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During the middle school years (Grades 6 to 8), young people go through many significant and rapid developmental transitions (Lerner et al., 1996). Although the most notable and visible transition during this developmental period is puberty and the related biological changes that occur, early adolescence is a time of significant cognitive and social transitions as well. Scholars have suggested that, aside from early childhood, there is no other developmental period in which individuals undergo so many changes so rapidly (Lerner et al., 1996). These developmental transitions both affect and are affected by the social contexts in which early adolescents engage. Additionally, the interaction of these developmental transitions and the contexts in which early adolescents are engaged lead to several critical issues, such as identity and sexuality development, issues of peer harassment, and mental and emotional health. These issues have significant implications for teachers and for the teaching and learning process.
In this research-paper, we first briefly review the major transitions that occur during this developmental period. Then, we discuss the implications these transitions have for the three primary social contexts (families, peer groups, and school) in which early adolescents are engaged. Finally, we discuss some of the critical developmental issues that arise during early adolescence as a result of these transitions and the implications for teachers.
Developmental Transitions in Middle School
Puberty is a significant developmental transition that is marked by hormonal changes, neural development, skeletal and muscular growth, and significant changes in adolescents’ height and weight, and the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics. The process of physical maturation is complex, varied, and cannot be defined by key events or stage attainment (e.g., beginning menstruation or the appearance of pubic and body hair); but rather, it should be viewed as a developmental transition that begins before birth (Archibald, Graber, & Brooks-Gunn, 2003).
In the mother’s womb, the fetus is exposed to hormones that serve an organizing function related to later pubertal development. The introduction of these hormones during fetal development ultimately determines sex differentiation of the baby. Beginning around middle childhood (usually around age 6 for females, 8 for males), sex hormone levels begin to rise, serving as an activating mechanism—a process termed adrenarche (Archibald et al., 2003). The adrenal gland and the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis regulate the production and distribution of important hormones including androgens and estrogens. The circulating levels of hormones throughout puberty trigger physical changes in the body and are associated with emotional dispositions and, in some cases, behavior.
Throughout pubertal development, the release of growth hormones results in dramatic skeletal and muscular development. The beginning of puberty is often accompanied by a growth spurt—typically beginning with the hands, feet, and head, followed later by the legs and arms, and finally growth of the trunk (Steinberg, 2008).
Males and females share many aspects of developmental change, but physical development differs between boys and girls. Males generally experience greater muscular development due to higher levels of testosterone, while females tend to see an increase in body fat. The timing also tends to be different: Peak growth velocity occurs around age 12 for females and two years later for males (Susman & Rogol, 2004). Concomitant weight gain occurs about the same time as height change in males, but is usually delayed 6 months in females. During this rapid growth period, males may notice a broadening of the shoulders; females can expect a widening of the hips and cervix. In males, the enlargement of muscles in the larynx, typically around age 14, causes the voice to crack resulting in an adult voice generally by age 15.
Primary and secondary sex characteristics also develop during adolescence. Menarche (first menstruation) and spermarche (production of sperm) usually occur several years after the onset of puberty (between ages 10 to 16 for females, 12 to 14 for males; Steinberg, 2008). Males experience enlargement and smoothing of the testicles, as well as lengthening of the penis, while females experience the growth of the labia and clitoris. Secondary sex characteristics—those not directly concerned with reproduction—also develop in adolescence. Breast development (budding) in females begins around age 8 and continues through ages 14 to 15 (Steinberg, 2008). The growth of body hair, occurring in both males and females on the arms, legs, face, and pubic region accompanies breast or penis and testicular development in relatively predictable patterns.
Timing and Tempo of Puberty
Although all adolescents who are healthy and properly nourished go through the developmental transitions associated with puberty, the timing and tempo of the physical developments that accompany this transition vary between individuals. Each can be affected by biology and the environment in which the adolescent is reared. Although the timing of puberty has not often been associated with either positive or negative biological effects, early or late puberty can have important psychological and social consequences. Early pubertal development is associated with increased social pressure and adult role expectations for both sexes, but seems to be more acutely felt by early developing girls (Dorn, Susman, & Ponirakis, 2003). Research on early maturation in males is mixed, with some studies reporting higher levels of popularity and self-image (Mustanski, Viken, Kaprio, Pulkkinen, & Rose, 2004) and others suggesting a tendency to engage in high-risk behaviors (Dorn et al., 2003). Early maturing females are at a greater risk for depression, early and unsafe sexual behavior and substance use, eating disorders, and poor body image (Dorn et al., 2003).
Body Size and Image
Because pubertal maturation is associated with rapid body growth, adolescents are often conscious of the way their changing bodies look and feel. Perceived pubertal timing, or how adolescents feel about their own development, can be an indicator of psychological adjustment (Alsaker & Flammer, 2006). As females begin to gain weight compared to their prepubescent peers, they sometimes become dissatisfied with their body and appearance, which can lead to disordered eating and weight issues.
Significant cognitive changes happen during this period due to physiological changes in the brain as well in young adolescents’ reasoning, perspective-taking, and the ways they understand their world. The brain continues to mature and develop throughout adolescence. Three primary changes occur in the brain during adolescence. First, there is thickening of the myelin sheath—a fatty layer that protects the neurons—which helps increase the efficiency of the transmissions being carried between neurons. Second, a process of synaptic pruning begins, whereby the brain pares down and eliminates unused connections between neurons (Steinberg, 2008). The preadolescent brain is not an efficient processor. At the onset of puberty, synaptic pruning refines and strengthens the pathways of connections frequently used while eliminating connections that are not developed. The third major change takes place in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with thinking ahead, anticipating risks and rewards, planning, and regulating impulses and desires. During early adolescence, the prefrontal cortex becomes denser through a thickening of the gray matter and, as a result, individuals become better able to execute the functions described above.
These physiological changes increase efficiency and allow for improvements in how young adolescents process information. Myelination speeds up the synaptic transmissions, so that information travels faster through neural networks (Blume & Zembar, 2007). The refining of the synaptic pathways frees up working memory by increasing automatization, the process whereby something becomes so familiar that you do not have to monitor it.
Physiological and cognitive changes create a foundation for development in the young adolescent’s thinking. Notably, thinking in adolescence is different than thinking in childhood in five major areas. Adolescents are better able to think about hypothetical possibilities, to think abstractly, and to think multidimensionally. Additionally, adolescents become better at metacognition and also move toward thinking more relatively, rather than just in absolutes (Keating, 2004).
Many changes in adolescent thinking are related to developmental changes in cognition proposed by Piaget (1972). Piaget posited that during early adolescence, individuals move from concrete operational thinking to formal operational thinking. One of the key elements of formal operational thinking is the ability to think about hypothetical concepts. This provides an enhanced ability to generate and evaluate various possibilities, to consider multiple dimensions in assessing a situation, and to continue developing propositional logic (Piaget, 1972). With formal operations, adolescents expand upon deductive reasoning and use inductive reasoning—inferring what might be likely or possible from a body of evidence. The broadening of abstract thinking allows for an appreciation of multiple meanings and nuances that increases adolescents’ understanding of sarcasm, metaphor, and satire.
These changes have implications for how early adolescents understand their own thought processes. As their metacognitive abilities develop, adolescents display greater self-reflection and introspection. Some features of this self-consciousness particular to adolescence have been called “adolescent egocentrism” (Elkind, 1967). One manifestation of this has been termed the imaginary audience. This refers to the phenomenon in which the individual adolescent imagines that others are intensely interested and focused on his or her characteristics and behavior. The second feature of adolescent egocentrism takes the form of a personal fable, or the adolescent’s belief that his or her experiences, feelings, and reactions are unique and have never been experienced by anyone before. This personal fable may help adolescents develop self-esteem by affirming what makes them distinct individuals, but it also contributes to a sense of invincibility in the face of risk or danger.
Social Cognitive Transitions
Along with the physiological and cognitive changes taking place, significant shifts also occur in how young adolescents think about themselves and their world including meaningful changes in how adolescents understand and reason about moral, social, and personal issues (Nucci, 2001; Turiel, 1983).
Turiel (1983) has posited that there are distinct domains of social knowledge that individuals use to understand their social worlds and to make decisions: the moral, the social-conventional, and the personal domains. The moral domain is focused on issues of harm, fairness, and equality; the social-conventional domain involves knowledge related to norms, rules, and conventions that serve to structure social interactions; and the personal domain is concerned with those areas that we believe are up to us as individuals and, therefore, outside the realm of societal regulation (Nucci, 2001). Turiel (1983) argued that these domains develop independently of each other and are constructed from different types of social experiences and interactions. Understanding how reasoning develops differently across these domains can help parents and educators interact more effectively with adolescents.
Although even very young children recognize that hitting someone is wrong, children’s notions of fairness and equality—moral domain issues—change over time. Young children believe in a concept of fairness in which everything must be equal. As the ability of young adolescents to consider others’ perspectives and positions increases (that is, the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes), they begin to understand that equity must be considered as well (Turiel, 1983).
Individuals’ understanding about social conventions also develops throughout childhood and adolescence. Development within the social-conventional domain becomes increasingly complex as young people begin to understand both the necessity of conventions in promoting social interaction and the arbitrariness of the form conventions take within different contexts or cultures—for example, the recognition that dress codes in schools serve to decrease social comparison and conflict and the recognition that different schools may have different dress codes. Young children view conventions as rules established by authority figures that must be followed. As young people move into adolescence, they begin to recognize that conventions are contextually based, inconsistently adhered to, and sometimes subject to disagreement. Lacking the cognitive capacity to fully appreciate the role such norms serve in structuring social interactions, young adolescents often dismiss or resist conventions because they are viewed simply as the dictates of authority (Turiel, 1983). Early adolescents often test established conventions by questioning dress codes or other school policies. Research has indicated that helping young people grapple with the purpose of social conventions may assist them in coming to appreciate why rules, norms, and conventions exist (Nucci, 2001).
Early adolescence is also a time of changes in adolescents’ beliefs about what they should be able to decide for themselves—beliefs within the personal domain—such as one’s hairstyle, the privacy of one’s diary, and other elements of personal expression (Nucci, 2001). During this period, adolescents begin to explore who they are as separate from their families and begin to develop a distinct identity and increased autonomy. This increased autonomy leads to an expansion of the number and types of decisions adolescents feel should be under their legitimate control.
Contexts of Development
One notable social transition in early adolescence is the shift from reliance on parents and other adults to increased reliance on peers. Clearly, young people do not completely reject their parents (Smetana, 2004), but during this developmental period they begin to question who they are as separate from their families and others and begin to explore their own identities. These transitions have significant implications for early adolescents’ relationships with their parents.
The most significant disruption to the family system happens around puberty (Laursen, Coy, & Collins, 1996; Smetana, 2004). During this time, early adolescents begin to expand the boundaries of the personal domain and the issues they consider to be under their control, and they begin to question the rules of parents and other authority figures. Even though research suggests that young people remain emotionally close to and dependent on their parents for many types of social and emotional support, parent-child conflict peaks during this developmental period and emotional closeness declines slightly. This increase in parent-child conflict is directly related to early adolescents’ bids for autonomy and their testing of personal boundaries (Smetana, 2004).
Parents and early adolescents do not engage in conflict over everything. In fact, research suggests that parents and adolescents typically have similar beliefs and attitudes about core values and that conflict between parents and adolescents typically revolves around mundane issues such as cleaning one’s room, doing chores, and dress (Smetana, 2004). Smetana (2004) suggests that the increase in conflict during early adolescence results from parents and adolescents ascribing different meanings to issues, specifically regarding who controls the issue.
During early adolescence families begin the process of shifting from predominantly asymmetrical relationships, in which parents have more power, to symmetrical power relationships, in which parents and adolescents are partners in decision making. As young people expand the domain of issues they believe are under their personal jurisdiction and control, parents continue to see many of these issues as under their control or as affecting the larger social order or family system. Thus, they believe they have legitimate authority to regulate adolescents’ behavior regarding these activities (Smetana, 2004). This type of conflict is particularly frequent during early adolescence when families try to establish “where to draw the line between parental control and authority and adolescents’ autonomy over the self” (Smetana, 2004). As the family system adjusts to the increasing capacities and independence of the adolescent, and parents begin to recognize their child’s needs for autonomy and control over their own lives, this type of conflict declines.
The quality of the relationship between parents and children before this developmental period has a significant effect on how families will adjust and on the developmental outcomes for adolescents. When parents exercise a developmentally appropriate degree of restrictiveness and affordance of autonomy, and display high degrees or warmth, nurturance, and support, early adolescents tend to regulate their own emotions and behaviors well, engage in advanced decision-making processes, and resist negative peer influence (Smetana, 2004). When parents are over-controlling, conflict tends to be more frequent and of higher intensity. Overcontrol often leads to negative psychological outcomes for adolescents, such as increased delinquency, depression, substance use or abuse, and eating disorders (Hasebe, Nucci, & Nucci, 2004). Negative developmental outcomes also occur when parents do not exercise enough control over adolescents (e.g., providing too much autonomy), even though conflict tends to be less pronounced in these families.
Individual, family, or contextual factors that cause stress during this developmental period or exacerbate the mismatch between parents’ and adolescents’ expectations can affect parent-adolescent relationships and conflicts, as well as related individual outcomes for adolescents. The pattern, developmental timing, and intensity of parent-adolescent conflict in immigrant families may differ given the cultural contexts in which these parents were raised as compared to those of their children (Greenberger & Chen, 1996). Further, for families that are under extreme levels of stress (e.g., facing parental divorce or loss of job), parents may not realize that early adolescents’ bids for autonomy and rejection of parental authority are normative and necessary; thus, they may have fewer resources to deal adequately with these issues (Steinberg, 2008).
As young people move away from complete dependence on their families, the peer group becomes increasingly important. During middle school, peer relationships become a primary social context in which young people try to make sense of their social worlds. As children transition into early adolescence, peer relationships become more complex and change in function and structure. Early adolescents’ peer relationships include dyads (friendships) and small groups (cliques). Reputation and status-based groups of adolescents or peer crowds also emerge. Further, the functions of peers and peer relationships also change.
Friendships become less about proximity and engaging in shared activities and more about shared values, interests, trust, and reciprocal disclosure. Within high-quality friendships—which involve reciprocated affection and disclosure—loyalty, self-disclosure, and trust become salient features. Friendships continue to be marked by higher levels of prosocial and positive behaviors, emotional reciprocity, and intensity, but also continued levels of conflict (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). In particular, early adolescent friendships involve high levels of jealousy and possessiveness as young people struggle to construct an understanding of how to balance individual needs and desires within their social relationships (Rubin et al., 2006).
Additionally, in early adolescence, social groups become more significant and social cliques form (Brown, 2004). Cliques tend to be primarily same-sex and, in many cases, same-race and are highly cohesive and exclusive. In early adolescence peer cliques provide social and emotional support and provide many adolescents with a sense of belonging to a group separate from their families. These groups provide early adolescents with a set of relationships through which to gain important social information and feedback regarding their emerging identities.
With the onset of puberty, adolescents spend more time interacting with opposite-gender peers in mixed-gender social groups or cliques (Brown, 2004). These mixed-gender cliques function as a way for heterosexually attracted early adolescents to begin exploring their emergent sexuality and to engage in heterosocial behavior in relatively safe and supportive environments. This group-level heterosocial activity serves as a precursor to dyadic dating behavior and serves to socialize adolescents in heterosexual identities and behaviors, as well as gender roles and norms (Horn, 2004).
As a result of the importance that belonging to a group has for early adolescents, peer interactions become focused on regulating membership within particular social groups, often through bullying, victimization, and social aggression such as gossiping. Because of developmental gains in social cognition, social comparison becomes more prevalent and status hierarchies emerge (Parker & Gottman, 1989), with peer cliques being stratified into low- and high-status groups. This early stratification is often accompanied by emergent forms of peer crowds, such as “populars” and “nerds,” that take on more importance as adolescents move into high school and continue to explore their identities.
Peer conformity and influence increases throughout early adolescence and tends to peak late in middle school or early in high school. While many people think peer influence has only negative effects on young people, research suggests that for most adolescents, the peer group is a source of influence toward positive and prosocial behaviors and values and that peer relationships lead to positive and adaptive development for young people. It is through interacting with peers that young people learn about issues of fairness, trust, and reciprocity and learn how to take someone else’s perspective (Selman, 2003). Additionally, peer relationships and groups provide essential contexts in which adolescents begin to develop identities separate from their families, and thus they provide important feedback to adolescents as they try on and test out different expressions of identity.
Young adolescents spend most of their time at school. The school environment can have an important developmental effect on early adolescents, and the challenge for schools is to create an environment where young people can succeed. For many American adolescents, Grades 6, 7, and 8 are associated with the transition from primary school to middle or high school. At a time when students are experiencing pubertal changes and the formation of different aspects of their identity, they must also contend with the new academic challenges and responsibilities that secondary school entails. For many young people, the convergence of these developmental and contextual transitions leads to a decrease in self-esteem, school engagement, motivation, or achievement, and increased risk for mental-health problems, such as depression.
The adolescent’s response to the new school climate, and the standards and expectations learned from their interactions with new teachers, can have a significant effect on future performance. It is the responsibility of the school, then, to create a context that both supports and motivates maturing students in developmentally appropriate ways—what Eccles (2004) terms stage-environment fit. An optimal stage-environment fit synchronizes school changes with the developmental changes students are already experiencing. Consider, as an example, students’ perceptions of adult support. As students move to the middle-school environment, they often seek to gain the approval of non-parental adults (Eccles, 2004). Accordingly, students who feel their teachers are supportive and engaged in their learning show higher levels of achievement and lower levels of delinquency (Eccles, 2004). Teachers’ values, beliefs (or biases), and expectations play an important role in the development of student-teacher relationships and can affect motivation, acclimation, and persistence.
School climate extends beyond the classroom. Schools that value academic achievement and empower their students’ learning can positively affect not only student motivation, but also that of parents and teachers (Eccles, 2004). In early adolescence, when students have a heightened sense of how they appear to others, those school climates that endorse competition and social comparison are more likely to lead to nonadaptive learning strategies for students (Roeser & Lau, 2003). When a positive environment is combined with supportive teaching, students are better able to develop a positive student identity, demonstrate increased intrinsic motivation and academic interest, cultivate pride in accomplishments, and develop positive social relationships (Roeser & Lau, 2003).
It is necessary, then, to eliminate as many discrepancies as possible between the individual’s developmental stage needs and the new environment. An introduction of multiple classes and teachers usually occurs when students move into the middle grades. It is important for them to feel they have an element of control over decisions and choices that occur in this new learning environment (Roeser & Lau, 2003). Positive feedback from teachers can have an important effect on students’ emotional well-being, which in turn motivates them to learn (Roeser & Lau, 2003). When possible, teachers should also encourage parental involvement in the learning process. When parents participate in a young adolescent’s education, there are more parent-child interactions at home, better attitudes about learning (on the part of both parent and child), and achievement gains for the child (Epstein & Dauber, 1991).
Critical Issues in Middle School Development
In this section, we focus on three critical issues related to the developmental and contextual transitions discussed above, which take on increased importance during early adolescence and have implications for the health and well-being of young people: identity and self-esteem, sexuality, and peer harassment.
Identity and self-Esteem
To reiterate, early adolescents undergo various biological, cognitive, and social changes—each of which intersects to affect identity development during this critical period. Erikson (1968) highlighted adolescence as a critical period for the formation of identity. Critical to attaining a cohesive or achieved identity is the process of exploring the available options within a particular identity domain (e.g., religion or vocation) and then committing oneself to a particular course of action within that domain (Marcia, 1980). According to Marcia, individuals can be described as being in one of four identity statuses depending on whether or not they have engaged in these two processes (exploration and commitment):
- Identity diffusion: incoherent, disjointed sense of self; adolescent has neither explored nor committed to an identity
- Identity foreclosure: commitment to a role or series of roles without engaging in exploration; typically in response to external pressure from important social others
- Moratorium: active search for identity but no clear commitment
- Identity achievement: commitments to identity roles based on active exploration of options
Most young people enter early adolescence in a state of identity diffusion; they have not yet begun the process of exploring identity options or committing themselves to particular identities. Because early adolescents are less likely to engage in formal operational thinking, they are also less apt to generate and compare alternative identities, a critical component of the exploration phase (moratorium). Some early adolescents settle upon an identity (e.g., future career) as a result of parental or social influence or control without exploring the range of options available to them, characteristic of the identity foreclosure status. According to Archer and Waterman (1983), identity foreclosure in early adolescence could “set the stage for a severe emotional or identity crisis later in life” (p. 207).
So during adolescence and early adolescence in particular, young people should be afforded opportunities and time to try on and test out different types of identities (Marcia, 1980). Through this process, young people discover ways of being that make sense to them and commit to certain expressions of identity over others. By early adulthood, most individuals have developed an achieved identity based on identity commitments in a number of domains. Critical to this process is the way in which adolescents construct an understanding of themselves in differing and multiple roles and relationships.
Due to their advancing cognitive abilities, adolescents’ understanding of who they are becomes multifaceted. Thus, another key developmental task of adolescence is differentiating aspects of the self that emerge in different roles and relationships, and subsequently integrating these multiple selves into a cohesive self-narrative (Harter, 1998). Because of their ability to think multidimensionally, adolescents perceive themselves differently depending on the context they are in (e.g., good-natured when with friends, moody when with parents). This differentiating of the self can lead to extreme cognitive conflict as young people try to construct a sense of the “real me” from the varied and sometimes conflicting “me’s” that exist in different contexts. This sense of conflict is particularly apparent during the transition from early to middle adolescence when young people recognize the contradictions (good-natured in one context but moody in another) within their self-system, but do not yet have the cognitive maturity to recognize that particular contexts may elicit certain types of self-descriptors. They may not have the capacity to reconcile these conflicting descriptions of the self into a cohesive self-narrative (Harter, 1998). As they mature cognitively, adolescents begin to construct an integrated sense of self through coordinating differing aspects of self into higher-order abstractions (e.g., emotionally adaptable).
In summary, early adolescence is a time when self and identity become highly significant to adolescents as they explore who they are as separate from their families. Educational contexts should provide early adolescents with multiple outlets and activities in which to explore their emergent identities and should support them in making sense of the multiple and differentiated selves that manifest during this process. Contexts that do not provide a match with adolescents’ developing selves can decrease adolescents’ self-esteem.
Effect of Transitions on Self-Esteem
During adolescence, the self-system may be disrupted and threatened cognitively and biologically. Physical changes affect how one perceives oneself and also raise questions about whether one develops normatively. Early adolescents have a heightened awareness of how they are perceived by others, and they are especially aware of gender norms regarding physical appearance (Horn, 2004). Researchers have found that early adolescents compare themselves to cultural and social standards of beauty and often find themselves falling short, leading to decreased self-esteem (Friedman & Brownell, 1995). Notably, girls have a steeper drop in self-esteem than boys given that their biological changes move them further away from the cultural ideal (i.e., increase in body fat, weight gain) and are particularly prominent in early maturing girls (Alsaker & Flammer, 2006). In early adolescence, students experience many social shifts that affect their identity, including their relationships with peers, parents, and school staff. One change, as described earlier, occurs during the shift from elementary schools and self-contained classrooms into departmentalized middle schools where adolescents become part of a larger, more anonymous social system. This changed school structure may increase comparisons with peers regarding skills, abilities, and behaviors and has been directly linked to an increase in anxiety immediately after the transition from elementary to middle school.
Harter’s research on adolescent development has focused specifically on how self-esteem and self-concept vary depending on context and how adolescents construct a self (Harter, 1998). Adolescents’ sense of self is affected by others’ evaluation and recognition (Harter, 1998). Therefore, adolescents may be part of a feedback loop in which evaluations by others affect their sense of self, and the self that they project outward influences the way others perceive them (Harter, 1998). Some research has suggested that psychosocial problems may occur when there is a discrepancy between one’s actual self and identity and others’ expectations.
Exploring one’s sexuality, sexual feelings, and desires is a normative developmental process for early adolescents who are approaching or have achieved puberty. This means coming to understand who one is romantically and sexually attracted to, what those attractions and desires mean, and whether and how to act on those attractions. For most students, these attractions will be toward opposite-sex peers (heterosexually oriented). For some adolescents, these attractions will be toward same-sex peers (homosexually oriented) or based on something other than gender (bisexually oriented). For students whose attractions are not heterosexually oriented, early adolescence can be a particularly difficult developmental period. Some may choose to come out to themselves or important others. Still others will continue to explore and understand these attractions by themselves, while some may suppress or deny these attractions and take on heterosexually oriented behaviors and relationships.
Regardless of one’s (emerging) sexual identity, early adolescence is often a time of sexual experimentation and exploration. Some experimentation is normative for young people and is part of a longer, gradual socialization process into what it means to be a mature and healthy sexual adult (Brooks-Gunn & Paikoff, 1993). For many, however, experimentation can lead to engaging in behaviors before one is ready cognitively or socially and to negative experiences and potentially long-term negative developmental consequences (Halpern, Joyner, Udry, & Suchindran, 2000).
The progression of sexual activity and behavior begins in early adolescence with the advent of sexual fantasy and masturbation (Steinberg, 2008). For many young people, partner behavior and activity also begins in middle school and progresses from things such as holding hands, kissing, and necking to behaviors involving touching breasts and genitals through clothes and under clothes. While some young people move from these activities to oral and vaginal-penile intercourse during middle school, the average age of first vaginal-penile intercourse in the United States is around 15 or 16 years of age. This varies by gender, race, and ethnicity, with girls and Asian American students experiencing later sexual debut than boys and individuals from other ethnic groups, respectively. About 33% of students have had heterosexual intercourse by the age of 15 and about 6% have engaged in this activity by the time they are 13 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006).
Involvement with sexual intercourse during middle school has serious implications for young people, and it is often associated with a negative developmental profile that includes drug and alcohol use, less religious involvement, more deviance, and less school engagement (Brooks-Gunn & Paikoff, 1993). Sex before age 15 is associated with developmentally inappropriate autonomy. Research suggests that the younger adolescents are when they first engage in sexual intercourse, the more likely they are to have unprotected sex, exposing themselves to the risks of pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS (Kaestle, Halpern, Miller, & Ford, 2005). Conversely, research provides no evidence of negative developmental effects for adolescents who delay sex until after age 16 (Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2004).
Families and schools play a major role in socializing young people toward healthy sexual development. For most students, many of these changes happen during the middle school years. Schools that are developmentally in step with their students will help them to make sense of these biological changes and the emerging sexual desires that go along with them.
Peer groups also play a major role in adolescents’ sexual socialization. Adolescents often use their peer relationships to make sense of their developing bodies and minds and their emerging understandings of their sexuality (Horn, 2004). Not only do adolescents discuss these changes with their friends, but they also use the larger peer-group structure to understand these changes. Unfortunately, this often takes the form of peer exclusion and harassment.
Peer Exclusion and Harassment
Early adolescence is a time when young people begin to question who they are and to explore their identities. One way they do this is through their peer groups. Thus, issues of group belonging, social comparison, and group conformity become highly salient. All of these things can lead to increased levels and different forms of peer harassment.
Being harassed by one’s peers is a common experience for middle school students. Surveys of peer harassment in middle school suggest that nearly 50% of students report experiencing some kind of harassment during the school year (Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2000) or within a two-to four-week time frame (Nishina, Juvonen, & Witkow, 2005). Between 40% and 70% of middle school students report witnessing peer harassment in their schools (Nishina, et al., 2005).
In addition to the frequency of peer harassment during the middle school years, changes in how early adolescents evaluate and reason about issues of peer exclusion and harassment also occur (Killen, Margie, & Sinno, 2005). This is largely due to social-cognitive development during this period. Research suggests that all individuals draw upon and coordinate different types of knowledge (e.g., fairness, group norms, personal prerogative) to make decisions. How this knowledge gets coordinated and applied to issues of peer-group inclusion or exclusion changes with development. Like younger children, many adolescents view exclusion based solely on one’s social-group membership in a particular race, gender, or peer group as wrong from a moral viewpoint (i.e., unfair or hurtful). Adolescents are more likely than children, however, to evaluate excluding someone from a peer or friendship group as acceptable (Killen et al., 2005). Adolescents are more likely to justify peer-group exclusion as acceptable by making appeals to such things as group identity or norms, group functioning, or personal choice (Killen et al., 2005). This suggests that as children get older they have an increased knowledge of the conventional features of groups that are legitimately necessary for the organization and maintenance of groups, as well as an expanded understanding of issues that are inherently personal and legitimately up to the individual to decide (Nucci, 2001). Adolescents’ developing understandings of social systems—and their expanded sense of the personal domain—are related to how they understand and make decisions about their peer relationships.
These social-cognitive changes, as well as the biological changes related to puberty, lead to shifts in the type and nature of peer harassment during early adolescence. Generally, there is a shift in peer harassment from direct and physical to indirect and social (Craig, Peplar, Connolly, & Henderson, 2001). This includes things like social exclusion, ostracism, and gossip. Research suggests, however, that verbal teasing and taunting is the most common type of peer harassment experienced by early adolescents during the middle school years (Nishina et al., 2005). Further, there is an increase in peer harassment that is sexual in nature (Craig et al., 2001), likely related to the biological transitions occurring at this time. Early adolescents use social and sexual harassment to sanction others who do not adhere to peer norms. Thus, harassment is often targeted toward students identified as or perceived to be gay or lesbian. Anti-gay language is commonly used by students in teasing or harassing their peers, even if they are not identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There are also increases in harassment based on normative assumptions about gender and gender roles.
The costs of peer harassment are high. Experiencing peer harassment leads to many negative and often long-term consequences for both individuals who are the victims of harassment and the perpetrators. Victims of peer harassment report higher levels of social withdrawal, loneliness, and depression than their nonvictimized peers. They are also more likely to have negative attitudes toward school, lower levels of school engagement, and lower self-esteem (Juvonen, et al., 2000). Nearly 60% of boys who researchers classified as bullies in Grades 6 to 9 were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24; 40% of them had three or more convictions by age 24.
Peer harassment also can have negative consequences for the entire school community because it contributes to a hostile school climate and leads to decreases in school engagement and performance for all students. In extreme circumstances, unchecked peer harassment has also contributed to more serious forms of school violence in which students who were victimized took retribution on the school community with guns and other weapons.
Early adolescence is a time of numerous and varied developmental changes. During this developmental period adolescents are undergoing physical, cognitive, and social changes that greatly affect how they view themselves, their relationships, and the broader world. Because of the many changes and the rate at which developmental change occurs during this period, it is critical that early adolescents have adequate and appropriate support and guidance to navigate these changes. Middle schools are uniquely positioned to provide this support and guidance. Schools that are developmentally in step with the needs, capacities, and normative changes of early adolescence can have a tremendously positive effect on how young people navigate this challenging development period.
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