“What is going on in those little heads?”: The Middle School Mind


Recently while stopping by to grab a drink at my favorite coffee shop, the barista behind the counter gestured to a gaggle of bubbly 13-year-olds and pointedly asked, “What is going on in those little heads?” I laughed and said, “Well, the answer is… A LOT.”

I then offered an impromptu run-down of all the cognitive, physical, hormonal, and emotional development bombarding those “little heads.” She appreciated the insight and even gave me a free muffin for my “illuminating” explanation about the mystery that is the middle schooler.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations regarding my work with middle schoolers. It always elicits different reactions and frequently includes some commiserating. Despite the groans my work evokes, I must admit that I truly enjoy this age group and am always eager to help people better understand this unique and mysterious stage of life.

At Stella Maris Academy we are blessed to have a whole team of wonderful educators who have a passion for journeying with kids through these “mysterious” middle school years. These are teachers who are well versed in the cognitive development, nuances, personalities, struggles, and humor of the 11 to 14 year-olds we serve. Moreover, they’re compassionate and patient, because they remember what it was like to be a middle schooler once upon a time.

Our goal is to form the whole student, which includes intellectual, human, spiritual, and stewardship formation. The spiritual component is especially important at this age because, along with their physical and cognitive development, there is also significant spiritual development that is taking place. Yes, it is easy to assume a thirteen-year-old boy or girl is only thinking about food or their screens, but they are often wrestling with big questions about their purpose, identity, self-worth, and sense of belonging.They are also beginning to ask more sophisticated “why” questions and are starting to be less trusting of traditional authority figures. Young people are looking for answers and turning to various sources to find those answers, whether that’s their friends, Google or YouTube personalities.

At our school, we have the benefit of attempting to answer their big life questions in light of the Gospel; to help connect our ancient Catholic faith to the life of a self-conscious “tween” living and breathing in 2019. Additionally, our middle school students get to experience their faith in formal religion classes and weekly liturgies, service projects, guest speakers, and virtue formation. Our desire is to have our Catholic faith permeate the school day and culture of our campuses.

Not only that, but we want our students to know they have a team of teachers who are praying, encouraging and rooting for them as well! We are honored to have the opportunity to help guide them through this chapter of their lives. Kristin Larson, a teacher at our St. John’s campus, remarked about the unique role she gets to play as part educator and part mentor to her students. “Our community and school helps parents provide another opportunity where we can surround their kids with truth and love. We can add another trustworthy voice attempting to speak truth into their lives.”

Hanging in our middle school hallways is a poster with the following quote:

“Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary.” - Pope Benedict XVI

This is a foundational truth we hope each of our middle school students can understand and embrace as they navigate these years; to help them manage the feelings of insecurity, anxiety, loneliness or moments of failure and rejection. As you might recall, feelings of insignificance can easily creep in during these years. In that moment, if they feel that the whole world is against them, we want our students to know they always have the King of Kings rooting for them!