The Developing Child in Middle School

IMG_1782Jean Piaget was instrumental in positing four stages of human development. These stages can be directly applied to the work of educators. The fourth stage, Formal Operational, generally starts as students enter middle school in sixth grade around the age of eleven. As an educator of middle school students, my experience is primarily limited to beginning of this final stage. To summarize, the previous three stages are sensorimotor, preoperational, and concrete (Smith, 2012).
The Sensorimotor Period is best represented with the prototypical baby and the game of peek-a-boo. In this stage, babies develop the concept of object permanence in addition to learning to control their motor responses as they coordinate the information from all five senses. The Preoperational Period begins at age two and lasts through age seven, young children develop the idea of abstract thinking. This includes symbolic thinking and ego centered thought. The final stage before middle school is The Concrete Operational Period. This stage starts around the age of seven and continues through 11 years old. Here youth develop the ability to apply their intellectual thinking to actual events (Smith 2012).
The development of an individual is greatly influenced by both their natural born genetics and their surrounding environment as they grow up. There are a number of variable factors that can influence this later category. These factors include: the child’s family members (and their beliefs), the geographical location of the child, the quality of the child’s care as they grow up, the school they attend, the media that the child consumes, and the era that the child grows up in.
As a teacher many of these influencing factors are uncontrollable. However, some are. The classroom teacher becomes a primary adult influence on each child. As a primary influence the teacher can sway the interests and ideas that each student has. When I teach, I seek to create a liberal arts environment. I want my classroom to be open to every idea and for the students to listen and develop empathy and respect for the differences in the class. It is in this practice that I often find students in both agreement and disagreement with the ideas that are presented. I embrace the disagreement and use it as a source of discussion. This is often an esoteric discussion that is preceded with a disclaimer, “no one is expected to change what they believe, but everyone is expected to listen and contribute to the conversation.” As a teacher of middle school, I get to see children as they enter Piaget’s fourth stage of development, the Formal Operational Period (Smith, 2012). Through my personal observations, I have found that youth in this stage are able to think abstractly in a logical and systematic way. That is why great discussions can be had over the differences in human experience. Students in the middle school age excel at discovering who they want to be in the world. Their identity is malleable and the idea of analyzing the surrounding world becomes palpable for them. It is my hope that a secondary outcome is achieved. Through honoring and understanding the backgrounds and differences of others, it is my honor to contribute to a future world that is more understanding, respectful, and honoring of the world community.
It is also very possible that the students have developmental factors that they are naturally given. One student may have a learning disability. Another may have a gift for excellent eyesight. The student with the learning disability will often get increased attention and altered assignments. The student with the heightened vision may be overlooked because they lack the need for extra attention or repeated information as they can catch it the first time with their sight. While I feel satisfied with my response to the student with developmental difficulties, I struggle to identify the student with developmental assets. I offer challenge assignments to students, though they are far from mandatory. But, I often feel like the old quote “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.” It would be beneficial to devise a method of challenging the student that falls into the following two categories, both gifted and unmotivated to challenge themselves.

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