Educators at a Rhode Island middle school say a program that focuses on students’ social and emotional needs has helped to improve students’ academic performance.

This approach, modeled through the Developmental Designs program, is perhaps best-suited to middle schools, educators say. The National Forum’s Schools to Watch Initiative lists four key traits of successful middle schools, including “academic excellence” and “an awareness of and sensitivity toward the unique developmental needs of early adolescents.” 

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets. Last spring, when a beloved teacher left the school, one classroom used their CPR time to process the change. “He said he’s leaving because this is good for his family,” a seventh-grade boy reassured his classmates. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

If this kind of frank, organized discussion of feelings sounds odd for middle schoolers, it is. But, experts say, if middle schools can give as much attention to emotions and values as they give to academics, the double focus pays off in surprising ways.

Unfortunately, when it comes to our national conversation about what makes great schools, middle schools (which can serve any configuration of grades five through nine) and junior highs (usually grades seven, eight, and nine) are often like the overlooked middle child. Elementary school is crucial, the reasoning goes, because its students learn basic skills and are introduced to the rigors and challenges of a school environment. As the gateway to either college or dropping out, high school is obviously high-stakes.

But there’s another reason we don’t look very closely at how we educate our tweens and young teens. “Adults don’t like to look back on those years,” says Deborah Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. We know what she means. Elizabeth is mortified to remember that she became a mean girl who egged on a friend to put glue in an unpopular classmate’s hair. Josh was a prime target for bullies; he has sent his own sons to K-six and seven-12 schools, thus avoiding the middle school experience as much as possible.

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