A Message to Middle Schoolers: Stop Sweating the School Stuff

Chill is a skill: don’t let academic anxiety steal the joy from your life.

I’m a vice-principal in a small middle school of 220 students.

Our kids are awesome. And our families are invested and supportive.

It’s cool to learn in our school. It’s cool to be a tryhard. It’s cool to help others learn, too.

Something else. Our assessment system features no percentages or letter-grades.

Instead, evidence of student learning is assessed against curricular standards using a 4-point proficiency scale like the one below.

By removing letter-grades and percentages from the picture, we’re also getting rid of rank-and-sort. We’re saying goodbye to trophy culture. We’re not interested in defining winners and losers.

Instead, we’re saying that we are a learning community. We pursue proficiency together because we are all developing learners.

That’s our messaging, anyway.

Academic anxiety can persist even in standards-based grading environments

I know a couple of middle schoolers who regularly demonstrate high proficiency against learning standards in virtually every subject.

They are committed and determined learners. They’re outstanding collaborators. They’re compassionate supporters and encouragers of classmates. They’re leaders in the room and absolute joys to teach.

These students project a lot of sunshine and roses, but a silent battle rages below the surface.

They struggle with intense anxiety around their academic achievement.

It’s so saddening, and it defies understanding.

What’s at the root of this anxiety?

Here’s a bold proposition: no middle schooler should have to deal with academic anxiety. Absolutely none — I don’t care how well their learning is progressing.

When high school juniors and seniors experience academic anxiety, I don’t like it, and I can make some strong cases against it. For one, the quality of your life will not depend on which college you’re admitted to.

But with college around the corner, I can at least understand it.

In middle school — especially one without letter-grades or percentages — it’s almost inexplicable. How can our students possibly lose sleep over their academic performance?

My theories about where most of this anxiety comes from

The top-notch counselling team at my school could likely offer more insights, but my conversations with middle schoolers over the years lead me to the following theories:

1. Parent pressures.

Well-intentioned or not, it’s no secret that some parents push their children pretty hard. Report card pressure can be intense. One of the many messages: your future depends on shining achievement in school. Threats and rewards of various kinds may accompany these messages.

2. College admission.

Linked to parent pressures, this is the idea that success in one’s profession (and in life) depends on admission to the right college or university. We hear this idea from students as early as fourth grade.

College admission depends on the 12th grade transcript, which depends on stellar high school achievement, which depends on acceptance to honors programs, which depends on strong middle school performance. Ta-da! The roadmap is drawn for a decade of anxiety.

3. A fixed mindset.

Some students have been called “smart” so many times in their lives that it becomes a part of their identity. Instead of instilling invincible confidence, hearing a lifetime of “you’re so smart” can create a fear of slipping or risking the source of that sacred status. Carol Dweck lays this out beautifully in Mindset.

Others describe this student as one on defense (stick to what is safe and I’ve proven I can do well) versus offense (try new things, take new risks, engage with difficult tasks when possible).

Other theories from my professional learning network

When I reached out to my Twitter PLN for their theories about where this academic anxiety comes from, their answers were insightful.

4. Personality and Psychological Profile.

Middle school teacher Riley Dueck observes that “Some students are more inclined to perfectionism/anxiety than others (see Enneagram Type 1 & Type 6).”

Intermediate educator Maria Dawson puts some of the blame on “Undiagnosed ADD. Builds anxiety and creates internal pressures. Considerably worse in females as the SNAP assessments are all geared for previous typical ADHD behaviours. Sometimes the H can be hyperfocus not hyperactive.”

5. Peers.

Erik Murray says “I see it a lot and it comes from peers. It’s like keeping up with the mini Joneses: ‘I got ranked this in the math team — what did you get?’ That sort of thing.”

Maureen Wicken is on the same page, writing “Comparison: not only is it the thief of joy, but it also destroys our sense of accomplishment, hope, and purpose. And giving everyone participation trophies doesn’t seem to have helped.”

6. Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis.

My incredible colleague Anika Brandt points out more Ps that factor into this conversation: the cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis.

She’s right, of course — some academic anxiety is self-induced (or at least amplified) by destructive tendencies. When this cycle shows up for students, it makes me want to ask: what fears lie behind it, and how can we unpack them?

We need to be more curious about academic anxiety

It’s at about this point that some of my education colleagues will pointedly remind me: “Why aren’t you asking the students where their anxiety comes from?”

I am, and I will. We talk a lot about social-emotional health with our students, but we need to be more direct and more curious about the extent of academic anxiety specifically and its origins.

When we know more, we can do more.

In the meantime, I want to share a message specifically to the people that matter most.

My message to middle schoolers

Dear students,

Your teachers and I love you so much. It is an incredible joy to be able to teach and work and learn beside you each day. YOU make the difficult work of teaching all worth it.

We know that the adults in your life sometimes forget how anxious you actually feel about school. We want to do a better job of supporting you.

Please let us know when you’re feeling low. Let us know when you’re worried. Let us know when you’re having trouble sleeping or eating because the school anxiety is so intense.

Your teachers want to help, and sometimes we can support you in ways that you didn’t expect or may not have thought of.

Oh, and our counselling team is awesome. Being able to talk about your worries with another person can make all the difference. We’d love to set up an appointment for you if you’d be open to that.

Finally, here’s some honest perspective.

Middle school life is difficult and complicated enough without worrying about grades and academic achievement.

You know that as teachers, we’re going to continue to encourage you to be curious, be daring and adventurous with your learning, apply yourself, use class time well, and collaborate with others.

But trust us when we say this: no matter how your work is assessed, you’re going to be fine. Really. The quality of your incredible future doesn’t depend on your middle school grades.

So keep developing yourself. Keep following your passions and curiosities. Keep having fun, enjoying good laughs, and building solid friendships.

That’s what middle school life should be about. Please don’t allow your academic achievements to steal that from you.

Stop sweating the school stuff, and enjoy every day of this crazy thing we call life.

We’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.

Mr. Cavey

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