic pursuits. Bill is a long-time professional educator with, having been a teacher, principal of a pre-kindergarten through 8th=grade school, and principal of a Middle School.