Study links positive messages about middle school to better grades, behavior

August 12, 2019   |   By Linda Jacobson

From Education Dive:

Dive Brief:

  • Sixth-grade writing and reflecting exercises that communicate how it’s normal for new middle schoolers to be anxious and worry they don’t fit in — and that these feelings are temporary — can contribute to better attendance, behavior and academic performance, according to a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Led by Geoffrey Borman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and conducted in all middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, the intervention involved students reading messages that communicated how every new 6th-grader experiences uncertainty about academics and social acceptance, and that adults and other students are available to help. The students also wrote responses to what they read.
  • Compared to those students in the control group — whose assignments focused on more general topics — the children in the treatment group had 545 fewer absences (increasing attendance by 12%), 507 fewer behavioral referrals (reducing disciplinary incidents by 34%), and 67 fewer D or F grades (reducing failing grades by 18%) by the end of the school year.

Dive Insight:

The transition into middle school is often marked by a decline in academic achievement that is further complicated by the physical and social-emotional changes children experience in early adolescence. That’s one reason why the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for example, has launched an initiativeto revamp a pilot group of nine middle schools with features meant to support student engagement and mental health. The district has seen a trend of families choosing K-8 schools over middle schools. 

Efforts are also increasing to reframe the middle grades as a time of opportunity for youth rather than one of increased risk. And earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report that includes recommendations for the education, health, child welfare and juvenile justice systems related to reducing inequities during the adolescent years that can lead to poor outcomes.

Increasing students’ sense of belonging in school at this critical time can reduce the chances that they experience academic and discipline problems, Borman and his coauthors write. Another recent study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that the more students report feeling a part of the school community, the less likely they are to report that they have bullied someone. The authors recommend school clubs for students with particular interests and emphasize the role parents play in fostering family belongingness as well.

Borman and coauthors write that their theory on “targeted reappraisal messages” was drawn from similar research conducted at the college level. But they conclude that for middle schools, the intervention is a “highly cost-effective and scalable approach.”