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How does the brain work during middle school?

27 DEC 2021

Middle school (and the corresponding, ever-dreaded puberty) is often characterized by sudden physical growth spurts and changes; what we often don’t address, however, is these changes are just as much mental as they are physical. After all, the emotional and social challenges demonstrated by middle schoolers are directly tied to adolescent brain development. This brain development is so intense that it is second only to the brain development a baby undergoes during ages 0-15 months. So, in order to better understand how to educate and support our middle school students, let’s take a look at their neurology: how does the brain work during middle school?

First, I am sure many of us know from personal experience and media portrayals of middle school that students this age are likely to be impulsive and are more prone to risky behaviors. Buy why? Well, as their brains transition from the child brain to the adult brain, a mismatch in their brains’ neural network occurs, which results in immature brain circuitry. Neurologically speaking, the prefrontal cortex (which oversees decision making and problem solving) develops late and is not yet connected to the amygdala (which oversees emotions). Due to the delayed development of the prefrontal cortex, middle schooler’s brains aren’t able to quickly or  efficiently decide whether an idea is a good or a bad one, resulting in the oversight of the consequences of their actions. Crimson Rise strategists discuss brain development with their young clients, explaining how the transition from a child brain to an adult brain may be a cause of stress during this time of their lives. This conversation helps Crimson students better understand themselves, resulting in more mindful decision making.

It is worth noting also that the brain development during this time differs by gender. For example, boys may use the “fight or flight” strategy and take more risks in relationships, whereas girls approach their relationships from a “tend and befriend” perspective. This is because the cortex of a girl’s brain has a higher proportion of gray matter than white matter, resulting in a stronger ability to multitask and increased verbal skills. Meanwhile, a boy’s brain will have a higher proportion of white matter, resulting in increased spatial skills. These differences will also explain why certain subjects may be preferred by genders during this age group, but it can change as the brain develops and a youngster’s identity begins to clarify. Additionally, females have a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain that is highly sensitive to fluctuations in estrogen. The hippocampus is responsible for the development of social skills, the ability to be emotionally supportive, as well as skills involved in coordinating complex relationships. As for males, their amygdala and hypothalamus (both of which are sensitive to testosterone) undergo a growth spurt, which affects the response to danger and fear. This is reflected in the way middle school boys start to enjoy rougher, riskier sports and they become more assertive generally. 

So, with all this in mind, what can adults do to help middle schoolers cope with all the changes happening in their brains? While explaining the science behind it to students is a starting point, being able to actively assist by providing healthy coping mechanisms and a good supportive ear is vital. Taking advantage of specific learning variations due to gender is also encouraged, but do not try to stereotype. Instead, offering choices in how to tackle school projects, ideas for hanging out with friends, etc.; this will help them understand the importance of making choices as well as allow their brains to gravitate towards what feels more developmentally natural. Encourage opportunities to develop compassion, leadership, and various skills in activities at school, home, and beyond. Crimson Strategists work extensively with students on exploring hobbies and developing passions during this time, so supporting your child in these endeavors can really help foster healthy brain development. Finally, ensure that your child is getting physical activity they enjoy (regardless of their gender!) as a healthy mind is found in a healthy body. 

The next time your child feels confused, overwhelmed, or just plain stressed, try sitting them down and explaining what is going on in their brains. Your relationship will become stronger, and your middle schooler will start to have a clearer picture of their identity and who they are becoming. 

Your friendly neighbourhood Rise blogger, 



Learn more about Crimson Rise’s strategic mentorship, academic support, and extracurricular coaching for young students, and request a free consultation on your child’s journey!