Definition / Characteristics:
The psychosocial development of an adolescent is probably one of the hardest aspects about them to measure. Physical and cognitive developments are rather polarizing and can be judged by a relatively simple rubric of assessments. A middle schooler’s psychosocial development, on the other hand, can be harder to get a grip on. With new and exciting hormones raging through them every day, students seem to be awash in a sea of confusing social and emotional changes and demands. Plainly stated, psychosocial development involves the interaction of emotional, social, and cognitive development, and the resulting conglomeration becomes a way that students see, interpret, and function in their world (class notes). Students at the middle school stage of psychosocial development are unique in that they fall somewhere in between childhood and adult identities. They find that they are becoming different in many ways, and that these changes effect how they view and interact with the world around them. This realization pushes them to explore themselves and the social dynamics that they never knew existed.
Developmental theorist Erick Erickson addresses the child/adult conflict by placing students of this age in a unique developmental state. He purports that middle school level children are still striving to please others and remain in “the group,” but are also trying to be independent and experience things for themselves. School plays a central role in bridging these two conflicting concepts (Slavin 51). Other researchers agree with Erickson in saying that middle school-aged adolescents still have a lot of learning to do. Students must, at this stage, begin and complete certain developmental tasks before they can move into more adult-like thought patterns. These tasks include such things as defining gender roles, becoming more socially responsible for their behavior, beginning more mature relationships with both same and opposite sexes, and navigating toward increasing emotional independence from parents (Manning & Butcher 42).
Several aspects of behavior and thought characterize this often-complicated definition. At this stage, students become very preoccupied with themselves and their physical appearance. Self-esteem will vary from day-to-day depending on the situations they face. A student who is brilliant and outgoing in one classroom may be shy and unwilling to participate in another (Manning & Butcher 43). Peers and friends rapidly become a huge influence, and the need for independence becomes stronger. Young adolescents at this stage begin to value the input of peers more than that of their parents and teachers. This effects a large continuum of student life, including clothing choice, speech and language, and the way they express themselves (Manning & Butcher 43). Relationships, both same and opposite-sex, become more mature as they begin to see themselves as a more “grown up” group (class notes). All in all, a middle school adolescent is defined and characterized in that they are caught between conflicting needs. The younger child within still relies on simple instruction and the constant guidance of teachers and parents. However, the maturing side of them fights for independence and social acceptance. They want to be seen and act as adults, but have not yet completed all the necessary steps (Good & Brophy 265).
With so many complicated characteristics and all of their permutations, it is no wonder that the implications of psychosocial development become a huge part of the process of “growing up.” Obsession with appearances, dealing with peers (positively and negatively), forming groups of similar interests, and the constant tug-o-war with self-esteem issues all express themselves in psychosocial development. In many ways, these aspects are a direct reflection of the characteristics of psychosocial development, but with the added weight of continuation beyond the adolescent period.
During their middle school years, students are just beginning to mature their social schemes and how they assimilate others’ actions into those schemes. They begin to build a framework of expectations for others around them, and develop strategies for dealing with problems (Manning & Butcher 47). The pressure of peers to ‘fit in’ and be ‘part of the group’ is also largely expressed in this developmental area. Peer pressure can effect students on very visceral levels. It can change they way they act, think, and treat others as well as influencing relationships and social group dynamics. This kind of pressure can be both positive and negative, but it is virtually unavoidable and all students will feel its effects to at least some degree (Sigel 175). Other implications can stem from the students’ level of physical development. Some students might see themselves as being older and wiser simply because they now look the part. Students may begin to feel pressure by peers and teachers to perform at higher levels even though they are not yet emotionally and/or socially mature (Manning & Butcher 43).
Other problems that can arise psychosocially can be somewhat dangerous for students. In their rush to get to adulthood and personal freedom, adolescents sometimes forget that they are not yet that mature, which leaves some students feeling confused. They begin to take on adult-like behaviors and worry about things they do not fully understand, and shouldn’t have to. In today’s society of blurred social values and morality, it is no wonder young adolescents are becoming too mature too fast. These children are experimenting with sex, drugs, and delinquent behavior at levels that nearly triple those reflected only 15 to 20 years ago. Most experts point to the effects of peer pressure and unrealistic student expectations of the world (Rice 327). An even more dangerous implication involves those students who develop behavioral and violence problems. Many of these young adolescents witness or experience a world in which they have no tools to help them cope or at least avoid problematic situations (class notes). In a recent study, it was found that 85% of “at risk” students ages 12-15 said that they felt their peers or parents had pushed them into an uncomfortable situation at least one time. Of the same students, 72% reported that the advice they had been given in exploratory programs was good, but they did not feel comfortable speaking up to others about it (Herrig & Murray 33).
Many teachers may feel that there is nothing they can do against such overwhelming influences effecting their students. The implications of their psychosocial development are indeed far-reaching and highly complex, but the students are not at all lost to them completely. By changing the way a teacher views and treats their students, they can set a powerful example of how and what a student will ultimately want to become as a mature person.
Instructional Issues / Suggestions:
As mentioned before, many teachers may feel there is nothing they can do to help their students become responsible young adults while still remaining in control. However, relegating them to an elementary level in the classroom will only serve to frustrate students further when in high school and beyond they will be expected to function maturely and responsibly. Middle school students are by their very name unique. They are neither just beginning to interact socially, nor are they proficient at it yet. They fall somewhere in between in a thousand combinations. The task of an effective educator is to guide these students through the process by letting them take on a little more every day. By scaffolding students to the next level, a teacher ensures that they are learning what is required, and that they are taking more responsibility for it. Treating the student as an honorary adult encourages more responsible behavior and elicits more insightful responses to questions that are complicated and stimulating rather than simple and rote (Brophy & Good 361). Following is a list of three content area suggestions that put this theory into action:
Life Science: On a field trip, students will be randomly separated in pairs or small groups. They will need to fulfill a scavenger hunt requirements list in a certain amount of time. They will not be helped by any adults, and will manage themselves in time and progress. No other students outside of the group are allowed to help either. At the end, the students will self-evaluate their performance and submit both positive and negative feedback. As a motivation, some kind of food or points award will be given to the team that completes their list first.
Physics: After a unit is complete, a forum will be available so students can give their perspectives on the information. They can say what they liked/disliked, what they learned the best and what they thought was confusing, and give the teacher advice on how to run the lesson the next time. At this time, students may also give a demonstration to the class on a topic of interest to them, and explain why they chose it.
Physical Education: Having the students wear uniforms for phys-ed. may help to alleviate the stress of peer judgement and worry on the part of the student. If they all look the same, students may feel less categorized. Also splitting the students up into random groups may help to cut down on the effect of cliques and other exclusive groups that make the students on the outside uncomfortable.
Class Notes: Taken in “Philosophy and Organization of the Middle School” at the University of MN, Duluth Spring 2005 from 1/27/05 to 2/10/05.
Brophy, J.E., & Good, T.L. (1986). “Teacher Behavior and Student Achievement.” In Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed., edited by M.C. Wittrock. New York: Macmillon.
Good, T.L., & Brophy, J.E., (1986). Educational Psychology: A Realistic Approach, 3rd ed., New York: Longman.
Herrig, R.J., & Murray, R., (2003). Helping kids make good choices. Middle ground, 6(3), 32-34.
Manning, M. Lee, & Butcher, Katherine T. (2005). Teaching in the Middle School. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Rice, E.P. (1996). The adolescent: Development, relationships and culture. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Sigel, I.E. (1990). “What Teachers Need to Know About Human Development.” In What Teachers Need to Know: The Knowledge, Skills, and Values Essential to Good Teaching. D.D. Dill and Associates, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Slavin, Robert E. (2003). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.