Crossing over the line from childhood to adolescence is difficult because the line is not clear and there are inherent risks involved. It is an emotional leap as well as a physical one, and maintaining a balanced sense of self becomes increasingly difficult.

Milgram, 1992, p. 22

Parents, teachers, and even young adolescents themselves often refer to the roller coaster of emotions that accompany the middle grade years as difficult to understand and impossible to predict. If you have ridden a roller coaster, you can no doubt close your eyes and recall the exhilaration of expectation, the sheer terror of the actual descents, and brief moments of calm during leveling off sections. But even in those supposedly steady and “catch your breath” phases of the ride, there is an anticipation that keeps the adrenaline flowing and a sense of peace at bay. That’s how young adolescence feels to most of us.

Dan Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (1995), says that emotional intelligence determines about 80% of a person’s success in life. His understanding of emotional intelligence is based in part on Howard Gardner’s interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. Goleman tells us we need to include five dimensions of emotional intelligence into what we do in schools. These five dimensions are self-awareness, handling emotions, motivation, empathy, and social skills. He believes it is possible to raise the emotional intelligence of students by, among other things, being available to them with a sympathetic ear.

Describing Emotions

Numerous descriptors are used when referring to the emotional states of young adolescence. Of course not every 10- to 15-year-old experiences all the characteristics, and, when compared to the student next to him at lunch, none to the identical extent. Kellough and Kellough (1999) tell us that among other emotions, young adolescents tend to be easily offended, erratic, restless, and self-conscious. Caissy (1994) characterizes the emotions of young adolescence as unstable, unpredictable, extreme, prone to moodiness, often angry, and fraught with fears, worries, and anxiety. Williams (1996) tells us that the emotions of young adolescents may involve embarrassment, feelings of awkwardness, depression, feelings of isolation, confusion, and disappointment.

While these descriptors seem to be negative in nature, my experience leads me to add hopefulness, optimism, and excitement to the list. I see these positive emotions exhibited every day by young adolescents. The message here is that variability makes for a wide emotional spectrum of middle school students. All of the descriptors are tied into the concept of self. Introspection is difficult for most of us, according to Milgram (1992), but when change occurs as rapidly as it does during young adolescence, it becomes particularly difficult. Introspection, or knowing one’s self, is integral to self-esteem. The development of a positive self-esteem is crucial but often elusive. The sense of losing control over the environment contributes to self-consciousness (Knowles & Brown, 2000) and this self-consciousness often results in loss of self-esteem. The transition from elementary to middle school carries with it a myriad of changes that to a 10- or 11-year-old may seem overwhelming. Add this transition to the physical changes being continually experienced and it’s entirely understandable that self-esteem would suffer. In The Adolescent Views Himself, Strang (1957) wrote about four variations of self-concept that young adolescents need to reconcile in order to achieve some degree of emotional stability.

  1. General self-concept: An evaluation of self and abilities and roles
  2. Temporary self-concept: Temporary evaluation based on a recent event or remark
  3. Social self: The way we believe we are viewed by others
  4. Ideal self: How we would like to be

Understanding these four variations may help us deal with self-concept and self-esteem issues. Helping our students understand them would be a valid topic for counseling and/or advisory groups.

We should note that developing a positive self-esteem, while universally challenging for young adolescents, may prove to be especially difficult for minority students. Knowles and Brown (2000) posed the question “How does one develop a sense of self within a dominant culture whose values may be contradictory to those of one’s personal culture?” (p. 30). As teachers we must create learning environments that account for cultural, ethnic, and racial differences.


Emotional development is interrelated with both physical and intellectual development. As various hormones are released at uneven rates during puberty, temporary chemical imbalances occur. Many of the stormy emotions of young adolescence can be attributed to this imbalance (Caissy, 1994). The physical changes already described in this chapter are enough to cause emotions to occasionally go haywire. Imagine going from 4 feet 11 inches to 5 feet 8 inches in the three short summer months between seventh and eighth grade. Or consider the creamy, smooth complexion that becomes embarrassingly blemished during first semester of the seventh grade. How about the unpredictable erections that occur while finding the surface area of a cylinder or discussing the merits of the Panama Canal? The list of physical changes that can provoke emotional responses could go on and on, with each of us adding our own personal traumas. Be keenly aware that each time you are in a classroom of 25 middle grades students in the process of becoming, there are potentially 25 cases of moodiness and insecurity and emotional distress in there with you. Dealing with the physical changes taking place in their bodies is a persistent emotional challenge for young adolescents.

Emotional development is also entangled with intellectual development in ways we are just now beginning to understand and document. Brain researchers tell us that emotions strongly influence our ability to pay attention and retain information (Wolfe, 2001). The implications of this for the way we approach teaching and learning are tremendous. Williams (1996) indicates that emotional and psychological concerns can impede academics unless middle school teachers know how to work with these factors and channel concerns into productive results by understanding the context of the student’s world. “The affective side of learning is the critical interplay between how we feel, act, and think. There is no separation of mind and emotions; emotions, thinking, and learning are all linked” (Jensen, 1998, p. 71).


Middle grades students worry about almost everything. Their fears have changed from those of childhood to concerns about social and appearance issues. “Do I fit in? Do my jeans look like everybody else’s? Is my hair right? Will they want me to sit with them at lunch? Did he notice my braces? Will I be in the ‘right’ group on the field trip?” It’s a list that could go on forever. Worry, fear, and anxiety are common emotions of young adolescence. From an adult perspective, the sources of these negative emotions may seem trivial, but remember that perceptions form realities. To middle grades students, their worries are legitimate and quite real. To try to convince them otherwise is futile and potentially harmful. If we denigrate their concerns, we are, in fact, denigrating them and adding to their anxieties and uncertainties. Our responses should be tempered with understanding and the absence of judgmental attitudes. When a 12-year-old girl is crying because she found uncomplimentary notes written about her by kids she considered friends, the last thing she wants to hear is “It’s no big deal, you’ll find new friends.” Instead, we should acknowledge that she is hurt. The gift of an understanding ear will allow her to express her feelings and know that someone cares. It won’t take away the hurt, but it will legitimize her emotions and give her the opportunity to work through the grief of the moment.