March 26, 2014 13:24 Age: 4 yrs

Understanding Middle School Students: When Character Skills Don’t Always “Click”

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Erin Crespi is director of school operations at AF Brownsville Middle. The school currently serves students in fifth and sixth grades, and will grow to serve students in grades five through eight.

As school leaders and teachers, we spend a lot of time thinking about not only how to help students develop strong academic skills, but also how to help them develop strength of character. At Achievement First, our mission statement affirms that we will “provide all of our students with the academic and character skills they need to graduate from college and succeed in a competitive world.” The duality of the AF mission is a big part of the reason why many of us are attracted to the education field. We spend countless hours thinking about how to infuse character into every aspect of our lessons and interactions with our students—and we talk so often with parents and guardians about how they’re doing the same.

So why hasn’t it all “clicked”? Why aren’t our students always doing the right thing without a reminder?

Nearly all of our students, according to Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, are at ages in which they are grappling with “industry versus inferiority.” Children at this stage are usually more focused on gaining approval from their peers and demonstrating competencies that are valued by society. Our approach to character development is rooted in Kohlberg’s six-stage theory of moral development. Kohlberg would place most of our AF Brownsville Middle students in the first two stages: moving from obedience driven by punishment to self-interest. That is, moving from the idea of understanding something to be wrong because of a punishment (i.e., “the last time I did that I was grounded, so I won’t do it again”) to a “what’s in it for me” mentality.

As our students move up through middle school and on to high school, we will begin to see them develop into more independent thinkers who start to look at the future more in terms of career, relationships, families, etc. They will begin to evaluate consequences in terms of relationships, including respect, gratitude and the “golden rule,” and begin to understand that laws and social conventions are important because of their role in maintaining a functioning society.

As educators and parents of middle school students, it is our job to hold them accountable for their choices and to begin to help them see how these choices affect their peers. I am not suggesting that, because of their ages, we should not explain how their choices impact a broader society. At our school, we do this frequently. I mean that we shouldn’t interpret poor choices made at times when students know there will be no consequences—when no one is watching—as our failures to help students build strong character. Our students are going through the normal stages of moral and psychosocial development and are testing out the rules and consequences.

We should continue to focus on providing clear expectations and rationale. We should continue holding students accountable for meeting our expectations. Down the road, they will start to apply their experiences and develop an understanding of what society asks of them in certain situations. We should continue to expect the most from our students, without forgetting to assume the best of them. We should remember that we all took the same journey many years ago, and that journey helped us get to where we are today.

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