Why Do So Many People Have Bad Memories of Middle School?

The effects of middle school on students’ self-esteem, school behavior, academic performance and later life adjustments have all been well documented. These transitional years from grades 5-9, depending upon the individual school, do show that there is an increase in stress, a decrease in academic performance, and an increase in behavioral problems, especially in the first year. This comes as no surprise to the many people who found their own junior high experiences unfortunate or difficult.

Many people, though certainly not all, have bad memories of the middle school experience, and there can be numerous reasons why these experiences seem common. The age range of children attending junior high, usually from about 12-14, is one of major physical change, due to growing bodies and onset of puberty. As any parent can attest, a child entering puberty is not necessarily the easiest person to deal with in family or social settings. The hormonal spikes and changes, as well as greater body awareness and possibly discomfort with the changing body can easily translate to less than perfect behavior in the school setting, either toward teachers, and most commonly toward peers.

In fact, children tend to organize themselves into peer groups in the middle school years, and students who seem different in any way are often not easily accepted by fellow students. Bullying is more common and more difficult to excise from junior high schools because of less supervision in the school setting. Students at this time, despite zero tolerance policies, may show less likelihood of reporting bully behavior for fear of recrimination.

Further, especially in that first year, students are also under the stress of great transition. In fact, studies have certainly shown that students in the 6th grade who are in elementary school, and students in K-8 settings tend to perform better in mathematics than do children who make the transition to junior high school at this point. Needing to keep track of classes, dealing with multiple teachers, and being held more responsible for actions can all negatively contribute to a student’s ability to learn.

In addition, the average elementary school student comes from a classroom of no more than 40 students, with usually one teacher. Once in middle school, the student moves to multiple classrooms where each teacher can have 150 students or more. This means despite the best effort by teachers, not all students are as well known by their instructors. This can translate to a feeling of isolation in each child.

Essentially, then there are several major stressors common to the middle school environment:

  • Physical changes.
  • Dramatic transition from elementary school setting.
  • Greater demands emotionally, behaviorally and academically.
  • Less individual attention from teachers.

Even though each individual responds in different ways to stress, higher levels of stress tend to correlate to negative response, and for the most part, teachers and parents must evaluate this child as being under a great deal of stress.

Behaviors that we would much prefer our children to avoid like sexual activity, and drug and alcohol use become more common in middle school. Children at this age may not become sexually active or illegally use controlled substances, but they very likely know children who are engaging in these behaviors. Older students in the school setting may also contribute to this negative peer effect since incidence of drug use and sexual activity increases by year in adolescence.

It does make sense then, that even when each individual child may be delightful and wonderful on their own, in a highly pressured setting with so many stressors, they may respond by acting negatively toward peers, by having poor grades, and by becoming more emotionally distressed in the home and school setting. This translates to a difficult and negative time for many students, and accounts for the many of us who have bad memories of these years.

Since so much research exists on this matter, some school districts have begun eliminating middle schools. Studies do show that students are better able to make the transition to a larger school setting as high school freshman than they can as 5th, 6th or 7th graders. Yet, it should be noted that people from K-8 settings often report similar emotional turmoil, especially around peer relationships, to that reported by students in 5th through 7th grade years.

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Discuss this Article

Post 8

Violent assaults take place in schoolyards every day, and the victims are ignored. Sometimes even sexual assaults. I would be lying if I said that I never pondered in later years, getting even with a few people.

Post 7

Middle school. The very thought makes me feel a little nauseated. While I realize mine was not a unique experience, it was still awful.

I think parents can help by giving their children a sympathetic ear, being alert to signs of bullying and ostracism, and mostly, by reassuring their children that this is only temporary, and that, even though it seems unending, this too shall pass. Giving emotional support is the single most important thing a parent can do for a middle school child.

Post 6

@Brickback- You make a good point. I think that middle school is hard because so many students seek acceptance from their peers. In fact, I think that this is the first time in their lives when the peer’s opinions become more important than the parents opinions.

They also can become more argumentative because they are trying to assert their independence. It can be a really trying time for parents and kids. Middle school is not easy.

Post 5

@Icecream17 - I agree and I also think that preparing for middle school math is also a priority. Math becomes increasingly difficult for some kids during this period. Some students go to pre-algebra in the 7th grade while others have difficulty with the pace.

I decided to enroll my kids in a supplemental math program afterschool so that they will not have difficulty when they reached this stage. My kids have been at the center since kindergarten and math is now their favorite subject. I knew that middle school would bring about its own challenges and I did not want math to be one of them.

Post 4

@Sunshine31-I think that it is important to be proactive regarding all of these potential landmines because there will come a time when the child will seem to not want to listen to the parents, but if you drill the right values in your child when they are young they will be able to make better choices.

Adolescence is really a difficult time but I think that if you talk to your child before any of these things become a problem at school then they will know what to do if they are faced with a problem.

Post 3

@Extrordinary-I agree and I wanted to say that I think that some children this age want to identify with being an adult so much that they often engage in adult behaviors because they think that it will make them more mature.

I tell this to my daughter all of the time because she will be approaching 5th grade next year and I want her to understand that sometimes people make bad choices. I also try to explain to my daughter that when children make adult decisions then they will usually face adult consequences.

I have also explained bullying to her and told her that bullying could take many forms. I told her that if her friend is a really friend he or she will help them and never hurt them. I like to watch movies with my children that portray bullying so that I can point it out and we could have a discussion about it.

Post 2

I can remember this time as being difficult for myself, but also for my sons. My youngest in particular, had a difficult time with self-organization and the pressure to be self-reliant. The middle school seems to expect an over the summer transformation from the students. In elementary school they are told what to do one hundred percent of the time and are only in one classroom. I think something that might help the students in middle school would be to incorporate some kind of self reflection or organization course at the beginning of the first year.

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