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:

•Middle schools contribute to the decline in parental involvement by offering fewer activities and providing less support to parents than elementary schools do.

•Middle school parents are often discouraged from direct involvement. A more disengaged, hands-off approach, and the message that parents need to begin to “let go” of their children during these transitional years, are communicated.

•Having students move from classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, with no safety net of the elementary years’ “homeroom” teacher, compounds the problem.

Onset of puberty

America’s middle schools generally consist of grades six, seven and eight. These are the “middle years” – those grades between elementary school and high school, when kids are 11, 12 and 13 years old. These years are a time when adolescents experience some of the most dramatic physical changes in their lives. And with the onset of puberty can come social, emotional and psychological turmoil.

According to the RAND study, alternatives to the separate 6-8 or 7-8 middle school should be considered, to reduce multiple transitions from school to school. This is particularly important at a time in students’ lives when traumatic adjustments can negatively affect healthy physical and emotional development.

Juvonen, in her lecture several years ago, argued that society pulls kids out of a safe, comfortable environment – elementary school – and throws them into a separate facility we call middle school, just at a time when they most need to remain in protective, familiar surroundings.

“Right around the time that most kids are transferring to middle school, everything starts to happen,” she said in an article in TIME magazine on the RAND report.

This is a fragile time for children, and a strong case can be made that removing them from their comfort zone and putting them in a “holding tank” where they are essentially in limbo between elementary school and high school can impede developmental and academic progress and is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The elementary school provides grounding for kids and offers continuity and familiarity – just the type of environment critical for children going through major changes in their lives.

It’s not just the physical surroundings that provide comfort at a time of upheaval. The elementary school’s homeroom teacher, absent in most middle schools, does more than teach. He or she is the primary contact, advisor, counselor, protector, confidante, and, hopefully, mentor and role model – someone the student can trust and confide in.

Without all this to lean on, inappropriate sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and bullying – particularly cyber-bullying – can escalate in the middle school years.

Witnesses, Juvonen says, rarely intervene but can thwart bullying if schools provide appropriate training and tools. But school officials are at an immediate disadvantage when safe surroundings are removed and kids are thrown together in a new school with minimal protective adult oversight.

After years of data collection and analysis, Juvonen authored a paper several years ago titled “Bullying and School Violence,” in which she noted the following:

•Bullying often entails abuse of psychological strength and relies on name-calling, exclusion, threats and/or spreading of rumors.

•Compared to other grade levels, middle school students report the highest rates of bullying.

•Victims of repeated bullying exhibit feelings of depression and either withdrawn or aggressive behavior.

•Bullied youth are more likely to carry a weapon to school.

•Children who bully in childhood are at risk of becoming violent offenders.

•Almost two-thirds of public secondary school students think a shooting could take place in their school.

•Socially withdrawn and passive children are at risk of getting bullied and of becoming even more withdrawn after repeated experiences of bullying.

•Analyses of daily incidents of bullying in middle school show that social anxiety is increased when student bystanders see someone else being bullied.

•A caring climate in schools – in which students belong, feel respected and listened to, and where teachers help mediate hostile incidents – can buffer safety concerns and ease distress of the entire student body.

A local K-8 model

Locally, San Dieguito Union High School District’s middle schools serve students in seventh and eighth grades.

But at schools with only two grades, feelings of disconnectedness are often exacerbated. Neither children nor parents are given time to make deeper connections to the school and the staff, school spirit is difficult to generate, and teachers don’t have enough time to get to know the students.

And just as these pre-teens are uprooted from their familiar school environment at a time when they most need to stay connected to familiar adults and surroundings, a single primary teacher or adult in the system to whom they can approach for help has been removed. Making matters worse is that parents begin to withdraw from direct involvement in their children’s schooling.

In the Rancho Santa Fe School District, however, a different model has been in use for decades. All on one campus, RSF serves 800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Before 1968, the school was a K-6. But in 1968, the community approved construction bonds and authorized the return of seventh- and eighth-grade students from Earl Warren Middle School (then called a junior high school) in Solana Beach. The school expansion was complete in 1971, when the district officially became a K-8.

Former RSF school superintendent R. Roger Rowe, who came to the school district in 1958 and retired in 2001, said the decision to pull the community’s seventh- and eighth-grade students back from SDUHSD’s Earl Warren was mostly for financial reasons.

“We had 25 percent at that time of the assessed valuation of the San Dieguito Union High School District, but we had 5 percent of the youngsters,” said Rowe, adding that many RSF students were attending private schools for seventh and eighth grades instead of Earl Warren.

“So we looked around and thought, gosh, we don’t have many people over there,” he said. “And yet we’re paying a lot to educate them.” He brought his case to the community, “and the community voted big-time for the youngsters to come back.”

Rowe bases his belief that a K-8 is better for kids on personal observations. He agrees with those who say children this age should remain with a primary classroom teacher for most of their day. Going from teacher to teacher during the day “is not always a beneficial thing,” he said.

He said having K-8 students intermingle during the day “was a real plus,” being a small community “didn’t hurt,” and having grades 7 and 8 in town saved families from driving long distances to either Earl Warren or private schools.

“It worked out quite well for us,” Rowe said.

Role models for younger students

Current RSF superintendent Lindy Delaney said, “The K-8 setting … tends to enable the seventh- and eighth-graders to stay a little bit younger in some ways.” She said the middle school students are asked to be role models for younger children, which “helps them realize that they have a bigger place in the world and in our school community.”

Delaney said she often hears demand for a K-8 from incoming parents. “When people come and look at this school, they want a K-8,” she said. “They are seeking that out, because I think they realize that it is more of a comprehensive education without disruption.”

When students enter RSF’s middle school grades, teachers already know them and “they’re part of the school community,” she said. “They see them come up through the ranks or they had a sibling,” she said. “So there’s a continuity and a consistency.”

“Also, we know the families and we know the parents. We know that dynamic which makes for less transition. And I think that only helps students in their environment to be more successful.”

Delaney, who began at Rancho Santa Fe as a middle school teacher 26 years ago, said the school is not immune to bullying. “But because we have a tighter knit community, we might hear about more of it and be asked to intervene [earlier],” she said. “Whenever we get word, we address it and we deal with it severely. We want students to realize that they’re part of a community and that’s not how we treat our community.”

Delaney said there is collaboration, interaction on activities and buddy programs among the students in different grades. “We’ve tried to implement more of that from … the middle school to the lower grades this year, with more to come,” she said.

Both Delaney and Rowe said they believe students feel more connected in a K-8 campus, which they say provides numerous advantages over a middle school facility that’s removed from a K-5 or a K-6 setting.

“We have what I think is an ideal community feeling within our school,” Delaney said.

Juvonen’s work, as well as observations over decades from Rancho Santa Fe, offers convincing evidence that a K-8 model can provide developmental support for adolescents at exactly the time in their lives when they need it most. And that supportive environment translates into higher self-esteem, stronger academic performance and kinder young citizens.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: HYPERLINK “mailto:SuttComm@san.rr.com” SuttComm@san.rr.com.



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