California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II
A summary of young adolescent development, including brain research, as it pertains to the California Department of Education's Recommendation on Relationships.
Note: Following each essay, the Teaching Tips and Parenting Tips demonstrate how to put the developmental-based strategies into action in the classroom and at home.
Middle grades students need guidance and support even though they appear to be pulling away. At a crossroad in life, young adolescents are shifting and establishing new types of relationships. They are on a journey toward independence and, as part of that process, they will pull away from parents. Often times, just being seen with a parent is terribly embarrassing. Young adolescents might also want to distance themselves from teachers. However, this pulling away does not mean that adults have become less important. While attachment to peers is a hallmark of being a young adolescent, the decisions they make as to what type of friends they will associate with and what type of person they want to be can be altered by caring adults. Therefore, both parents and educators should not give into their “flight” away from adults. Young adolescents still need both guidance and limits as well as adult acceptance. Contrary to the behavior observed, they want their parents and teachers to be a part of their lives.
It is important to build relationships even though young adolescents do not seem interested. Research on relationships shows that there is a correlation between student academic success and caring teachers and parents. Learning requires effort and there is little intrinsic motivation1 for doing schoolwork. However, one of the best predictors that students will make the effort and be engaged in school is the relationships they have with their teachers2 and the involvement their parents have with the school. One research study found that students, whose parents stayed connected to their children and their schools, were likely to have higher engagement and better academic performance.3 Dr. Kathryn R. Wentzel has researched relationships between teachers, parents, students and their peers at the middle grades level for over 20 years. She found that supportive teachers affect student interest in class work and their willingness to follow the class rules. In addition, positive teacher-student relationships in the lives of young adolescents affect their motivation and interest in academic activities.4
In order to support young adolescents, adults need to understand why they behave the way they do. Research leaves little doubt that caring relationships and student success go hand in hand; but, as adults see young adolescents trying to distance themselves, they too may want to become more distant. Sometimes described as “hormones in sneakers,” these young adolescents can be difficult to relate to and hard to understand. Their behavior can be problematic—unpredictable, emotional highs and lows, and acting very immature for their age. The boys run around chasing, hitting, or throwing loaded backpacks at each other. For no apparent reason, they make derogatory remarks about another’s mother, which initiates some type of physical or verbal conflict. The girls are best friends one day and the next they are spreading vicious rumors about each other. Young adolescents are laughing and fun-loving one minute and in the next, screaming and shouting in anger. Some adults just want to close their eyes hoping the young adolescents will pass through this “squirrely” stage quickly. There are, however, explanations as to why they have erratic behavior. It all makes sense when adults understand what is going on in the young adolescent brain. This understanding is important because adults will better know how to support young adolescents as they go through the physical and cognitive changes.
The early adolescent male
Young adolescent boys’ main growth hormone is testosterone. During puberty, this hormone increases production as much as 18 times. There can be as many as five to seven surges of testosterone every day. During a hormonal surge, testosterone stimulates the amygdala. The amygdala is a structure in the emotional center that contains the “fight or flight” response. (For example, at the sight of a rattlesnake the amygdala triggers the production of adrenaline to either fight the enemy with superman strength or run away at lightening speed.5) This structure has receptor stations that allow testosterone to “dock” there. Although testosterone does all sorts of good things, when it “docks” or connects with the amygdala, it is likely to trigger surges of anger, aggression, sexual interest, dominance, and territoriality—making boys “powder kegs.”6. This behavior might be difficult to find “endearing,” however, understanding the origin of the behavior may help adults relate to boys better and help them by creating safe situations where that tension can be released. For instance, when you see boys chasing and trying to hit each other, instead of just saying “stop,” suggest a safe, physical game to play.
The early adolescent female
Girls, too, have receptor stations for their predominant hormone estrogen. It “docks” in a structure in the brain’s emotional center known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus has much to do with memory and this might give girls an advantage in school when information needs to be memorized.7 For example, it could be why sixth-grade girls are so much better at memorizing spelling words8 However, it is not that simple for girls; estrogen also causes serotonin to fluctuate. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that influences mood and tends to keep a person emotionally balanced. During puberty, the surges and fluctuations of hormones are intense, and the connection with estrogen and serotonin may explain the dramatic mood shifts in girls, especially depression. They may be on the phone laughing one moment and then in the next sobbing over a math problem. This erratic behavior is not easy on adults and hard to find “endearing.” Adults might shake their heads and want to walk away from the “drama queens,” but this is a time to stay connected and give them the support needed.
Nurturing students in elementary school is the norm, but traditionally in middle grades, the classroom setting has been more about control and discipline in a less personal environment.9 Many educators have believed that middle grades is a time for the students to grow up and act more adult-like. The belief follows that this maturation will occur by withholding nurturing and strictly focusing on the subject matter and the responsibility of getting the coursework completed. However, when students sense that a teacher does not care about them, they stop caring about learning in that class. There is a plethora of research over the years that clearly shows that when a teacher builds positive relationships with students and cares about them, the students:
Caring taps into the emotion centers in the brain that cause the brain to pay attention. Research on relationships suggests that when students feel comfortable and accepted when they enter the classroom, internal chemical responses happen that make them more adept at solving problems in potentially stressful situations.13 When teachers care for students, they give students motivation to do well in school. Caring teachers at this age, however, is not defined in the same way as in the elementary grades. Adolescents think of caring teachers not as being cuddly or being best friends, but by communicating directly and regularly with them about their academic progress and making sure they understand what is being taught.14 Adolescents report that they work harder for teachers who treat them as individuals and express interest in their personal lives outside of school.15 A teacher’s willingness to listen to young adolescents is key to being a successful teacher. Middle grades students know they are valued by a teacher’s smile and by how much teachers spend their precious time with them.16 It is not easy striking the right balance between being approachable without being their friend—it is the challenge and art of teaching!17
When they care for individual students, teachers can change the course of a child’s life and set him or her on a more successful pathway in middle grades, high school and beyond. One of the main reasons reported for students dropping out of high school was that their teachers did not care about them.18 In Robert Balfanz’ research, the fundamental finding was that in high-poverty environments a student’s middle grades experience strongly impacts the odds of graduating from high school.19 “It is during the middle grades that students either launch toward achievement and attainment, or slide off track and placed on a path of frustration, failure, and, ultimately, early exit from the only secure path to adult success.”20How a teacher relates to students in middle grades can have more of an effect on student learning than what is being taught!
Young adolescents experience an increasing focus on friendships and peer acceptance. These two are distinct in that peer acceptance represents social status or popularity within a large group and friendships represent relationships based on mutual respect, appreciation, and liking.21 Friendships in young adolescents are more supportive and share more common feelings than those they had in elementary school. The more mutual friends that a student has, the more likely he or she is to be accepted by the larger peer group.22 Both are good for self-esteem and being more balanced psychologically. Research also shows that friendships influence academic achievement (Wentzel, Barry, & Caldwell, 2004).
Peers as emotional support
The negative impact when young adolescents have difficulties in developing or maintaining friendships are aggressive behavior, low academic achievement, and experiencing loneliness and depression. It should be apparent to all that developing peer relationships at this time is helpful to avoid these effects, but also to assist in this period of dramatic physical and cognitive changes. Some young adolescents react to these changes with distress, anxiety, depression, and alienation from peers and school, and then may engage in high-risk behaviors.23 Concerned adults can be of great help, but it is the peers who are going through the same thing that can be just the right comfort. Dr. David Walsh likens the experience of entering puberty to being transported to a distant village in a foreign country with very different culture and customs. A young adolescent has to discover how to act and fit in. How does he or she do that? By looking to the other people in this “new territory”—his or her peers.24 So this fixation on peers is understandable!
Peers as academic support
As mentioned before, positive peer relationships have positive effects on students’ academics. Teachers have a role in promoting both. Recent research suggests that the more middle grades teachers structure their lessons with cooperative learning methods —rather than working competitively or individually—the more students (1) tend to achieve, and (2) have positive peer relationships. The research further demonstrated that the more positive the peer relationships are, the higher the students tend to achieve in school.25 In other words, teachers can fill a young adolescent’s need for socializing and at the same time, increase student achievement.
Positive peer relationships appear to be good for everyone, but what about peer pressure? Dr. David Walsh believes that adolescents are often tightly controlled by the norms of their peers groups when it comes to dress, language, and customs because they place a tremendous amount of importance on fitting in. Peer pressure is inevitable, but parents do not have to go along with every whim. The author knows of one mother who said no to her daughter’s request to attend a co-ed sleepover. The situation appeared to have been an easy one to say no. However, because so many other parents said yes, the mother had to be strong to keep to her decision.
Some parents see their children as victims of peer pressure, however, recent research suggests that teenagers purposely pick friends who do things they want to do—for good or for bad.26 Thus, rather than being pressured by friends to do risky activities, an adolescent seeks those that like to do the same. Depending upon the situation, there are presumably situations where young adolescents are pressured to conform, and then there are others where adolescents become friends because of like interests. Either way, young adolescents can be prone to risky behavior and having caring relationships with adults can literally save young lives.
Seven relationship-based strategies that can transform your classroom into a positive learning environment:29
Research says the following about parent-adolescent relations:30
Adolescent Development Index
Recommendation—5 Relationships Contents
1Intrinsic motivation means that a person does something just because she or he likes doing it; extrinsic motivation is doing something for treats, money, praise, or good grades.
2Stipek, Deborah. "Relationships Matter,“ Educational Leadership 64, no. 1 (2006): 46.
3Mo, Yun, and Kusum Singh. "Parents’ Relationships and Involvement: Effects on Students’ School Engagement and Performance," Research in Middle Level Education Online 31, no. 10 (2008): 9.
4Wentzel, Kathryn R. "Social Relationships and Motivation in Middle School: The Role of Parents, Teachers, and Peers" (Outside Source), Journal of Educational Psychology 90, no. 2 (1998): 207-208.
5Philp, Raleigh. Engaging 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. (Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007), 97.
6Walsh, David. Why Do They Act That Way? (New York: Free Press, 2004), 62.
8Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. (New York: Anchor Books, 2003) 137.
9Schmakel, Patricia O’Connell. "Early Adolescents’ Perspectives on Motivation and Achievement in Academics," Urban Education 43, no. 6 (2008): 724.
10Murdock, Tamera B., and Angela Miller. "Teachers as Sources of Middle School Students’ Motivational Identity: Variable-Centered and Person-Centered Analytic Approaches," The Elementary School Journal, 103, no. 4 (2003): 383.
11Brown, Tara. "The Power of Positive Relationships," (Outside Source) Middle Ground 14, no.1 (2010): 10.
12Garza, Rubén, Gail Ryser, and Kathryn Lee. "Illuminating Adolescent Voices : Identifying High School Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Caring", Academic Leadership 7, issue 4 (2010).
13Philp, Raleigh. Engaging 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. (Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007), 105.
14Stipek, Deborah. "Relationships Matter,“ Educational Leadership 64, no. 1 (2006): 47.
16Berckemeyer, Jack C. Managing the Madness: A Practical Guide to Middle Grades Classrooms. (Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association, 2009) 19.
17Brown, Tara. "The Power of Positive Relationships" (Outside Source), Middle Ground 14, no.1 (2010): 8.
18Stipek, Deborah. "Relationships Matter,“ Educational Leadership 64, no. 1 (2006): 47.
19Balfanz, Robert. Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path (Outside Source). (Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association, 2009) 3.
21Yu, Jeong Jin, Karen Hoffman Tepper, and Stephen T. Russell. "Peer Relationships and Friendship" (Outside Source), Building Partnerships for Youth (Tucson, AZ: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona, 2009).
23Roseth, Cary J., David W. Johnson, and Roger T. Johnson. "Promoting Early Adolescents’ Achievement and Peer Relationships: The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures,“ (Outside Source) Psychological Bulletin 134, no. 2 (2008) 223.
24Walsh, David. Why Do They Act That Way? (New York: Free Press, 2004), 221.
25Roseth, Cary J., David W. Johnson, and Roger T. Johnson. "Promoting Early Adolescents’ Achievement and Peer Relationships: The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures“ (Outside Source),Psychological Bulletin 134, no. 2 (2008) 238-239.
26Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. (New York: Anchor Books, 2003) 90.
27Stipek, Deborah. "Relationships Matter,“ Educational Leadership 64, no. 1 (2006): 48.
29Brown, Tara. "The Power of Positive Relationships" (Outside Source), Middle Ground 14, no.1 (2010): 8-10.
30Hill, Nancy E., and Ruth K. Chao, eds. Families, Schools, and the Adolescent: Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice. (New York: Teachers College Press,2009) 7.
33Walsh, David. Why Do They Act That Way? (New York: Free Press, 2004), 236.
34Yu, Jeong Jin, Karen Hoffman Tepper, and Stephen T. Russell. "Peer Relationships and Friendship" (Outside Source), Building Partnerships for Youth (Tucson, AZ: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona, 2009).
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