Three Ways Middle School Students Really Are Different

Any elementary teacher will tell you there is never a dull moment in the art room. Something exciting is always happening! I worked at the elementary level for 16 years. I loved the enthusiasm of my young students. The range of developmental levels kept me on my toes. Teaching kindergarten students, followed by 5th graders five minutes later kept things interesting!

Last month, I shared what I learned from switching schools. Middle school is a different world. Just like elementary school, it is interesting and high paced. Middle school students come with their own unique strengths and challenges. Today I am sharing several things that I have learned about middle school students.

Here is how middle school students really are different.


1. You are not a celebrity.

I was like a celebrity in my elementary school. Walking down the hall, students would shout my name and excitedly wave when I looked their way. They showered me with compliments and small drawings daily. The wall behind my desk was filled with small pictures they gave me as gifts.

When I started at my middle school, I quickly realized that my celebrity status did not transfer. Instead of calling out my name, they were shouting to one another. It took much longer to connect with my students, because they were much less interested in me. They were so focused on one another, I felt like I had to work ten times harder to get and keep their attention!

It took time to gain my students’ respect. Middle school students need more time to get to know a teacher. Being authentic and showing students you care means a lot. Although it took time, I was able to create meaningful relationships with my students.

2. They need a confidence boost.

In an elementary classroom, most students joyfully create. They are not terribly concerned about being “right.” They enjoy the process of creative expression, and are usually happy with their work.

Middle school students compare their work to their peers much more than at the elementary level. Many students are so afraid of making a mistake they have trouble getting started at all. Because of this, art class can be a stressful place for a sensitive middle school student. It takes work to build them up.


Sometimes this lack of confidence can translate into apathy. It can sometimes seem like students do not care about their work at all. Often, the source of the apathy is fear of failure. Making sure lessons are relevant, and providing a range of possible paths often helps motivate students to create.

Making room for all students is always important. Providing choices and scaffolding instruction matters even more at the middle school level. Middle school students are more sensitive than elementary students, but once they find their spark, their creativity is amazing!

3. They have a lot to share.

While students are connecting more with their peers, they are also connecting more with the larger world around them. They are starting to question their assumptions, and make judgments based on their personal values.


This expansion of ideas makes middle school an exciting level to teach. Students are interested in learning about the larger world, and have a lot to say. If given the opportunity, middle school students will delve deep into a concept and create personal and meaningful work.

Middle school is a different world, for sure. Students at this age are transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Although it can be a tumultuous time for students, it can also be a time where students find their niche. Art class can be a safe haven for students as they grow into adults.

Do you teach middle school?

What else do you think makes middle school unique?

Anne-Marie Slinkman


Anne-Marie teaches elementary art in Virginia. She is a life-long learner who is passionate about providing relevant and meaningful art experiences for all students.


  • anna nichols

    Terrific article! I enjoyed reading this and wholeheartedly agree – I love this age group.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thank you, Anna. I agree. I love this age!

  • Mr. Post

    Middle school kids love humor and understand way more jokes than elementary school kids – that alone makes it fun.

    There are also some kids who totally immerse themselves into one assignment and can take it to extreme levels of craftsmanship. Those are the kids that I would let work on one assignment way longer than the rest of the class. I once had a girl make an Egyptian clay mummy holding a dozen roses in its hands. I just let her skip the assignments other kids were working on so she could spend her time committed to that one piece. I miss that part of teaching middle school kids.

    When I went back to teaching art after being a stay-at-home dad, I had to choose between elementary, middle school or high school art. I went with elementary because I noticed that I had more time for my own life outside of school when compared to teaching older kids. There was less time spent on grading (none) and prep work at the elementary level.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thanks for sharing, Mr. Post! I do love their sense of humor. Never a dull moment!

  • Karen Bloch

    Thank you for sharing those pointers about middle school students Anne Marie. I teach grades 6-7 and I agree that my 6th graders are still very much elementary level, and when they move on to 7th grade, there is a tremendous developmental shift.

    Offering the 7th graders more choice when possible has been very effective. I am pleased that you have emphasized the difference between apathy and fear of failure. I will be more sensitive to what they are experiencing and try help them find success in their work– even it’s just color choices, etc.
    Karen Bloch
    Westwood, NJ

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thank you for sharing, Karen! I agree that providing choice is a great way to motivate timid students.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thank you for sharing, Karen! I agree that providing choice is a great way to motivate timid students.

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    I teach two 6th grades; three 7/8th; and an 8th Advanced and you are dead-on. They are a horse of a different color! My 6s are such puddin’ cakes and enthusiastic about everything it’s amazing. But one year later it sadly does start to change and it does make it more challenging to engage them. But they are all loveable in their own wonderful, weird ways ? I give choices often but I think I get personally sad when they won’t try when it’s something so simple. Or take forever and drag a simple project out…patience with that can be hard for me. Thanks for the post.