California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Adolescent Needs

Young adolescents are developmentally different from elementary school children and from older high school students. Therefore, their educational needs are different as well. It is true that students from kindergarten to high school have unique needs. Middle grades students are no exception with their confusing and rapidly changing emotions and bodies. Middle school philosophy (Caught in the Middle summary of Middle School Philosophy) highlights strategies that respond to the specific developmental needs of adolescents.

Developmentally responsive middle schools effectively use research on the characteristics of middle grades students. Staff members understand that adolescents typically need specific types of experiences and opportunities during this stage of development. The following list of adolescent needs1 is derived from the work of national middle school reform initiatives, including the National Forum to Accelerate Middle School Reform (Outside Source), Turning Points (Outside Source), and This We Believe (Outside Source). According to the findings, adolescents need:

  • Approval and success
  • Fairness
  • Opportunities for voice2
  • Experimentation
  • Opportunities to make connections with peers3
  • Autonomy4
  • Belonging5
  • Opportunities to create personal meaning and to engage in meaningful work

In the Spotlight

Seven Hills Intermediate School, Nevada City Elementary School District, a 2009 California Distinguished School
Seven Hills Intermediate School is featured on the California Department of Education's (CDE) Closing the Achievement Gap Web site for its Signature Practice, Bicycle Recycle. This exemplary practice addresses relevance, one of the CDE’s 12 Recommendations for Middle Grades Success.

As a counselor at Seven Hills Intermediate, Steve Davis worked with middle grade students struggling with family, peer, substance abuse, and school issues. He found them reticent to speak to him in fear that they would be labeled as weird. Davis felt students might be more apt to connect with him if he could relate to them in a relevant way. That premise—the school’s need for more career technical classes—and Davis’ passion for bicycles made for a perfect combination and Bicycle Recycle was born.

Started as an elective class with 15 students, Bicycle Recycle made its home in a storage area in the back of the school gym. The program’s goal was to teach students to rebuild and recycle bicycles as well as develop specific skills that could be applied in their daily lives. After completing a month-long study program, each student selected a bicycle in disrepair and renovated it. A student could keep it, donate it to a friend or family member, or give it to a nonprofit community agency. A culminating service-learning project required students to spend one morning repairing bikes belonging to the homeless.

The class enhanced students’ environmental awareness while teaching technical skills and developing mechanical knowledge. Problem solving and working cooperatively with others were important components of the program. Most importantly, students who had not been successful in academic endeavors were offered the opportunity to experience success outside the traditional arena while still in an academic environment.

As the program enters a tenth year of operation, the results have been remarkable:

  • The number of students seeing Davis for counseling increased by 65 percent as has the intervention success rate.
  • One hundred percent of participating students indicated that Bicycle Recycle was a major contributor to their positive attitude and achievement in school.
  • The number of bikes built and donated to nonprofit groups grew to between 80 and 120 annually.

Seven Hills Intermediate is one of the schools featured on the CDE's Closing the Achievement Gap Web site. The site contains helpful information, research, and success stories including Signature Practices from some of California’s Distinguished Schools.


The Positive Classroom is a two-part special report that includes advice for educators on strategic ways to motivate students. Part I examines the effects teaching strategies have on students and explores new technologies that can help create positive classrooms. Part II reviews best practices and research about classroom strategies that meet the needs of different ethnic and economic groups.

Related Links

Adolescent Characteristics

Developmentally Responsive Middle Grades Practices

1Linda Inlay, “Safe Schools for the Roller Coaster Years,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 62, No. 7 (April 2005), 41-43.
2Susan Black, “Listening to Students,” American School Board Journal, Vol. 192, No. 11 (November 2005).
3Kathryn R. Wentzel, “Social Relationships and Motivation in Middle School: The Role of Parents, Teachers, and Peers,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 90 (1998), 202.
4Wim Beyers, Luc Goossens, Els Moors, and Ilse Vansant, “A Structural Model of Autonomy in Middle and Late Adolescence: Connectedness, Separation, Detachment, and Agency (Outside Source),” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 32 (2003), 1.
5 Getting Results Update 5, California Department of Education, 43.

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