Middle school is a time of transition. Students attend new buildings and learn new routines. Relationships shift and evolve. Academics become increasingly rigorous—all while experiencing significant physical, social, and emotional developmental changes.
These factors combined can make middle school tough for kids. And they can lead students to disengage from school and eventually, drop out in high school.
As United Way of Central Iowa works toward its goal of increasing graduation rates in central Iowa, one important area of focus is this middle school period. Here are four facts we know about middle school and what research says can keep students on a path to success. 


1. By sixth grade, chronic absenteeism is the leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school. 

The problem: Middle school students may begin missing school for a variety of reasons: they are disengaged, feel unsafe, have family care and job responsibilities, or are suspended by the school. Chronic absenteeism impacts test scores and whether a student will graduate. It also impacts the entire school as teacher instruction shifts to the students who are behind in class.
What works: Research shows that one caring adult can change a young person's behavior and help re-engage youth, especially at a time when they need support most. That's one reason why United Way of Central Iowa expanded Graduation Walk to focus on encouraging middle school students who have missed a lot of school. 

2. Peak time for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and sex is 3:00-6:00 p.m. when many middle school students are unsupervised.

The problem: In addition to being unsupervised during after-school hours, many at-risk students lack access to enriching activities outside of the classroom and over the summer. As a result, these students lose academic skills and are more likely to drop out. 
What works: Out-of-school programs, like those funded by United Way, give middle school youth opportunities to feel safe and secure, gain academic skills, form healthy relationships with peers, and achieve developmental goals. These programs can also help connect youth to roles they might assume after graduation and inspire them to contribute to the community.

3. Middle school youth experience the most rapid period of growth and development since infancy. 

The problem: Middle school students are experiencing physical, mental, and emotional challenges that can shift their sense of self. Students can become more concerned about social status than academics, appear to regard teachers and parents with greater suspicion, and be more emotionally sensitive and self-conscious than at any other other time in life. 
What works: Social and emotional learning can increase academic performance, while also helping middle school students gain skills needed to manage emotions, demonstrate care and concern for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Gaining these skills in places such as out-of-school programs increases the likelihood that a student will graduate. 

4. Students with engaged parents have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, and complete homework more consistently. 

The problem: Parent involvement in a child's education greatly declines as a student moves into middle school. Parent roles become less defined and more difficult for parents to understand. Adolescents become more independent and experience new levels of responsibility. Some parents may have excessive commitments that can limit their time, or they may feel unprepared to help their children with schoolwork. 
What works: Most middle school students want their parents involved in meaningful ways and need them to be actively involved during this transitional period. Parents who monitor their children's activities and intervene positively are more likely to help their children make a smooth transition to high school. Schools also need to play a role in engaging parents. 

Support what works

As a parent or educator, you can work to implement these strategies proven to work and to advocate for your middle school students' needs. As a community member, you can directly invest in what works by becoming a member of United Way of Central Iowa's Education Leadership Initiative (ELI). 
Learn More About ELI

Topics: ELI

Chase Young

Written by Chase Young

Chase Young is the Director of United Way of Central Iowa's Education Leadership Initiative.