Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Few developmental periods are characterized by so many changes at so many different levels as early adolescence, when children face the biological transformations of puberty, the educational transition from elementary to secondary school, and the psychological shifts that accompany the emergence of sexuality. With rapid change comes a heightened potential for both positive and negative outcomes, creating important opportunities for families, schools, and out-of-school programs to interact with adolescents in a way that fosters growth and development.
Adolescence was once labeled a time of sturm und drang or storm and stress. It is now understood that most youngsters pass through this developmental period without undue stress, although many do experience difficulty. For example, between 15% and 30% of young people drop out of school before completing high school; adolescents have the highest arrest rate of any age group; and increasing numbers of adolescents consume alcohol and other drugs on a regular basis.26 Many of these behavioral problems begin during the early adolescent years,27 when psychological problems also increase.28 For example, depression and eating disorders increase in prevalence and seriousness, particularly among females, and the incidence of attempted and completed suicides rises. Some researchers believe that it is the combination of so many changes occurring simultaneously that makes early adolescence problematic for many young people.29,30 Coping with the stresses of pubertal change, school transitions, and the dynamics of dating at the same time puts young adolescents at risk for developmental problems such as lowered self-esteem and early sexual activity.
For some children, the early-adolescent years mark the beginning of a downward spiral leading to academic failure and school dropout. Some early adolescents see their school grades decline markedly when they enter junior high school, along with their interest in school, intrinsic motivation, and confidence in their intellectual abilities.30 Negative responses to school increase as well, as youngsters become more prone to test anxiety, learned helplessness, and self-consciousness that impedes concentration on learning tasks. Rates of both truancy and school dropout rise during these years.4 Although these changes are not extreme for most adolescents, there is sufficient evidence of gradual decline in various indicators of academic motivation, behavior, and self-perception over the early-adolescent years to raise alarm.
The negative motivational and behavioral changes described above might result from the psychological upheaval assumed to be associated with early-adolescent development 24 or from the simultaneous occurrence of multiple life changes.30 Another factor is the failure of some families and schools to provide flexible environments that respond to the adolescent's emerging maturity and independence. Theory suggests that the fit between the features of the social environment and an individual's characteristics can influence behavior, motivation, and mental health.31 Individuals are not likely to do very well, or to be very motivated, if they are in social environments that do not fit their psychological needs. The next section of this article summarizes the basic changes young adolescents are facing and examines how the family and the junior high school respond to those changes.Developmental Changes in Early Adolescence
A central task of adolescence is to develop a sense of oneself as an autonomous individual. The drive for such autonomy derives from the internal, biological processes marking the transition to a more adult role (puberty and increasing cognitive maturity) and from the shifts in social roles and expectations that accompany these underlying physiological and cognitive changes. Compared to children under age 10, teenagers are given new opportunities to experience independence outside of the home. They spend much more unsupervised time with peers which (compared to adult-child relationships) are relatively equal in terms of interpersonal power and authority.3,29 At the same time, however, they continue to rely on the support and guidance offered by adults in the family, in school, and in community-based programs or activities.
The biological changes associated with the transition of early adolescence are marked. When the hormones controlling physical development are activated in early puberty, most children undergo a growth spurt, develop primary and secondary sex characteristics, become fertile, and experience increased sexual libido. Girls begin to experience these pubertal changes earlier than boys (by approximately 18 months), so girls and boys of the same chronological age are likely to be at quite different points in physical and social development between the ages of 10 and 14. In any sixth-grade classroom, there will be girls who are fully mature and dress like adult women, girls who still look and dress like children, and boys whose bodies have not even begun to change. It is easy to imagine how this variation in physical maturity complicates the social interactions in classrooms and organized coeducational programs.
The varied timing of pubertal development also creates different psychological dilemmas for early-maturing girls versus early-maturing boys. Early maturation tends to be advantageous for boys, enhancing their participation in sports and their social standing in school. It can be problematic, however, for girls. Early-maturing girls are the first individuals in their cohort to begin changing, and the resulting female physical changes (such as increasing body fat) do not fit the valued image of the slim, androgynous fashion model.30,32 In fact, early maturing white females have the lowest self-esteem and the most difficulty adjusting to school transitions, particularly the transition from elementary to junior high school.25 These difficulties can have long-term consequences. One study found that early-maturing girls were more likely than their later-maturing peers to date older males and then to drop out of school and marry.33 Despite the intensity and universality of changes associated with puberty, however, school activities and out-of-school programs seldom focus explicitly on helping adolescents adjust to their changing bodies and relationships without losing sight of their goals.
Changes in Cognition
The most important cognitive changes during early adolescence relate to the increasing ability of children to think abstractly, consider the hypothetical as well as the real, consider multiple dimensions of a problem at the same time, and reflect on themselves and on complicated problems.34,35 There is also a steady increase in the sophistication of children's information-processing and learning skills, their knowledge of different subjects, their ability to apply their knowledge to new learning situations, and their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses as learners.36,37 These higher-order cognitive abilities help adolescents regulate their learning and behavior better to accomplish more complicated and elaborate tasks.
The same cognitive changes can also affect children's self-concepts, thoughts about their future, and understanding of others. During early adolescence, young people focus more on understanding the internal psychological characteristics of others, and they increasingly base their friendships on perceived compatibility in such personal characteristics.14 The middle-childhood and early-adolescent years are viewed by developmental psychologists as a time of change in the way children view themselves, as they consider what possibilities are available to them and try to come to a deeper understanding of themselves and others around them.5,38Relationships with Peers and Family
There is little question that parent-child relations change during early adolescence, although the extent of actual disruption in those relationships is a subject of debate.39,40 As adolescents become physically mature, they often seek more independence and autonomy, and they may question family rules and roles, leading to conflicts over issues such as dress and appearance, chores, and dating. Parents and adolescents also have fewer interactions and do fewer things together outside the home than they did at an earlier period—as illustrated by the horror many adolescents express at seeing their parents at shopping malls. This "distancing" in the relations between adolescents and parents may be a natural, evolutionary part of puberty: There is evidence from nonhuman primates that puberty is the time at which parents and off-spring go their separate ways.41 Even without taking an evolutionary perspective, one can argue that distancing in parent-adolescent relations has a functional value for adolescents in that it fosters their independence, prompts them to try more things on their own, and develops their sense of efficacy.42
Out-of-school programs can play a very important role in this distancing process. Evidence from a variety of sources suggests that although early adolescents want a certain amount of distance from their parents, they often want to fill this space with close relationships with other, nonfamilial adults.32 They want to share their ideas with adults and to benefit from adult wisdom. It is likely that adolescents turn disproportionately to their peers for guidance through the "separation" process only when they do not have opportunities to bond with nonfamilial adults. Out-of-school programs are ideal settings for such interactions and relationships to flourish.
Friendships and Peer Conformity
The most controversial change during early adolescence may be the young person's increasing focus on peers. To the chagrin of parents and teachers, many adolescents give priority to social activities with peers, peer acceptance, and appearance rather than academic courses and other organized activities.43 Further, early adolescents' confidence in their physical appearance and social acceptance is often a more important predictor of their self-esteem than is confidence in their cognitive/academic competence.5
Children's conformity to their peers peaks during early adolescence, reflecting the importance of social acceptance to youngsters of this age. Much has been written about how peer conformity can create problems for early adolescents and about how "good" children often are corrupted by the negative influences of peers (particularly by gangs). However, although pressure from peers to engage in misconduct increases during early adolescence, the view that peer groups are mostly a bad influence during this period is overly simplistic.15 More often than not, early adolescents agree with their parents' views on important issues such as morality, educational goals, politics, and religion, while peers have more influence on things such as dress and clothing styles, music, and activity choice. In addition, adolescents usually seek out friends who are similar to them (fellow athletes or honor students). Thus, they are likely to choose friends whose views on important issues resemble those that are espoused at home. One expert concludes that it is poor parenting that usually leads children to get in with a "bad" peer group, rather than the peer group pulling a "good" child into difficulties.15 The peer group acts more to reinforce existing strengths and weaknesses than to change adolescents' characteristics.
Family Support for Growing Autonomy
In thinking about how the family environment shapes early-adolescent development, it is useful to recall that the key task confronting the adolescent is to develop a sense of self as an autonomous individual. The accelerating effort by youths to control their own lives is accompanied by pressure on the family to renegotiate the power balance between parent and child.24,29,40,42,44 It is the fit between an early adolescent's family environment and his or her developmental needs that is critical to successful adaptation by both parents and early adolescents in this transitional period.29
Achieving a good match requires that parents be able to adjust to their early adolescent's changing needs with relatively little conflict. Studies show that family environments offer opportunities for personal autonomy and encourage the early adolescent's role in family decision making are associated with positive outcomes, such as self-esteem, self-reliance, satisfaction with school and student-teacher relations, positive school adjustment, and advanced moral reasoning.25 Conversely, a parenting style that is coercive, authoritarian, and not attuned to the adolescent's need for autonomy and input is associated with self-consciousness and lowered self-esteem.45 Adaptations within the family may also influence how well the young person negotiates changes in other realms of life, such as changing peer relationships or the transition to junior high school.29Contexts That Promote Development
The educational environments that pre-teens enter are often not very responsive to adolescent development. In some ways, the academic environments in typical junior high and middle schools are less well matched to the needs and capacities of youths than are elementary schools,29 and the transition to junior high triggers negative changes for some youths, although not for all.30,46,47
For example, the structure of junior high schools reduces opportunities for adolescents to form close relationships with their teachers at precisely the point in the early adolescents' development when they have a great need for guidance and support from nonfamilial adults. Because most junior high schools are larger than elementary schools, and instruction is organized by department, teachers work with several groups of students each day and seldom teach a student for more than one year.30 Interactions between teacher and student usually focus on the academic content of what is being taught or on disciplinary issues, and teachers at this level tend to feel less effective as teachers.31 These structural factors can undermine the sense of community and trust between early adolescents and their teachers—leading in turn to a greater reliance by teachers on authoritarian control and increased alienation among the students.
Classroom practices may also undermine early adolescents' school motivation. Junior high school teachers use a higher standard in judging their students' competence and in grading their performance than that used by elementary school teachers,30 and declining grades strongly predict declines in the self-perceptions and academic motivation of early-adolescent students. When teachers and students are not close to one another, it is unlikely that any one student's difficulties will be noticed early, increasing the chance that students on the edge will slip onto negative trajectories leading to school failure and dropout.
The environmental changes that students experience as they move into middle-grade schools are particularly harmful in that they emphasize competition, social comparison, and self-assessment at a time when the adolescent's focus on himself or herself is at its height. The junior high school's emphasis on discipline and teacher control, and its limited opportunities for student decision making, come at a time in development when adolescents are beginning to think of themselves as young adults who are becoming more responsible and deserve greater adult respect. A poor "fit" between the early adolescent and the classroom environment increases the risk of disengagement and school problems, especially for those early adolescents who were having difficulty succeeding in school academically prior to this school transition.31
As the preceding discussion explains, early-adolescent development is characterized by an increasing capacity for abstract thinking, desire for autonomy, orientation toward peers, and self-consciousness. It is a time when identity issues and concern over heterosexual relationships are salient. When they are adapting to these internal changes, adolescents need an environment that is both reasonably safe and intellectually challenging—one that provides a "zone of comfort" as well as challenging new opportunities for growth. The research studies reviewed here suggest that family, school, and other organized environments that are responsive and developmentally sensitive to the changes in young adolescents' needs and desires can facilitate positive development during the turbulent early-adolescent years.32