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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Adolescent Education No. 1, 5769

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will focus on adolescents and applications for our Jewish educational and youth settings. In this first issue, we will look at middle school students (young adolescents ages 11-14 or “tweens”), their unique set of concerns and behaviors and ways in which we can reach and teach them more effectively.

Working with middle schoolers is “like mud-wrestling with a pig. You will both get muddy but only the pig will enjoy it.” (Coming of Age, p.11)

In order to best reach and teach our students, we need to consider both who they are and where they are in their development. It can be difficult to recognize the developmental stage of middle school students because they are often grouped together with either elementary or high school students. Yet, middle school students have their own particular set of challenges and needs. They also have a distinct set of characteristics that makes working with this age group so rewarding and fun. By understanding the development of 11-14 year olds, we can create opportunities for learning that are specifically suited to their stage of development.

Intellectual/Psychological Development:

  • Middle schoolers see the world as black and white, right and wrong. They are idealistic and have a vision of how things should be and the way adults should behave. Because of their heightened sense of justice they can be devoted to humanitarian causes. They are concrete thinkers and that, combined with their idealism, has them solve complex problems with simple solutions, no matter how impractical they may be. Their lack life-experience and judgment contribute to their inability to control their emotions and frustration with adults.

  • They have long attention spans and can spend hours on something they believe to be worthwhile and achievable. However they struggle when they do not see the relevance of what they are learning and how it relates to them. They need to make connections and find personal relevance in learning and activities. They can tell the difference between work that is meant to occupy time and work that contributes to their learning.

  • Middle schoolers value meaningful relationships with adults they can trust. They can tell when adults are not taking them seriously and will tune them out or confront them. They will argue and challenge but are not always capable of articulating their argument effectively.

  • As students transition into middle school, their self-image declines. They achieve best when they know people care about them, when what they are learning matters, and they possess the skills necessary to meet the challenges in front of them.

Physical Development:

  • Physical development during adolescence is more dramatic than at any other time in human life. There are massive hormonal changes, regression in fine motor skills, and growth spurts.

  • Young adolescents tend to have a negative sense of their physical self as they become very aware of their bodies and are constantly comparing themselves to others.

Social/Emotional Development:

  • Peers and friends are the focal point in the lives of tweens. The most important reason to go to school or synagogue is to be with friends. Since they are more concerned with social status than academic achievement, those who are accepted by their peers tend to be more successful learners. “Peer pressure tends to peek at age fourteen.” (Coming of Age, p. 24)

  • Young adolescents are torn between wanting to be independent and not wanting to vary too far from accepted peer norms and expectations. They also fluctuate between wanting independence from adults and requiring (and secretly desiring) adult protection and security.

  • Middle schoolers behavior is often self-centered and moody. They may think that no one has experienced exactly what they are going through and react extremely to situations in their social lives. They can be easily offended and think they are “being yelled at” when a simple direction is given.

Moral, Religious, and Character Development:

  • Young adolescents are in the process of “blooming and pruning.” This means that what is used frequently becomes hardwired into the brain and that which is used rarely is discarded. Therefore, this is the time to reinforce messages about moral and ethical behavior.

  • Compassion and fairness needs to be developed over time from modeling and first-hand experience. Service learning programs that connect civic engagement and academic learning are very powerful tools for young teens.

  • Middle school students are in the process of developing their identities. Religious faith and beliefs can help them figure out who they are and what they stand for. Introspective and reflective, young adolescents think about faith and are searching for meaning and a sense of belonging. Judaism contains rituals in early adolescence that guide students in exploring significant questions and mark a rite of passage into greater responsibility. It is also a time for tweens to question their parents’ values and lifestyle and sometimes explore other faiths and denominations.

In this section, we apply the developmental information above to our learning environments.


  • Middle schoolers like to feel responsible for their own learning and learning needs to have personal relevance. Cooperative learning activities such as small group projects, simulations, debates, and role-plays can fulfill these needs as well as the need to socially engage with others. Allow students to choose topics or themes that employ students’ creativity.

  • When giving directions be clear and specific. Be direct and respectful rather than patronizing. Praise and positive feedback are your best tools for success. Sarcasm and non-verbal cues will likely be ineffective or counterproductive. Young adults are perceptive and can tell when adults are “faking it” and will challenge or ignore these people.

  • It is important to get to know your students and their interests. They love to talk about what interests them and will share with someone they believe is really listening. Help them to focus on doing their best, not perfection. Guide them in setting realistic goals and helping them to recognize personal talents and abilities. Be supportive of responsible and safe risk-taking.

  • Drama is a great way to engage young teens. It helps them to use prior knowledge and fills the need for their learning to be purposeful, engaging, and social. It also gives them the opportunity to “”try on” roles with low risk.


Anyone who works with students in sixth-eighth grade can see the rapid physical changes taking place in their bodies. Teachers can accommodate student’s changing physical needs which will help to keep students engaged as well as keep distractions and disruptions to a minimum.

  • Allow students to change positions as needed. They get physically uncomfortable and may need to stretch, shift, or even walk. Setting appropriate classroom guidelines will help them and you.

  • Plan activities that allow for movement such as going up to the board, working in small groups on the floor, or even games or activities that include movement such as charades, role playing, and drama.

  • Resist comments about a student’s physical appearance. Even comments intended to be compliments can make tweens feel more self conscious than they already are.

Social/Emotional :

  • Be aware of students’ social and emotional needs whenever they are interacting with others, before or after class as much as in class. In class, teams, small groups, and activities where students can interact will help to engage students and meet their need to be social.

  • Allow young adolescents’ feelings to take a constructive place in the classroom by using their concerns as a bridge to learning. Create a safe and caring environment in which students’ can share their “big questions” and address the questions in future lessons.

  • Students need to “decompress” especially when arriving to a class or program immediately after school. Find activities that will allow them to share what happened during their day in a constructive way and use it as a transition into your lesson.

  • Be the adult. Keep things in perspective, be a good role model, take concerns seriously, provide legitimate praise and appropriate reinforcement, understand and accept normal young adolescent behavior.

Moral, Religious, and Character Development:

  • Model moral and ethical behavior (such as holding promises, following and enforcing classroom rules, treating all students fairly) as young adults learn by example.

  • Use the rite of passage into responsibility as an opportunity to allow students to be involved in planning, implementing, and assessing service learning or other classroom activities and projects. The more involved they feel the more personal responsibility they will assume.

  • Encourage participation in other synagogue, youth group, or camp activities as young adolescents need for belonging can be met through participation in religious organizations and activities.

Much of the information gathered for this issue was taken from some of the following resources.

Brighton, Kenneth. Coming of Age: The Education & Development of Young Adolescents. Westerville OH: National Middle School Association, 2007

Educational Leadership: The Adolescent Learner: Vol. 62 No.7, April 2005

Elias, Maurice J. et. al. Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997

For further reading, see the resources below.

Mee, Cynthia. 2,000 Voices: Young Adolescents’ Perceptions & Curriculum Implications. Westerville OH: National Middle School Association, 1997

Perlstein, Linda. Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. New

York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Van Hoose, John, Strahan, David, and L’Esperance, Mark. Promoting Harmony: Young Adolescent Development and School Practices. Westerville, OH. National Middle School Association, 2001
CASEL is a collaborative that works to advance the science and practice of social and emotional learning (SEL).
The National Middle School Association (NMSA) has been a voice for those committed to the educational and developmental needs of young adolescents. NMSA is the only national education association dedicated exclusively to those in the middle level grades. NMSA has both online resources as well as a bookstore.

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