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Squirming Comes Naturally to Middle School Students

Physical Changes Trigger Behavioral Changes

Found in: Classroom Management

Have you ever heard (or said):

"What happened to those quiet, wonderful little children?"
— An elementary teacher who moved (when 6th grade did) to the middle school

"I can't keep my chairs in a straight row. I can't even lecture without them squirming, or wandering, or talking all the time."
— A high school coach who teaches in a middle school

"He is moody. He eats everything. And the running around!"
— Parent of a young adolescent

These comments can be heard in any middle school in the country. They reflect the developmental issues of the young adolescent. And they contribute to the image of middle school students as difficult to control, constantly eating or talking, always in motion, and fidgeting in their classroom chairs. This image is accurate, but the behavior, far from extraordinary, is normal, healthy, and unavoidable.

Rapid Physical Changes

During early adolescence (ages 11 to 16), the body experiences more physical changes than it has since infancy, and as rapidly as in infancy. These changes manifest themselves in behaviors that are often difficult for adults to understand (even though they all experienced them) and that are usually bewildering for the adolescents. To cope with the challenges of these new behaviors, it is useful for both adolescents and the adults in their lives to understand the changes and the resulting behaviors. Here are three major changes:

  • The skeletal structure, including the tailbone, is hardening, which causes sciatic nerve discomfort when sitting too long.
  • Bone growth surpasses muscle growth, stretching the muscles and causing aches, or "growing pains." When these aches occur, adolescents need to move or stretch the muscles to ease the aching.
  • The stomach becomes longer and increases in activity. Because it is now bigger, the stomach needs more food to address the increased "emptiness." The additional food provides support for the accelerated muscle and bone growth and fuel for the additional activity that is characteristic of young adolescents.

No Timetable for Changes

It would be easier for educators to accommodate these changes if they happened to all students at the same time. They don't.

  • Girls experience the changes earlier than boys.
  • Not all girls develop at the same time. It is typical to see girls at the exact same age but with totally different physical maturity.
  • Boys develop at different rates as well. It is typical to see two boys, best friends even, who are both 13 years old -- but one is six feet tall and well developed with a deep voice, and the other is five feet and yet to grow and develop.
  • Adolescents are developing earlier today. Each generation of adolescents is beginning the maturation process earlier than the previous one. For example, when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, he wrote Juliet as a 13-year-old. Today, those same developmental characteristics (physical and emotional) that Shakespeare described are typical in an 11- or 12-year-old girl.

People who work with and around young adolescents are more likely to accept their behavior when they understand the causes. When they understand that the behavior is triggered by actual changes in the physical structure of the human body.

The next step, then, is accommodating these changes and adapting classroom planning and activity. In the weeks to come, this column will provide more information on the changes that young adolescents experience -- other physical as well as social, emotional, and intellectual changes -- and ways to adapt classroom planning accordingly.

About the Author

Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.

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