Centering Youth Voice: School Climate & Culture in the Middle Grades

By Dr. Dimelza Gonzales-Flores

This blog post is the third in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the second post from the Professional Learning & Development Design Team

Highlights:

  • The middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life, including their education.
  • The Remaking Middle School School Climate & Culture Design Team created a toolkit to help educators understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades.
  • The toolkit provides a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school, recognizing that giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter.
Explore the full toolkit here.

For too long we’ve brushed aside the importance of the middle school years. Policymakers talk about the critical need for access to quality early childhood education and the necessity to graduate with real-world skills. Agreed. But what about the middle school years? To put it plainly, what we’ve done isn’t enough. Our schools are not equitable. The student experience is not optimal. We need to reimagine the middle school experience for all students – and we should start with school climate and culture.

The School Climate and Culture Design Team was tasked with taking a closer look at school climate and culture in the middle grades. The team discussed a number of core challenges related to school climate and culture, and a common theme that emerged was the influence of youth voice in shaping school climate and culture.

What makes the period of early adolescence development unique is that youth are beginning to develop complex thinking skills and perspective taking . These skills are critical as they give young people the ability to initiate a deeper exploration of issues within their school. With these new burgeoning skills, adolescents can begin to ask questions about the world around them and how societies and institutions, like education, function. Thus, the middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life. Giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter. These competency feelings also help middle school youth fully engage and create space for a positive school climate and culture.

It is widely recognized that school climate and culture impacts the ways in which students successfully achieve learning outcomes. When youth are given the space for innovation and their voices are centered, the school climate can be shaped to promote equity and fairness, and the school culture can allow opportunity for youth to respond to their own learning needs. Engaging youth voice must be considered an essential element in creating a school climate and culture that promotes engagement and success for all youth.

Centering youth voice in school climate and culture requires middle school educators to think critically about when they need to step up (and step out) to best support adolescence during this critical developmental period. To truly center the voice of youth, we must create space for all youth to lead in shaping school climate and culture. This is particularly important for those youth whose voices often go unheard because they are minoritized based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, ability, or other identities. To successfully accomplish this goal, our middle schools must move beyond school clubs and siloed events emphasizing student voice, and weave specific practices into the daily fabric of school life.

As a Design Team, we believe there is tremendous opportunity to empower young adolescents in helping to shape and improve their school culture and climate such that students are engaged and growing – academically, socially, and emotionally – to their fullest potential. With this in mind, our team created a toolkit to help educators in schools to:

  • More deeply understand the importance of youth voice in the middle grades;
  • Understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades; and 
  • Provide a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school. 

The toolkit includes several components:

  • The rationale statement helps readers to understand what youth voice is, the importance of the youth voice for young adolescents (and how it aligns to the developmental needs and capabilities of this age), and how youth voice can have an impact on school climate and culture.
  • The inspirational stories and examples illustrate youth voice in schools and specifically how youth voice can positively impact school climate and culture. 
  • The getting started section is a set of beginning prompts and resources that educators can use to advocate for and support the implementation of youth voice practices in their schools to promote positive school climate and culture.

Explore the full toolkit here.

The toolkit was designed to be utilized and implemented in any given conditions. The diversity of resources in the last part of the toolkit exemplifies the range of conditions in which this toolkit can be used.

We recognize that we are sharing this tool during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the complexities and challenges of COVID-19. While school may look different this year, whether virtual or in-person, one might argue that school climate matters now more than ever. We hope that this resource encourages educators to keep student voices and ideas at the core to ensure young people are getting what they need most during this time. 

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dimelza currently serves as the Director of Academics & Social-Emotional Learning at Higher Achievement, where she designs out-of-school programming to support in-school learning. She is a former middle school teacher, avid advocate for English language learners, and a proud cat-mom.

Designing Responsive Learning Opportunities: A Resource Bank for Middle Grades Educators

By Penny Bishop and Christine Thielen

This blog post is the second in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the third post from the School Climate & Culture Design Team.

Highlights:

  • Young adolescents benefit from teachers who understand their diverse needs and identities, however, specialized teacher preparation for this age group remains inadequate.
  • The Remaking Middle School Professional Learning & Development Design Team created an online, open-access resource bank aimed to help educators create developmentally responsive learning opportunities.
  • The resource bank offers educators clear and compelling materials that describe characteristics of young adolescents and illustrate how specific teaching approaches can align with these characteristics to optimize student learning.
You can find the resource here

Young adolescence is a unique and promising time in a young person’s life. Middle schoolers face a dizzying pace of cognitive, social, physical, emotional, and neurological changes.1 They are also increasingly aware of how their social identities– such as race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, and social class– may affect their experiences and opportunities.2 While young adolescence presents complex challenges, it also opens up exciting new worlds, as students learn and grow in new ways and in new contexts.

Unfortunately, despite research demonstrating that young adolescents benefit from teachers who understand their diverse needs and identities, specialized teacher preparation for this age group remains inadequate, as “nearly half of the institutions preparing middle level teachers do not offer specialized middle level teacher preparation.”3 Because students benefit from access to learning environments that are based on their developmental needs and social identities,4 the inconsistent training of teachers presents a fundamental equity issue. In this era of decreased funding for professional development, high stakes accountability, and initiative fatigue, educators need high quality resources that are easily accessible and research-based.

Beginning in 2019, our Remaking Middle School Design Team aspired to address just this need. Our primary goal as a team was to help educators who work with young adolescents create responsive learning opportunities. We began our work by brainstorming current challenges, issues, and opportunities related to our goal. One theme that emerged was providing educators easily accessible information about the developmental science of young adolescence ‒ and how to connect the information and research to practice in concrete ways. Additionally, educators were seeking opportunities to direct their own professional learning based on the needs of their individual school communities and students.

With this in mind, our Design Team set out to assemble an open-source resource bank for middle grades teachers (both pre-service and in-service) to create learning opportunities based on young adolescents’ needs and identities in responsive ways. Over the course of six months, our team developed a prototype of an online, open-access resource bank aimed to help teachers achieve four student-focused outcomes: autonomy, belonging, competence, and identity.5 Each desired outcome includes a (1) research-based rationale explaining why it’s critical during early adolescence; and (2) a minimum of ten multimedia resources that illustrate how to teach toward outcome.

By offering an online, open-access resource, we hope to offer educators clear and compelling materials that describe some of the characteristics of young adolescents and illustrate how specific teaching approaches can align with these characteristics to optimize student learning. The resource is free and need not be used sequentially. Educators can personalize their use of it by selecting the outcomes and resources most applicable to their setting and needs.

You can find the resource here

We recognize that we are launching the resource during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the challenges and complexities of COVID-19. While we designed the product prior to pandemic, we believe the information and resources remain relevant as we consider ways that we can apply the developmental science to current learning settings. Whether we are online or in-person, we should continue to prioritize teaching to support autonomy, belonging, competence, and identity, and we hope the resources highlighted in the resource bank will amplify that need and spark creativity in how best to support these developmental needs for students in the school year ahead.

As we launch this resource, we will be eager to gather feedback about its use and how the Remaking Middle School Design Lab can continue to build upon the work our team started. For example, our team discussed the possibility of the resource bank being a “living resource” to which others could provide additional resource suggestions.

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


1 Eccles & Roeser, 1999; Williams, Mims & Johnson, 2019.

2 Brinegar, K.M., Harrison, L.M., & Hurd, E. (Eds.) (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publications.

3 Howell et al. 2016, p.10.

4 Bishop & Downes, 2019; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000, Brinegar, K.M., Harrison, L.M., & Hurd, E. (Eds.) (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publications.

5 Bishop & Downes, 2019.


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Penny Bishop is Professor of Education at the University of Vermont, where she teaches middle grades educators and conducts research on schooling for young adolescents. She is co-author of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, to be released by the Association for Middle Level Education in October 2020.

Author Bio: Christine Thielen is a middle school math teacher in Park Ridge, Illinois and adjunct instructor of middle level methods classes. She is a trustee for the Association for Middle Level Education and serves on the board’s Executive Council.

What Do You Know About Young Adolescent Development?

By Aleta Meyer and Katie Powell

This blog post is the first in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the second post from the Teacher Learning & Professional Development Design Team and the third post from the School Climate & Culture Design Team.

Highlights:

  • To transform middle grades programs, practices, and policies, it is important that young adolescents have access to experiences that align to and support their developmental needs.
  • The Remaking Middle School Research to Practice Design Team created a self-assessment tool that allows practitioners to reflect on aligning their practices to key principles of young adolescent learning and development.
  • The tool should appeal to school leaders, classroom teachers, school support staff, district leaders, and policymakers. Users of the tool will receive a better understanding of their knowledge of adolescent development, with the hope being that this understanding will encourage users to seek more information based on their results.
You can find the assessment tool here.

Research shows that early adolescence is a key window of cognitive, social, and emotional transformation, making the middle school years an extraordinary and yet critical opportunity for long-lasting, positive learning and development. But middle schools largely appear out of sync with the diverse unique developmental needs of their students. The middle school period is particularly important since data across the board shows that the steepest declines in student outcomes occur from sixth through ninth grades. Many young people are not getting what they need, and significant gaps in educational achievement persist among students of color and from low-income households. In essence, we are failing to provide all of our young people the environments they need to be successful in school and life.

Research shows us how to meet the needs of adolescents but the research is sporadically applied to practices in schools. Transformation of middle grades programs, practices, and policies is needed to ensure all young people have access to middle grades experiences that are aligned to and support their developmental needs. 

With this in mind, as a Design Team, our leading question became “How might we inspire and support educators to translate the science of young adolescent learning and development into how we design and practice within learning environments?”

This question led us to create a self-assessment tool that allows practitioners to reflect on what their school and school system is already doing and what they need to improve upon to align their practices to key principles of young adolescent learning and development. When we said assessment, we didn’t have in mind high-stress testing, but rather wanted this to be an accessible, engaging, and even fun, tool for school teams to have available.

We envisioned creating separate self-assessments in four key developmental domains: supporting autonomy, fostering belonging, advancing competence, and promoting identity. Our team created the first assessment in the series focused on autonomy, with the goal being that the Remaking Middle School Design Lab will continue to develop complementary self-assessments for the remaining three domains.

The tool should appeal to school leaders, classroom teachers, school support staff (e.g., counselors), district leaders, and policymakers. Users of the tool will receive a better understanding of their knowledge of adolescent development, and we hope this understanding will encourage users to seek more information based on their results. The tool serves as a great entry-point into the products of the other Remaking Middle School Design Teams.

You can find the assessment tool here.

The design process led our team to many engaging discussions about the relationship between research and practice in the middle grades years. We’ll offer up a few of our open questions that we encourage the Remaking Middle School initiative, and field more broadly, to continue to dive into: 

  • How might we further strengthen and encourage the reciprocal relationship between researchers and practitioners?
  • How might we make existing research more accessible to practitioners?
  • How can we remain inclusive of and responsive to all potential target audiences in this work (i.e., beyond classroom teachers and school-level administrators)?
  • How can we include and empower youth voice in this project, and the work more broadly?
  • How might we continue to support teachers from having awareness about adolescent development to taking actions that support adolescent development?

We hope you will find the Autonomy Self-Assessment to be a helpful tool for your own learning – and we encourage you to share broadly!

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Aleta Meyer is President of Prevention Opportunities, LLC, and lead author of Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways, a middle school violence prevention program. She and her husband recently moved to New Mexico from Virginia.

Author Bio: Katie Powell is a 6th grade teacher and author of Boredom Busters: Transform Worksheets, Lectures, and Grading into Engaging, Meaningful Learning Experiences. She lives with her family in Indiana.