Developmental Milestones of Middle Schoolers

Lisa Larsen, LPC
Uncovering the secret code to understanding the growth and development of our young adolescents can be tricky business indeed. While their bodies rapidly move toward and through puberty, we often stand by as parents wondering who this unfamiliar little person is and how we might connect, engage, and support them in this experience of change.
As they attempt to make meaning of their experience, we can better support them through these four major changes:
  1. They are separating themselves from their parents.
  2. Peer relationships become the focus.
  3. They are creating their identity internally.
  4. They seek validation and support for this growing identity from adults. 
Ironically, as they focus on this appropriate separation, they tend to fumble through peer relationships, leaving themselves feeling anxious, confused, and even combative. Forming a positive self-image becomes difficult to create. How we adults respond to them during this time greatly affects this teetering self image and although they may behave as if adults are only irritating, unfair annoyances they must contend with, they become anxious without our support. Keep in mind that parents, teachers, and the caring adults around them create the necessary scaffolding they need to contain, hold them up, and create safe boundaries during this time of separation.
Here's a look at the major developmental, physical, social-emotional, & intellectual milestones of each middle schooler:
5th Graders:
Physically: Bigger, stronger, more confident
Social-Emotional: Well-balanced and receptive
Intellectual: Eager to learn
6th Graders:
Physically: Constant Movement
Social-Emotional: Moody
Intellectual: Arguers
7th Graders:
Physically: Widespread puberty
Social-Emotional: Peer orientation
Intellectual: Sustained workers
8th Graders:
Physically: Body Self-conscious
Social-Emotional: Self-conscious
Intellectual: Private workers
Of course we cannot consider this important developmental phase without understanding how the adolescent brain is working. This is a tremendous growth period for the brain which will continue until the early 20's. 

"The parts of the brain responsible for things like sensation-seeking are getting turned on in big ways around the time of puberty," says Temple University Psychologist Laurence Steinberg. "But the parts for exercising judgment are still maturing throughout the course of adolescence. So you've got this time gap between when things impel kids toward taking risks early in adolescence, and when things that allow people to think before they act come on-line. It's like turning on the engine of a car without a skilled driver at the wheel." (Wallis 2004, 61)
As parents, it becomes essential in understanding this important time period in your child's life. Get familiar with their experiences, be an open listener (without judgment), create strong but flexible rules and boundaries, and don't be afraid to reach out to other parents of adolescents to support, listen, and laugh together as we plow through this amazing but often confusing time with our growing kids. You are not alone! 
Here is an  additional resource regarding this stage of development.

Lisa Hellmer, LPC
St Gabriel’s Counselor
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.