I have always chosen to work in middle schools. I request them on purpose. I love the “tween” age group of 11-14 (“tween”=between children and teens). I love the drama of it all. I love when the students blow my expectations out of the water. I love how they secretly still want to play. I love seeing the incredible cognitive and social development that happens in 3 short years. And when I tell people this, they look at me as if I am an alien. Middle schoolers get a bad rep.

My first experience with middle school (other than my own, of course) was when I was doing my first practicum in grad school. My assignment was to “get a sense of the culture of a middle school” by interviewing students and staff. My first day, I noticed boy culture right away. A 7th grade boy at lunch somehow obtained a 2-liter bottle of coke and was showing all his friends how quickly he could drink it all, while they all cheered on. He then showed all his friends his vomit. Awesome.

Girl culture is just as interesting. Just the other day at my school I heard three girls in the hallway chanting a rhyme of some sort. I can’t remember it all, but it was along the lines of “OH. MY. GOD. I think I need a manicure. The sun, the sun, is bleaching out my hair!” There was an accompanying interpretive dance. Awesome.

This is all the fodder for an anthropological study of middle school culture. I am the Margaret Mead of Middle School.

Somehow, the happy, well-adjusted students are somehow never referred to the school psychologist. But there is a happy, well-adjusted student in every kid that comes into my office. A few years ago, a giant, sulky, angry 8th grade boy was “delivered” to my office by the principal following a fight at lunch. The principal whispered to me, “This kid’s a ‘frequent flyer’ in my office for fights. Good luck.” His arms were crossed. He was scowling. He was wearing an army jacket with his hood on. His backpack claimed “Thug Life.” And he was clearly NOT going to talk to ME.

I started with acknowledging that he didn’t want to be there (didn’t need my Ph.D. for that one). Then to break the ice, I asked him what he liked to do when he wasn’t at school. And do you know what he said? Poetry. I did not see that coming.

So what is going on with middle school aged students???

The answer is: it depends on your theoretical orientation. Personally, I subscribe to the biopsychosocial explanation. This means that the middle school student’s behavior is not the result of one thing, but rather a complex interaction between biology, personality and learning factors, and social factors (including family, previous experiences, culture, peers, etc.). But if you want to sound fancy, next time use “biopsychosocial.”

Biological Factors will be the first of the “Three Part Series” attempting to explain our middle school friends. I’ll take each factor separately, even though the interaction among them is the good part.

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