(Continued from Take a Peek Inside The Mind of a Middle Schooler: Part 1) In our first installment we shared three mind-blowing facts, this image about how middle schoolers learn (see below), and some great resources to help embrace middle schoolers’ strengths. Keep reading for a deep dive into three additional facts and more helpful materials.

Check out these mind-blowing facts about how middle schoolers learn:

Update - Infographic - Middle School Mind

Have you ever had an interaction with a student when he or she said you were “yelling at them” when you were speaking in a normal tone? Or how many times do you give instructions to a group of middle schoolers as clearly as you can, only to look up and see the vast majority of them doing it wrong? We’ve all been there. Sometimes our middle schoolers are just plain confused. 

In Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd’s study of adolescents she showed teens images of faces clearly expressing fear. While all adults were able to identify the emotion being expressed, about half of the adolescents misinterpreted the expressions. In fact, Julie Adams from Adams Educational Consulting notes that middle schoolers are struggling to correctly interpret emotions and instructions up to 40% of the time. That’s probably not news to most of us middle school teachers!  

So, what can we do…

  • Display procedure checklists for students to reference throughout the whole year
  • Teach and practice the routines and expectations of the classroom
  • Incorporate graphic organizers to help students
  • Break assignments into small parts
  • Offer frequent praise and positive reward for desired behaviors
  • Tell students how you’re feeling when you’re discussing something with them
  • Ask your students to repeat back what they heard, and give guidance if they’re off the mark
  • Give directions in a variety of ways for a variety of learners



How many times do you finish teaching the lesson of your life and ask students to share what they learned… and then just a few hands go up in the air? The rest of the class… crickets. It’s super frustrating as a teacher to create a content-rich lesson and feel like students only took away a few points… but now we know why.  In Pat Wolfe’s book, Brain Matters: Translating the Research to Classroom Practice, she shares that students can retain 5-7 bits of information in their working memory at a time.

Of course memory is complex and can be impacted by the duration and the difficulty of the topic as well, so I like to use this fact as a reminder to not overload my students with a ton of information at once. 

If retention of information can be limited, then it’s especially important to…

  • Chunk instruction into small bits (which they need anyway) and review critical points after each activity
  • Provide opportunities for students to process and reinforce new content — turn and talk about new information with a classmate, write about their learning, discuss new concepts in small groups
  • Relate knowledge to students’ lives
  • Develop lessons around 5-7 critical points and focus students’ learning around those elements
  • Check in with students often to ensure that they are understanding the content
  • Skip the long review at the end of a class period and instead implement a number of shorter reviews during one class period


Update - Sleep Statistic - Middle School Mind

Right now you’re imagining all of your exhausted middle schoolers during your first period class, right?  So many of our students are just plain tired. That’s because despite their developmental need for at least 9 hours of sleep a night (according to research by Mary Carskadon), most are averaging much less. It’s discouraging to consider that many of our students’ school days start as the sun is rising. While they’re attending to the first instructional tasks of the day, their brain and bodies should still be in bed! Truth be told, most of our middle schoolers aren’t getting enough sleep.

As teachers, there’s something we can do…

  • Teach students about the need for sleep
  • Create a plan with students to turn off the electronic devices at bedtime that typically keep them up all night with rings and buzzes
  • Send home information about the role of sleep in an adolescent’s life
  • Have students track their sleeping habits as part of an assignment. Then have students make connections between their sleep habits and their school performance.
  • Invite sleep experts into the classroom to share critical information about sleep’s role in brain development


The more we learn about how our students’ brains are working, the better we can teach our students to learn. However, I think one of the most powerful things that we can do as teachers is to talk to our kids about their developing brains. Yes, they’re living with their brain’s new developments, but we, as teachers, can help them understand what and why it’s happening. When students learn about their brains, we can empower them to make better choices. The best part is that they’ll have a deeper understanding of themselves and their learning… and what’s better than that?

As a final note, remember that the science and study of adolescent brains continues to grow and change.  The information shared in this blog post was sourced from the following books and articles:

Lounsbury, J. Understanding and Appreciating the Wonder Years. Association for Middle Level Education.

McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (n.d.) The teen years explained: A guide to healthy adolescent development. Center for Adolescent Health at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Vawter, D. (2009). Mining the Middle School Mind. National Association for Elementary School Principals.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice.  Alexandria, Va:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This blog post is not a peer-reviewed, academic article or study of the adolescent brain, but rather a collection of ideas that not only align with my personal teaching experiences, but have also helped me develop ways to engage middle school students in my own classroom. I hope they help you and your students too!


Mary Beth BWI copyMary Beth of Brain Waves Instruction has spent over 10 years enthusiastically teaching middle school English Language Arts. She’s also taught internationally in Belize, England, and Africa. Her love of curriculum and instruction led to a Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Leadership — and right into the world of Teachers Pay Teachers! She’s also an active blogger, occasional decorator, and sometimes-frazzled mother (to two fun and rowdy boys). You can connect with her through her blog Brain Waves Instruction and on Facebook.