From nutrition to hygiene to exercise, the issues are many and often uncomfortable for teacher and student alike when it comes to physical development. Here are some of the reasons for concern, along with suggestions for how we can make a difference, both as individual teachers and on school and district levels.

Issue #1- Middle level students need information on physical development

A comprehensive health education curriculum is invaluable. National and state standards are available that outline what 10- to 14-year-olds need to know about wellness, puberty and sexual maturation, and the dangers of substance abuse. A health educator is needed in every school—someone who is honest, straightforward, trustworthy from a student perspective, and accessible. Boys and girls should be separated at times to allow for more honest and detailed questions and answers.

Issue #2- Physical changes affect behavior

Not only do middle level students have a hard time finding answers, they can rarely define the question or problem when it comes to physical growth and changes. What is clear is that physical changes often lead directly to behavioral problems. Teachers serve students well when they recognize and accept a variety of behaviors that may result directly from the turmoil caused and/or aggravated by the biological aspects of puberty. When opportunities arise to address the unspoken questions and resulting behaviors, teachers should reassure students that their anxieties are normal, and even expected.

Issue #3- Rapid growth requires increased nutrition

If that nutrition takes the form of balanced meals, terrific! But there are two problems when it comes to a balanced diet. Body image worries scream “thin” to many middle level students. And then, when they’re hungry, their taste buds, along with peer pressure, often lead them to less nutritional food choices.

A comprehensive health program will include lessons on good nutrition. But the health educator can’t do it alone. All of us need to emphasize healthy eating. When we have a snack, let’s make it something nutritional like an apple or carrot. When we eat in the cafeteria, let’s model healthy eating habits. Middle level kids are often hungry. If, as a faculty, a decision can be made to allow eating during the day other than at lunchtime, then find a way to let kids have snacks, perhaps mid-morning or mid-afternoon, provided the snacks follow healthy eating guidelines you and your team/administration have established.

Issue #4- Children at this age level should not be stereotyped according to physical characteristics

Some middle level students experience athletic success as they mature. Others find themselves lacking the coordination and stamina they may have had in elementary school. Bone growth, muscle formation, balance issues—so many growth issues factor into physical ability. Let’s give middle level students the opportunity to explore athletics and find their talents and interests according to their own timing. Tall boys are not automatically talented at, or even interested in, basketball. Petite girls are not all gymnastics candidates. Keep in mind that while physical development may sometimes engender a child’s interest in a particular activity or sport, mental development or interests can also guide, to a certain extent, an individual’s physical development. An enlightened teacher will preserve those fragile egos from danger while encouraging the development of interests.

Plan ways to incorporate a variety of intramural opportunities that allow even less physically skilled students to participate in team and individual activities. Offer nongraded classes in exploratory time or after school that help students learn skills such as dancing, tennis, martial arts, and so on.

Issue #5- Many related arts curricular areas require physical development to master skills involved

Chorus quality depends on vocal cord development. Some activities in home economics and home/shop arts require dexterity, and some art forms require coordination/spatial sense. Remember, clumsiness can interfere in any situation involving cords, outlets, equipment, supplies, ingredients, appliances, and so forth. While we would like all middle level students to experience success in all areas, we need to understand that while the brain may be willing, biological development may not have caught up! Let’s make sure we keep exploratory courses just that—opportunities to experience and experiment in broad areas that allow for, and accommodate, differences in development.

Issue #6- Many girls will experience the first signs of a menstrual period during the school day

This development alone will cause most girls to be upset and anxious, depending on the amount of information they have or the level of openness they have experienced among friends and family. The most common cause of absenteeism among young adolescent girls is menstrual pain. About two-thirds of girls experience cramping and discomfort (Caissy, 1994). Teachers need to be very sensitive to girls’ requests to leave the classroom suddenly, as well as to girls who are late to class or stay in the restroom longer than expected. Of course, the key to knowing the legitimacy of these events is knowing our students. Not every tardy girl is menstruating. Just be aware that questioning tardiness or rest room requests in front of other middle schoolers is not appropriate. Make sure your school clinic has feminine hygiene products available. Menstrual discomfort is real, not psychosomatic, and can’t simply be willed away. As with other physical aspects of life, some will use cramping as an excuse to miss activities in class when perhaps it’s not necessary. We should try to err on the side of belief, however, rather than punishing sincere girls who need our understanding.

Issue #7- Middle level students are restless and uncomfortable much of the time

Because of varying growth rates and the excess energy that may accompany these periods of rapid growth, regulation desks arranged in rows do not always provide the physical setting students need. Providing a classroom with a variety of seating possibilities can prove very beneficial. Perhaps a couple of tables with chairs, desks of varying sizes, a few comfortable chairs, and a couch will provide ample choices. I realize that this gives students a lot of freedom, and many teachers are hesitant to build their classroom environments in this way. However, I have found that most middle level students respond positively when their needs are taken into consideration and when teachers do things that show respect for them.

Issue #8- Sitting for extended periods of time is likely to have negative effects on young (and even old!) bodies and on mental processing (Cranz, 1998)

The legitimate restlessness resulting from growing bodies may be exacerbated by long periods of sitting, regardless of the variety of chairs provided. It’s no secret that active learning is more effective than passive learning. Movement stimulates the learning process. Howard Gardner (1999) tells us that the brain learns best when the body is actively involved in exploring physical sites and materials. Find ways to get students up and moving as part of instruction.

Issue #9- Some middle level students (and I’m not just talking about girls!) feel a compulsion to check themselves out visually on a regular basis

I found that having a full-length mirror in an out-of-the-way place in the classroom served a positive purpose. I also placed a smaller mirror on the wall by the pencil sharpener, so it was never obvious who needed visual reassurance and who simply had pencils with bad lead! These mirrors were up in August and were a natural part of the classroom setting. As a result, I had very few problems related to them.

Issue #10- Overactive glands may cause difficulties

Because glands of all kinds may be overactive or newly activated in young adolescents, by mid-morning a student may realize that he forgot to use deodorant, or perhaps he feels the need for just a touch of something that smells good. Consider having a brown paper bag in the pantry with spray deodorant and an inexpensive bottle of aftershave, along with a very light fragrance for girls. As with the mirrors, this may be an “extra” that some teachers may not be comfortable providing. Very few students will ever use these items, but you may save some 12-year-old a world of embarrassment. It’s worth the effort!

If comfortable with both the issue and the students, we may have occasions to initiate a personal hygiene discussion with students who, for whatever reason, need our brown bags of smell-good items. A trusted guidance counselor may be a better choice than the classroom teacher for this kind of heart-to-heart. It all depends on the individuals involved.