“Middle school was the WORST!” echoes as an overarching rating of those tween/teen transition years for most adults. From changing bodies to hormonal overload, and prefrontal cortex development to increased emotional capacity, the educational shift that happens in middle school often lies far from the minds of middle schoolers. There’s just a lot going on!
Many of us often assume that self-esteem is the pinnacle of socio-emotional learning for middle schoolers, but self-efficacy may be even more important. Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our abilities to achieve or accomplish a task. It’s all about capability, and finding success can help to solidify self-esteem.
Middle schoolers are at particular risk for lowered self-efficacy because of their developing self-image and the role that others play in their concept of self. Most self-efficacy training in middle school is aimed at future career possibilities and traits that exhibit potential successes in these areas, but there’s an increased need to focus on the SEL aspect of it.
How can we combat the environmental effects of self-image and self-esteem-lowering incidents? By giving them opportunities to increase self-efficacy. If you’ve found success before, even with the tiniest of tasks, you’re more likely to think positively about your capacity for success at the onset of the next obstacle.
We can help middle schoolers increase self-efficacy by:
1. Allow for small successes with optimal challenges.
Optimal challenges are tasks that are just beyond your reach. If it’s too easy, they’ll be bored. If it’s too hard, they could be discouraged. Work to offer challenges that are optimal for ability levels, even if it requires differentiation.
2. Model planning.
Instead of giving students an assignment and letting them figure it out on their own, try modeling how to use time management skills to plan steps. In high school, they will be given assignments and left to their own devices. If you model steps to break down assignments, it will become second nature upon receiving a new challenge.
3. Allow for choice.
Also known as autonomy-supportive, allowing tweens and teens to make their own choices whenever possible allows the opportunity for self-efficacy development. They won’t always choose the easiest task, and if the options you provide are optimal challenges, they will always have a challenge.
4. Treat mistakes as opportunities for mastery.
Sometimes educators tend to offer once-and-done assignments to check understanding, but what if a student misses the problem? If you offer a second chance to find the solution once they’ve looked again for their mistake, you’ve created another learning opportunity - one that leads them towards mastery of a concept.
Giving students opportunities for success that aren’t beyond their reach enables them to slowly build up their self-efficacy while building self-esteem at the same time. And if they’re becoming more confident in themselves and their own abilities, comments that cut into their self-image might not be as deep…or pierce at all.