Bullying and the middle school years: The case for K-8

By Marsha Sutton

All the recent media coverage on bullying reminded me of several lectures I attended a few years ago by a UCLA psychology professor whose area of expertise is young adolescent peer relationships and school adjustment. Her lectures focused on bullying, peer group conformity among young teens, and middle school.

Jaana Juvonen, chair of UCLA’s developmental psychology program, addressed bullying as it relates to the middle school years, and she offered some interesting, research-based evidence that isolating young adolescents in separate middle school facilities may be a flawed practice.

Juvonen’s research, as explained on her Web site, has examined “the development of some questionable peer group norms and values that seem to surface at the time when students transfer to middle school.”

Juvonen also served as adjunct behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation in 2004 where she worked with colleagues to produce a book titled “Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School.”

According to the book’s summary, the middle school years represent a critical time for young teens who “undergo multiple physical, social-emotional and intellectual changes that shape who they are and how they function as adults. The schools young teens attend play a critical role in shaping these futures.”

The summary states that “middle schools have been called the Bermuda Triangle of education and have been blamed for increases in behavior problems, teen alienation, disengagement from school, and low achievement.”

Some findings from Juvonen and RAND include:

•The concept of an intermediate school between elementary and high school often [historically] had more to do with labor market needs, the capacity of school buildings, or societal and demographic pressures, than with educational or developmental considerations.

•Research suggests that the onset of puberty is an especially poor reason for beginning a new phase of schooling.

•Young teens do better in K-8 schools than in schools with configurations that require a transition to an intermediary school.

School climate and bullying findings include:

•National school safety statistics suggest that physical conflict is especially problematic in middle schools, and student concerns about safety predict emotional distress that can compromise academic performance.

•Comparisons [with other middle-school-age students internationally] show that U.S. students view the climate of their schools and the peer culture more negatively than do students in other countries, making conditions for learning sub-optimal.

•U.S. educators should learn how other countries successfully promote student well-being and foster positive school climates in a manner that supports academic achievement in schools that serve young teens.

Academic performance and teacher preparedness decline in middle schools:

•International comparison studies show that the relative performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science declines from elementary school to middle school.

•Only about one-quarter of middle school teachers are certified to teach at the middle grades; the majority of the rest are certified to teach at the elementary level.

•Middle school teachers are likely to lack both the subject matter expertise and formal training on the development of young adolescents.

Parental involvement and student connectedness diminish in the middle school years:

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