Can't Stop Talking
Social Needs of Students in the Middle
Middle school students like to socialize and talk a lot. They chatter about boyfriends and girlfriends. Parents. Their teachers. Movies. The Internet. Shopping. Music. Sex. They talk about everything.
Did you know that talking and socializing are not only normal, but also healthy? Through talking and socializing, young adolescents project the social and developmental issues they are experiencing.
A child's social development progresses along a continuum, from an egocentric world (the world revolves around him or her) to a world in which the child begins to work and play with other children to a world in which the child integrates his or her work and play with that of other children the same age. By early adolescence, the child's need for social interaction and being a part of the group is very strong.
The middle school classroom is the perfect setting to see the social changes of early adolescence -- when individuals are beginning to develop social skills. Students are whispering or passing notes during quiet times. They are out of their seats (and not just to meet the "moving around" needs of ongoing growing and physical changes). They're going to a friend's desk, or talking with someone as they head to the drinking fountain or pencil sharpener (usually the boys) or the restroom or supply shelves (usually the girls).
During work times, these students form groups and during unstructured times, they cluster to visit. When they are doing group work, the topics move rapidly off and on task, with comments on dress, others, plans for the night or weekend, and what happened in between classes and what might happen during the next break.
Several factors drive the social behavior of young adolescents:
- They have a strong need to belong to a group and form friendships.
- They are creating an identity for themselves within and among a group. They are experimenting with different roles and personas -- but within the safety of the group. They are different, as the group is different. Though they are seeking their own identity, they will take few risks of being rejected from the group. As a result, they tend to conform to group mores such as dress, behavior, values, and activities.
- They are beginning to select adults other than their parents as friends and confidants -- adults who are role models or with whom they can identify.
- They are becoming highly concerned with right and wrong, social justice, and individuals and groups who are less fortunate than they are.
When teachers, parents, and other adults in the lives of young adolescents begin to think of this social behavior as a normal part of human development and not an aberration, they can enjoy and accommodate behavior changes along the developmental continuum. Here are some ways educators can accommodate the needs of their middle school students:
- Provide lots of opportunity for students to move around, work in groups, and work in a variety of groups.
- Allow for some individual expression. Young adolescents occasionally reject directions, create their own rules (usually within the formed rules), speak out in surprising ways (sometimes intending to shock), and dress in ways that exhibit their individuality. This is part of their attempt to develop their uniqueness. Teachers should refrain from judging or condemning their behavior. Trying to change it will only reinforce their determination to continue.
- Allow students to be like the others in their group. Following the dress and behavior of the group is normal and should not be reason for ridicule or attempts to change. Students select their groups and sometimes change groups. Adults who try to force students to change groups or change their appearance or behavior from that of the group norm could create a situation of perceived or real rejection, which could have serious repercussions. Rejection is a serious issue at this age.
- Ensure that each student has the support of one significant adult, an advocate who knows the child's learning style, personality, achievement levels, and any other information that could help the adult promote the success of that child. This is especially important at a time when these students are beginning to look for adults with whom they can safely confide, be listened to, and be supported by. Any number of programs or structures in the school can provide this "one significant adult."
- Promote projects involving social awareness and investigation. Middle school students are concerned about values, right and wrong, and the behavior and unfair treatment of others. Classroom and school activities should promote this emerging social awareness and concern. There are innumerable ways to do this. Here are just a few:
- Participate in community service projects.
- Conduct research to determine the cause of social injustice with a follow-up discussion or project to suggest ways to right these wrongs.
- Promote school improvement projects that focus on the building, the students in the building, or some other aspect of the class or school.
- Carry out studies with another school in the state or elsewhere in the country or in another part of the world with exchanges of e-mails, letters, and artifacts with information about issues, philosophies, and conditions.
Children in middle school experience many changes -- physical, emotional, and social. Gone is the egocentric child that parents and elementary school teachers know, love, and expect. In his place is a young adolescent with new feelings and a strong interest in others.
As with their physical development, the social development of a young adolescent results in behaviors that are typical of the age group. Middle school teachers who understand these developmental issues and behavior changes can have fun and exciting teaching experiences as they plan for and enjoy the emerging adult.
MacWilliams, Carol. "Why Middle School? Supporting the Young Adolescent." Materials presented at the annual meeting of the Middle Years Association of British Columbia. April 2000.
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.