As middle school teachers, we know that our students are experiencing a staggering amount of change during their adolescent years… particularly in their brain. In fact, our students are experiencing the second greatest brain growth of their lifetime while in our classrooms.

I’m personally fascinated by the adolescent mind because I feel like the more I know about HOW my students learn, the better I can TEACH them.  Do you feel the same way?

Check out these “mind-blowing” facts about how middle schoolers learn and this recently updated infographic.

Update - Infographic - Middle School Mind

And how we can help them be successful.


In David Vawter’s article, “Mining the Middle School Mind” he notes that the average middle school student has an attention span of 10-12 minutes. Scientists continue to study adolescent attention span, but that finding resonates true for me, and I speak from personal experience as an educator having witnessed students “dropping off” ten minutes into my lessons.

Knowing this generalization about my students inspired me to make small tweaks to my instruction; tweaks that have helped keep my students engaged and paying attention during my lessons (and they just might work in your classroom, too!).

Here are some ways to do just that…

  • Teach mini-lessons and then give students an opportunity to change tasks so that they can practice and demonstrate their learning
  • Provide as many hands-on activities as possible during each lesson
  • Lead students through quick stretching exercises every 10 minutes
  • Reset students’ attention span by providing brain breaks several times throughout a class period
  • Structure the class more like an elementary classroom and less like a college seminar
  • Purposefully create lesson plans with five short activities rather than one long lecture
  • Have students swap seats with another student in the classroom every 10 minutes to reset their learning clocks
  • Create classroom centers or stations and have students rotate around the classroom

Update - Brain Growth Image - Middle School Mind

Crazy, right?! Besides infancy, adolescents are experiencing the greatest brain growth of their lives… and the greatest amount of brain growth during their school-age years. That means that our classrooms are filled with 25+ brains in flux! Do you ever wonder just what is going on in those adolescent brains? Well, the brain is going through a bit of a “use it or lose it” phase. All the unused connections that are part of their brains (the grey matter) are getting “pruned” away. At the same time, other connections are getting strengthened.

This is great because their brains are becoming more efficient. However, the last part of the brain to be “pruned” is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for problem-solving and impulse control… and that part of the brain isn’t fully developed until early adulthood. Does that help explain our wild and crazy middle schoolers or what?

Take this opportunity to…

  • Step back for a moment. Realize that our impulsive students who sometimes make pretty poor choices are truly doing the best they can with the brain that they have.
  • Revisit your own adolescent self. What did life feel like when you were 13?
  • Consider that many times students aren’t trying to be so emotional/confused /frustrated/defiant… they’re just developing and growing and making mistakes along the way.
  • Teach students how to plan and think about consequences before acting.
  • Incorporate lessons about decision-making into your core instruction.
  • Give students tools for solving problems.


Dr. John H. Lounsbury is a founder of the middle school movement. In his article “Understanding and Appreciating the Wonder Years,” he notes that middle schoolers learn best through interaction and activity. And I have to agree with him. As middle school teachers, we know that middle schoolers LOVE to talk. A LOT.  And I’ve found that adolescents need real opportunities to talk about learning.

The truth is, if we don’t build in chances for students to talk in our classes, they’ll talk anyway. I’ve found that middle schoolers learn best through discussions and conversations. Talking and interacting is how many of them make sense of the world and what we’re teaching them.

And if that’s the case…

  • Break up instruction with opportunities for students to turn and talk to classmates
  • Create lessons with a ton of variety
  • Infuse lots of small group activities into the instruction
  • Encourage students to work with partners to demonstrate their learning
  • Hold classroom debates about critical topics
  • Incorporate art, music, and movement into lessons


(Because of all the great information included in this post, we’ve broken it into 2 parts. Please click this link to keep reading Part 2 where you’ll also find more great resource suggestions.)