Social Development in Middle School
It has been suggested that the paramount reason young adolescents come to school is not for the education we offer but because school is where the other kids are. In my years of being a teacher and researcher with ten to fourteen-year-olds, I have come to recognize that both goals—companionship and learning—are powerful, complementary motivators.
Stevenson, 1992, p. 105
The emotion-laden search for personal identity integrates experiences with developing bodies, biological drive, new thinking capacities, and expanding social roles (Knowles & Brown, 2000). As young adolescents become aware of the unique aspects of themselves, they also become acutely aware of those around them—most specifically, their peers. They develop an exaggerated view of themselves as victims of what Elkind (1984) refers to as the imaginary spotlight that focuses everyone’s attention on them, making them uneasy in social settings. As uncomfortable as it may be, socialization plays a major role in the psychological growth process, as it is influenced by, and interrelated with, physical, intellectual, and emotional development. The need for socialization is especially strong during young adolescence. Milgram (1992) refers to the absence of a healthy dose of socialization as “undersocialization,” a state in which learning opportunities are missed and some important developmental tasks of this life stage are neglected. Middle level philosophy originated partially from the belief that the school can and should play a major role in both the cognitive and the affective dimensions of the development of the whole child.
Young adolescents often find themselves caught between their desire to be safe and secure (as in childhood) and their desire for freedom and independence. Because adults generally represent security, the struggle for change often revolves around relationships with them. In the middle school years, one’s own parents are likely to be viewed as out of step with society (Caissy, 1994). While affirmation of parental love is secretly sought, young adolescents may act out in argumentative and rebellious ways against those closest to them, in many cases parents and guardians. This rebellion, in its many forms, is normal and even necessary, as attempts are made toward demonstrating that they have minds of their own. Considering the options, perhaps rebellion during middle school years is preferable to rebellion at other times in life, when even more dangerous options become available. Our hope is that rebellion will occur in “safe” ways that fall within reasonable parameters (Caissy, 1994).
Even as young adolescents tend to disassociate themselves from family, they may seek to emulate other adults (Knowles & Brown, 2000). They easily buy into fantasies about adults, often created in the media. This leads to hero formation, most likely of movie stars and sports figures. In fact, Mee (1997) found in a large-scale study that boys almost exclusively named sports figures as their role models. Both genders may fantasize that adult life can be (or is) glamorous; that money is easily made; that outward beauty equates to happiness; that TV sitcom life is realistic; that those successful, carefree people in the advertisements drinking beer and smoking do so with no consequences; that casual sex is desirable. . . . The list goes on.
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