Would you want to be a middle schooler again? Most people’s response to this question is a heartfelt, “no.” Researchers and laypeople describe middle school as a social quagmire that very few students have the capacity to navigate while simultaneously maintaining a sense of confidence and personal integrity. In my own years of teaching and working in middle schools, I find that middle schoolers are persistently on a quest to understand two existential questions: What is the social landscape of this school, and where do I fit in? Finding answers to these questions in a middle school is nearly impossible, because the social landscape is ever evolving and shifting.
As the new Middle School principal, I was deeply curious about how my current students were navigating the social world at Georgetown Day School. I wanted their perspective on what sense they were making of their lived experiences, so I put out an email inviting my students to come talk to me about their friendships.
I had several students respond to my invitation. Some wanted to be interviewed alone; others came with their “squad” (their group of closest friends—and yes I had to look up the definition in Urban Dictionary). I realize that my mini-investigation was by no means scientific; students self-selected to come speak to me. However, all of them were incredibly reflective about their social experiences.
Let me start first with the disappointing revelation: Our students’ narratives did not deviate significantly from mainstream negative perceptions of the middle school experience. They talked about how fragile relationships are in middle school and how easily one misstep can lead to the disintegration of a friendship. Some talked about their goal to have a “secure” friendship group made up of at least three to four friends and said it was not enough to just have one friend. Some expressed concern that students were self-segregating along racial lines and creating friendships only with those who share their ethnic identity. Others discussed the ways that students are judged by their physical appearance, their clothing, their words. They described how students deemed “pretty” had easier and quicker access to friendship groups, and those who were not suffered subtle exclusion.
As students shared the perils and harsh reality of middle school life, my teacher-administrator brain went to work trying to figure out what systems and structures we could put in place to mitigate what seems to be a harsh social environment. How could I fix this social “problem” so students will never feel overwhelmed by the social conflicts inherent to the middle school experience?
However, as I leaned in and listen more generously to my students, I heard something different. I began to see their agency. I began to see how they were not hapless victims to the middle school social machine. Rather they had sophisticated ways of navigating and making sense of it. I will bring to light the stories of Blake, David, Malena, Ariel, and Sasha (all pseudonyms) because their stories are representative of the varied experiences students shared with me and provide nuanced insight into their social life.
On Making a Friend
When I asked how students made friends in the middle school, I found there were at least three approaches: the serendipitous approach, the sponsorship approach, and the self advocate approach.
Serendipitous Approach: Blake and David are two 7th grade boys with a five-year strong friendship. Throughout our interview they giggled, high fived, and their faces lit up as they recounted the nascence of their relationship: As a prospective GDS student, Blake met David during recess when they played a basketball game together. When Blake came to GDS the next year, that one experience was the basis for their continued connection.
I was in awe at how clearly they could remember the moment they found connection with each other and how five to ten minutes of play time set the foundation of their friendship—a friendship that occurred serendipitously. They shared a common interest. They both happened to be at the playground at the same time. They exchanged no words, yet agreed to play with each other and that’s it. The friendship was created.
Sponsorship Approach: Malena is an 8th grader who chose to talk to me alone. She explained how other girls had brought her “into their squad” when she entered the school in late elementary school and how she was now in the process of bringing her friends into the friendship circle: “So right now there is a new girl who is my friend… if we are doing something outside of school, at lunch or something, I make sure she is invited and you know, taken care of.”
For Malena friendships do not organically occur; there has to be active participation and engagement. Malena engaged her social network and served as sponsor for her friend. Because her relationships in her friendship group were “secure,” she had the social capital to support her friend’s quick integration into the social network.
Self-Advocate Approach: Sixth graders Ariel and Sasha told a different story of friendship building that stood in contrast to Malena. When Ariel explained how it was important for the person who was seeking a friend to make the “first move,” she demonstrated by stretching her hand out, making eye contact, and saying: “You walk over to someone you see and say, ‘Hi, my name is Ariel. It’s so nice to meet you.’ For her, friendship requires intentionality. Students had the power and responsibility to make a friend on their own.
In all three approaches to making a friend, the absence of adult intervention is palpable.
On Maintaining Friendships
All the students I spoke to expressed the importance of having common interests, common space, and trust as the foundations of their relationship.
When I asked them what does it mean to be a friend, they answered, “We spend time together, we hang out, and we talk about everything.”
For many, the time spent together was during recess, athletics, or advisory—spaces in their lives with minimal supervision and adult oversight. For Blake and David, they spend their advisory lunches together with a third friend; “cheer each other on” during a soccer game; hang out during recess; share inside jokes and poke fun at each other. Though they text often and snap chat, living far apart makes seeing each other more challenging.
Malena described the time spent outside of school with friends as critical to her friendships. Out-of-school excursions brought them “closer.” She said in school she also actively sought her friends during lunch or recess. “You always find time for friends even if you don’t have class together,” she said emphatically, as if it was an unspoken creed of friendships. When I asked her what allows for a secure friendship group, she responded, “It’s trust. Anything they say to me, they know I will not tell people.”
Ariel and Sasha also felt that trust is a key ingredient for keeping relationships strong. However, it was not the only. Sasha talked about the importance of having your own personality and that “being unique is a good thing” in her social circle. Her true friends do not judge her because of the way she looks; they accept her as she is.
Students were somehow figuring out how to trust, who to trust, and how to continue to grow their relationship. For some, maintaining a friendship requires sharing common experiences outside of school, for others it requires a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at their own follies, and for others it requires trust and the suspension of critique. When I specifically asked my students how much they share about their friendships with their parents, they unanimously concluded “not much.”
What did I learn with this glimpse into student life?
GDS is a school that strongly believes in students’ capacity to tolerate challenges and learn from failure. Our mission has guided our education of several hundred middle schoolers who will become thriving adults in the world. In alignment with our mission, what if instead of running to rescue our students from the opportunity to grow, we practice the art of restraint and keep a healthy distance between ourselves and students’ friendship? They do not need us to help them figure out the intimacies of their social life. As Sasha put it,
“Everyone knows [middle school] is just a phase. You are going through puberty and you are becoming aware of the people around you. You are trying to get good grades, be a good friend. You are trying so hard to do everything right and you might sometimes fall apart. But falling apart is a good thing because it gives you an opportunity to put yourself back together again.”
Our students are ready for the challenge of friendship making to grow themselves. They are learning how to respond when friendships morph, shift, end, or bloom. They are courageously creating and navigating their social milieu, and we need to courageously let them.
While students may not need us to block and tackle for them as they navigate the social landscape of middle school, they may need us to create the time and space to connect with peers, to talk to each other, to grow their trust in each other, and to practice the art of relationship building. They may also need us to intentionally mix-up social groups so students have a chance to connect with students who they otherwise would not.
These two moves could expand the opportunity for students to do the most difficult and interesting learning they need to do at this stage in their developmental trajectory: embracing the joy and challenges of friendships.