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Middle School Development

I was trying to understand what the teacher was saying, I really was, but he might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I had always loved my classes, and before I entered middle school, learning came easily. But this year was different: Algebra 1/2, grammar, science. They just didn’t make any sense. A year later, however, the gibberish began to make sense, and I had no problems with high school grammar and math.

How Do Middle Schoolers Learn?

These experiences came to mind a few years later, when I was an education major in college. Studying educational psychology, I came across the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss biologist and psychologist born just before 1900. Suddenly my struggle to understand abstract concepts in middle school began to make so much sense. Having entered kindergarten at age four, I was the youngest student in my class and was just eleven that miserable year. Most of my peers were twelve and even thirteen.

Piaget’s Theory

Piaget’s theory includes four stages of cognitive development that individuals go through as they advance toward adulthood. While children do develop at different rates, the first two stages, sensorimotor and preoperational, are generally completed before a child turns eight. For middle schoolers, the move from the third stage (concrete operational) to the fourth (formal operational) comes around age twelve, right at the time most curriculum guides suggest introducing abstract concepts such as advanced grammar and algebra.

A child will most likely enter the middle school years still firmly in the concrete operational stage. At this stage, a child is able to reason logically but needs concrete objects or examples in order to do so. When a child moves into the formal operational stage, she is able to understand the abstract symbolic relationships and thinking skills needed for higher-level courses. She also becomes able to hold symbols and manipulate ideas in her head, rather than with objects. Children who have achieved this cognitive stage can combine and classify objects at the more sophisticated level found in upper-level courses.

Piaget’s Theory and Homeschooling Middle Schoolers

While other psychologists have gone on to use their own research to prove or disprove certain aspects of Piaget’s theory, understanding that children go through stages of cognitive development can be of great benefit to the homeschooling parent. With a very low student-teacher ratio, we can tailor our children’s learning experiences to match their levels of development. Instead of rushing your eleven-year-old into grammar, try waiting until the child is a little older. If you feel like you are pounding your head against the wall trying to teach pre-algebra, consider shelving the curriculum for a few months and then trying again. Or try a hands-on, manipulative-based curriculum such as Math-U-See.

If you’ve guided a child or two through the middle school years, Piaget’s theory may already be resonating with you. However, if you’d like some help deciding if your child has reached the formal operational stage, here are some activities that give clues to a child’s thinking processes:

  • Can your child solve syllogisms using deductive reasoning? An example of a syllogism is, “When A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, is this true or false: A is larger than C?”
  • Ask your child if she had a third eye, where would she want it? Children in the concrete operational stage generally say the forehead or face, while those in formal operational are more creative, stating on the hand or back of the head.
  • Is your child able to solve scientific problems involving several variables? Does she answer the problem by systematically changing one variable at a time?

If you are homeschooling a middle schooler and you hit a roadblock, take a look at his or her thought processes. It is possible that allowing your child a few months of cognitive development before tackling a subject could save you both a lot of headaches!

At age eight, Stephenie McBride developed a life-long interest in teaching others. She taught English as a Second Language and Kindergarten in a public school for six years. Stephenie and her husband, Ben, adopted their two children from Kolkata, India, in 2000 and 2004. She has been an at-home parent and home educator since 2001. They use an eclectic mix of materials and approaches, with a strong emphasis on Charlotte Mason. Stephenie is the Assistant Editor of Publications for Home Educating Family Magazine. She also created and writes for Crestview Heights Academy Homeschool Curriculum. You can read more about Stephenie and her eclectic homeschooling adventures at

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