What Occupies the Brains of Incoming Middle Schoolers?

An exasperated student flounced up to my desk, rolling her eyes at her classmates. “Personally, I don’t know how you do this,” she whispered to me. “I’m in middle school, and I don’t know how anyone would actually want to teach us! Ugh!”

I’ve been substitute teaching in a Lutheran school lately, and in response to my student’s statement about her seventh grade class which I was subbing for that day, I informed her that one of the reasons I love teaching youth is that I still feel like I’m in middle school myself sometimes.

I know the ups and downs. I relate.

I later breezily informed the group that “I’m only ten years or so” out of middle school, so I knew how they felt about being in class on a sunny day.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I stopped, realizing that I probably needed to actually do the math.

It was then that I realized the ugly truth of how totally inaccurate my statement was.

You see, I’m not “only ten years or so” out of middle school—I’m closer to twenty years out of it.

Age is just a number…right?

It’s crucial for me, as a leader, to understand what’s really going on inside the mind of my youth. Sure, I was young once (apparently a long time ago, sadly), and many of the struggles and challenges of teendom are universal.

But it’s true, too, that our world has changed dramatically over the years, and middle school students today are growing up differently than I did…or than their parents or teachers or grandparents or pastors did.

So, what’s really going through the heads of our young teens—especially when it comes to those kids who are anxiously gearing up for entering middle school?

I sat down with a group of fourth graders and asked them face-to-face to spill the beans on what’s going on in their minds.

What are the real issues that our incoming middle schoolers are worried about? My students told me about a range of fears, everything from bugs to death to ageing parents and uncertainty about dealing with diversity. They’re afraid of losing friendships—and surprisingly, about their classmates and family getting hurt. In fact, danger in school was referenced by several students.

These preteens are worried about how much work middle school will be, and wondering if they’ll have time for fun as they grow older. They’re worried they won’t remember everything they’ve learned, that they won’t be able to overcome their fears and they’re even worried about eventually living on their own—one student admitted he’s already thinking about how it’ll be to move out of his parents’ house.

I asked my preteens what sort of thoughts were stressing them out at this moment in their lives, and I was shocked to hear many of the kids immediately spout out their concerns about college. They’re also preoccupied with worrying about if they’ll be accepted in middle school, if people will find them funny and if the classes will be harder. As a student seriously told me, “I’ve heard homework in middle school is deadly. Like, I’ll be carrying six backpacks home every night.”

Our kids have a deep desire to succeed, and as one student said, “I just want to accomplish my life goals. I want my dreams to come true.”

When I asked what incoming middle school students are most excited about, answers ranged from very practical—getting a locker, exploring a new school building and finally sitting in the front seat of the car—to deeper joys.

Many students expressed eagerness to stretch their wings, gaining new responsibilities like staying home alone and getting a cell phone, and the happy anticipation of tackling new challenges in school with more hands-on activities like science fairs and field trips.

Our preteens are looking forward to meeting new friends, having their parents and teachers trust them with more grown-up duties and continuing on in school.

These youth are convinced that a good education is the key to lifelong success—in the words of one student, “I don’t want to end up at McDonald’s or flipping signs on the side of the road. I need to get a good education so I can be successful in life.”

According to the ten- and eleven-year-olds I asked, the best things about getting older are the abundance of new opportunities. They look forward to a mixture of quirky things, like televisions in their bedrooms and more advanced research projects in school, and as several girls gleefully pointed out, “We’ll get to dissect animals in middle school!”

Many of the kids mentioned the joy of being able to be a part of traveling sports teams, drama clubs and National Honor Society. They want to belong.

Ironically, marriage is on the minds of these young kids—but they are incredibly squeamish about it. When I asked my youth if any 0f them were thinking yet about dating, several dramatically fell to their knees in total shock, while others hid under their desks.

The next few years will change that tune, as we all know.

Interestingly, though, serious life issues are already filling their minds. Many students referenced excitement and worry over driving, graduating high school and going onto college, and getting their own houses.

As one student pointed out, “I’m finally getting to the age when I’ll be able to do what I want, but that’s a bit scary in itself.”

So naturally, one important question remains…what does an incoming middle school student actually want to say to adults? How can we best work with them, as their parents and leaders?

Check back later this month for part two of Inside the Tween Mind!