US: Middle school students get good grades, but lack self-confidence
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US: Middle school students get good grades, but lack self-confidence

Moving to middle school is an ominous notion for most children. Pupils go from being a big fish in a small pond at elementary school to a small fish in the huge lake of middle school.

It is often the high-fliers who are affected the most. The larger class sizes and the continued movement between classes can be unsettling for some students. It can be a real shock to the system for the pupils who flourished in their small elementary schools.

A new study in the Journal of Early Adolescence has uncovered some of the consequences of this transition. And it doesn’t look too good.

The study found many students’ confidence in their reading abilities diminishes when they transition from elementary to middle school. Their grades were mostly unaffected: it was merely the way that they interpreted their marks and general competence.

Interestingly, the study found that the majority of pupils who attended K-8 schools didn’t experience the same decrease in self-esteem.

What lies beneath these differing results appears to be the grade-span structure of the schools. In the US, more than 9 in 10 middle-grade students go to a school structured as either “middle school,” covering grades 6 to 8, or “junior high,” covering grades 7 to 9 – these have shorter grade-span structure compared those in K-8 or K-12 schools, where students attend the same school for a longer time, i.e.  from kindergarten level up to 8th grade or 12th grade respectively.

For the study, associate professor of applied psychology, Elise Cappella and her colleagues analyzed over 5,700 8th grade students’ information through a federal longitudinal study.The research was undertaken at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.

Students’ reading and math attainment were measured and then compared. Their “attachment to school, peer values and support, and both their own and their teachers’ confidence in their reading and math abilities” were also analyzed.

“There is a robust, clear impact on (middle-school students’) reading self-concept, sense of their own competence as readers and writers. … But we don’t detect strong, robust impacts on academic achievement indicators via test scores and teacher-observation reports,” Cappella said.

The findings are disturbing against the backdrop of an increasing number of young people reportedly suffering from low self-confidence.

But does the answer lie in creating more K-8 or K-12 schools so that students do not have to go through the perils of changing schools too often? Cappella doesn’t think so.

“The answer is not simply to create more K-8 or K-12 schools. [..] The answer is to make sure the environments the kids are in, regardless of the grade span as a whole, are healthy and promotive of academic and social-emotional outcomes,” said Capella.

Family income plays a part

The study also found another factor affecting student’s mental well-being when transitioning schools: family income levels.

Low self-esteem issues were found to only arise in students who were not in poverty in kindergarten. Pupils who came from low-income families or had poor grades before middle-school did not exhibit the same significant drop in confidence as their wealthier higher-performing classmates.

“Kids who are less disadvantaged economically may be coming from a more positive social environment [in elementary school], so the transition was harder because it was a bigger difference from their old school,” Capella claimed.

Capella stated that middle school can actually help those pupils who struggled financially, socially or academically at elementary school. She claimed “that going to a new school for middle school may give kids an opportunity to start fresh […] and think of themselves in a new way.”

This finding should serve as a wake-up call to schools, who should be looking deeply into how to raise the next generation into happy and successful individuals. Doing so invariably means eliminating the troubles young people encounter when transitioning to middle school.

Until then, take heed of these wise words from none other than Michelle Obama, who was famously quoted in her ‘advice to [her] younger self‘ saying:

“I would love to go back in time and tell my younger self, ‘Michelle, these middle and high school years are just a tiny blip in your life, and all the slights and embarrassments and heartaches, all those times you got that one question wrong on that test – none of that is important in the scheme of things.’”

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