By Patrick Tolan
There is a troubling bias that most adults hold about adolescents, particularly in how we overlook the importance of the transition from elementary to middle school. It is a bias that goes beyond insensitivity and creates serious consequences — impeding education, styming potential, and decreasing productivity and civic engagement with the world around them. It also misdirects policy and allocation of limited resources.
This bias is our insistence upon seeing adolescence only as a time of great problems, of alienating and alienated personalities, and viewing younger adolescents in particular as trouble waiting to explode but for our careful watch and strong control. We overlook their capability and vigor for self-management and incorrectly view them as in emotional overdrive, unable to apply judgment, consider others, or see the future impact of what they do.
This bias is wrong. Forty plus years of scientific evidence has shown that most adolescents are very engaged in trying to be successful at school, home, and in their communities. Most are working to make the most of opportunities, to be responsible, and to begin exploring what it will mean to be an adult.
Research does show that the move to middle school, which occurs as children enter adolescence, is a treacherous time. On average there is a substantial drop in school engagement and achievement. Family relationships become more strained and kids report increased stress levels. The adolescent spikes in substance use, delinquency, and other problems first appear.
However, much of what we have learned shows that it is not adolescence per se that imposes these problems, but the disconnect between what we know about development and how we teach and treat youth at this age.
There is a challenge to face but it may be for the adults as much as it is for youth — a challenge to stop clinging to the bias that adolescents are problems waiting to happen and instead to engage youth for positive development.
What if we were to believe the accumulated research from the past 40 years and began to view this transition to middle school, with its attendant challenges, as not just a time of new fears for our children or the start of an awful time to just get through? What if we recognize it as a point of great opportunity for securing the important connections to family and school? What if we see our youth, as the research suggests, as capable, engaged, caring members of society and approach middle school as an opportunity to set the stage for a lifetime orientation of dedication to learning and growth?
Most importantly, can we finally recognize that entering our middle schools produces strain on our youth that taxes their motivation, connection, and relationships with adults? And having done so, can we instead focus on efforts that will promote these positive factors instead of accepting or bemoaning the status quo? We need to address the wholesale drop in performance and decrease in connection to adults and turn this time into one that builds on and secures the investment of our elementary school education.
This is the perfect time to shape adolescent idealism and their growing interest in the wider world into commitment to work, engaged citizenship, and care for others.
How do we change our views and more importantly change our actions? How do we make use of the valuable research and innovative work already underway? How do we channel that capability and become friendly helpers of adolescents shaping their own development?
Can we start to reconsider that this time — the move from elementary to middle school — needs the same sustained attention that we give to high school completion and early reading achievement?
This is the focus of a two-day conference ending Friday by the Youth-Nex Center, a University of Virginia Curry School of Education center focused on research, practices, and policies about positive youth development, or how youth grow into effective and productive adults.
Major organizations serving youth, educational training leaders, front-line practitioners, youth advocates, and scholars in the biology, psychology, and sociology of early adolescence are meeting to share ideas and forge meaningful actions that all work from this perspective of youth as capable citizens and middle schools and centers for positive youth development.
The positive youth development approach is a radical shift in perspective, with profound implications not only for middle school students but also for youth and families beyond these years. It holds that we should put our energies, planning, programming and spending toward youth capability support, meaningful engagement in their own learning and in their community. It affirms that we focus on helping youth be productive and succeed even in the face of many challenges.
Youth are the great potential for our society, one that our biases are blinding us to.