Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 6-8

5 min read

Understanding the Middle School Brain

Aug 26, 2021 8:00 PM

One moment, our middle schooler makes a great choice and shows signs of maturity. The next moment, they do something so foolish it catches us off-guard and leaves us feeling frustrated and confused. Middle school is notoriously challenging. Teachers, parents, and students alike experience difficulty during this period of development. Understanding that your middle schooler is going through significant brain changes may help you relate better to them and empower you to care for them.

To help bring clarity to this topic, the following is an interview with Dr. Steven Guy. Dr. Guy is a pediatric neuropsychologist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. He and his practice associates do neuropsychological evaluations with students and their families and develop treatment plans for a wide range of developmental conditions. Known as "the learning doctor," he is a national expert in executive function. He has worked in inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, taught as an instructor at multiple universities, and is a co-author of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF Parent, Teacher and Self-report) and Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function Second Edition (BRIEF-2), a questionnaire that clinicians use around the world to determine a child's executive function.

In this interview, Dr. Guy shares some of his expertise on what parents need to know about their middle schooler's developing brain.

What is important for parents of middle schoolers to know about development at this stage?

“At this age, I want to emphasize to parents the wide variability of child development. Grades six to eight cover a substantial range of development in kids, such as the sixth-grader who loves to play with Pokémon cards and the eighth-grader that is already shaving. Middle schoolers are trying to figure out who they are, and they’re taking it out on everyone around them—parents, siblings, teachers. This is why I consider middle school to be a very challenging time in caring for kids.”

What is happening in a child’s brain as they navigate the middle school years?

“Previous thinking suggested that a child’s frontal lobe, responsible for executive functions like planning, organization, decision-making, and self-regulation, ‘turns on’ in middle school, finally allowing a child to begin developing these crucial skills. Research now shows that the frontal lobe is activated in infancy and develops progressively throughout a child's growth into one’s mid-to-late 20s.

One of the neurological processes happening in the middle school brain is called myelination. Myelination is the process of the outer coating around our brain cells helping to speed neurological processes. Put simply, this neural activity allows the brain to fire more quickly and work more effectively. The pace of a middle schooler’s brain interconnectivity increases significantly. I like to explain this phenomenon to kids using the analogy of speed: It’s comparable to the signals in the brain of a young child moving at 15-20 miles per hour, while the brain signals of a middle schooler begin to move at 90 miles per hour. The frontal lobe is the most interconnected system within our brain. Another way of looking at this is like waking up the conductor of an orchestra.”

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What is a common misunderstanding that middle school parents may have about their child’s development?

“In my experience, middle schooler parents’ expectations sometimes miss the mark. We think our middle schooler ought to be able to make better choices, organize themselves, and generally conduct themselves with greater maturity than is often the case. It is okay and healthy for parents to continue to help their children with important decisions, including telling their child ‘no,’ setting limits and providing guidance through this difficult stage. At the same time, parents must be wary of over helping their middle schooler. Just as it is more beneficial to allow a young child to struggle through tying their own shoes than doing it for them (even though it’s faster and easier for us to do it for them), middle school parents must find the balance of helping their middle schooler and allowing them to struggle. The role of the school and middle school teachers can be instrumental on the journey of balancing autonomy and guidance.”

What's the best way to help a middle schooler learn important lessons that will stick?

“Recent research on the brain’s ability to grow, adapt, and reorganize—known as plasticity—has proven to be more present throughout our lifespan. Our brains have a keen ability to respond to learning, new experience, and even adapt post-injury. There is still lots of research happening specifically on the adolescent brain, but some studies seem to indicate that early adolescence is a particularly sensitive period in brain development. Middle schoolers’ brains are looking for reinforcement of pleasure-seeking stimuli. This could mean that your middle schooler becomes noticeably enthusiastic about a new sport or hobby, but it could also lead to poor, even addictive, habits. This is one of the reasons I caution parents about excessive video gaming or similar entertainment. A child may have the ability to sit and play video games for hours at a time, but this does not mean that they are developing focus or other executive functions. It simply means that they are continuously rewarding their brain with more pleasurable stimuli. Excessive video game use is an unhealthy habit that can be hard to break."

How can parents of middle schoolers care for their child’s developing brain?

“There are a few simple but essential ways that we as parents can care for our middle schooler’s brain and teach them to care for themselves:

  1. Proper sleep – sleep is a key component of brain care, allowing for rest and rejuvenation as the brain repairs itself and consolidates memory. Parents may need to help their middle schooler establish and maintain a healthy sleep regimen, and any sleep regimen ought to include screens turned off 30-60 minutes before bed and no devices in a child’s bedroom.
  2. Vigorous physical activity -- vigorous physical activity is one of the more important elements of brain care, no matter one’s age. For older adults, physical exercise increases brain health and can delay the onset of some degenerative diseases. I tell families that I work with that vigorous physical activity ought to leave a child winded, and middle schoolers typically need 30-45 minutes of activity three to five times per week for optimal brain care. Vigorous activity helps reduce stress, improve mood, and increase focus. It also helps with the quality of sleep. If the activity can be a social one (team sport, working out with friends, exercising with others), that is even better. Not every child needs to join the basketball team, but it's important to find a vigorous activity that they enjoy and helps them increase their heart rate (like rock climbing, running, etc.).
  3. Balanced nutrition – A healthy diet sets the table for students to be able to learn. It's important for students to not be hungry while at school. Access to a healthy breakfast and snack will help them learn.”

[Editor's note: For more on brain development and middle schoolers, make sure to check out "Brain Development in the Tween Years," a recent episode on Navigating Your Child's Education: A Podcast for Parents. 

Worthington Christian School
Written by Worthington Christian School

Founded in 1973, Worthington Christian School (WC) is central Ohio’s leader in Christian education offering a rigorous, college preparatory kindergarten to 12-grade academic program, dedicated to developing the mind of Christ in students through rigorous intellectual, creative, and physical pursuits.