Wright Middle School hallway (copy) (copy)

Students at Wright Middle School make their way through the hallways of the school.

Though middle school is often regarded as an awful, cringe-worthy experience for adolescents, it doesn't have to always be difficult, according to researchers. 

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that sixth-grade students who received clear, positive messaging early in the school year performed better and could better manage fears and anxieties created by the transition to middle school. 

"There's usually a perfect storm, or a constellation of events all happening at once in a young adolescent's life when they get to middle school," Geoffrey Borman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and the lead author of the paper, said in an interview. "We usually notice a very pronounced decline in student performance when they hit middle school, and it usually has something to do with the transition to a new school that is much more complicated."

Borman's research team conducted a double-blind field experiment that involved just over 1,300 sixth-grade students from all 11 middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Students who participated in two 15-minute reading and writing activities in the classroom that focused on the normal and temporary fears of fitting in at a new school experienced several positive effects, including:

  • a 34% decrease in disciplinary incidents
  • a 12% increase in attendance
  • a 18% decrease in the number of failing grades

Though other, more extensive interventions such as peer mentoring programs can be used to achieve similar goals, Borman said the classroom activities could be a powerful tool that schools across the country can use, particularly given how cost-effective the intervention is.

"We've found that if we're able to give students these positive messages toward the beginning of the school year before a potentially downward spiral of bad events like getting a bad grade or feeling left out of the lunchroom, we can help kids more effectively deal with the social and academic adversities that just about everyone is going to experience," Borman said. 

Borman, who works in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison's School of Education, is working on replicating the studies in two other school districts. He said proactive approaches like those in the field experiment haven't previously been developed thoroughly by researchers. The ease of bringing simple activities like this to scale should make for an appealing intervention tool for districts, he said.

"If we really focus on how this is a normal experience that all kids go through, with enough time and support from classmates and other teachers, students will find their place ultimately and feel like they belong and fit in," Borman said. "In fact, a very important part of this intervention is that in a way, it's like an inoculation against the psychological adversity that kids are going to be experiencing in the first weeks and months of school."

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/Channel3000.com and at POLITICO.