School During Adolescence

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the role of secondary education in adolescent development

Secondary Education

Large cafeteria lunch at a middle school.

Figure 1. The transition to middle school typically includes more freedom and responsibility along with more social pressures.

Adolescents spend more waking time in school than in any other context (Eccles & Roeser, 2011). Secondary education is traditionally grades 7-12 and denotes the school years after elementary school (known as primary education) and before college or university (known as tertiary education). Adolescents who complete primary education (learning to read and write) and continue on through secondary and tertiary education tend to also have better health, wealth, and family life (Rieff, 1998).[1] Because the average age of puberty has declined over the years, middle schools were created for grades 5 or 6 through 8 as a way to distinguish between early adolescence and late adolescence, especially because these adolescents differ biologically, cognitively and emotionally and definitely have different needs.

Transition to middle school is stressful and the transition is often complex. When students transition from elementary to middle school, many students are undergoing physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and moral changes (Parker, 2013). [2] Research suggests that early adolescence is an especially sensitive developmental period (McGill et al., 2012).[3] Some students mature faster than others. Students who are developmentally behind typically experience more stress than their counterparts (U.S. Department of Education, 2008).[4] Consequently, they may earn lower grades and display decreased academic motivation, which may increase the rate of dropping out of school (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). For many middle school students, academic achievement slows down and behavioral problems can increase.

Specific Middle School Issues

Regardless of a student’s gender or ethnicity, middle school is challenging. Although young adolescents seem to desire independence, they also need protection, security, and structure (Brighton, 2007).[5] Baly, Cornell, & Lovegrove (2014) found that bullying increases in middle school, particularly in the first year.[6] Additionally, unlike elementary school, concerns arise regarding procedural changes. Just when egocentrism is at its height, students are worried about being thrown into an environment of independence and responsibility. They are expected to get to and from classes on their own, manage time wisely, organize and keep up with materials for multiple classes, be responsible for all classwork and homework from multiple teachers, and at the same time develop and maintain a social life (Meece & Eccles, 2010).[7] Students are trying to build new friendships and maintain ones they already have. As noted throughout this module, peer acceptance is particularly important.

Another aspect to consider is technology. Typically, adolescents get their first cell phone at about age 11 and, simultaneously, they are also expected to research items on the Internet. Social media use and texting increase dramatically and the research finds both harm and benefits to this use (Coyne et al., 2018).[8]

Teens, Technology, and Bullying

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. It is a prevalent problem during the middle and high school years, exacerbated by access to technology and the means to easily spread damaging information online. These are some key statistics about bullying from

  • Been Bullied

    • The 2017 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicates that, nationwide, about 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying.
    • The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that, nationwide, 19% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey.
  • Bullied Others

    • Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.
  • Seen Bullying

    • 70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
    • 70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.
    • When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.
    • Pew Center Research showing that 59% of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying: name-calling (42%), spreading false rumors (32%), receiving explicit images they didn't ask for (25%), constant asking-like stalking from a non-parent (21%), physical threats (16%), and having their explicit images shared (7%).

      Figure 1. Cyberbullying comes in many forms.

  • Been Cyberbullied

    • The 2017 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicates that, among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15% were bullied online or by text.
    • The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that an estimated 14.9% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.
    • Pew Center Research reports a much higher number, stating that 59% of teens have experienced cyberbullying.
  • How Often Bullied

    • In one large study, about 49% of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, whereas 30.8% reported bullying others during that time.
    • Defining “frequent” involvement in bullying as occurring two or more times within the past month, 40.6% of students reported some type of frequent involvement in bullying, with 23.2% being the youth frequently bullied, 8.0% being the youth who frequently bullied others, and 9.4% playing both roles frequently.
  • Types of Bullying

    • The most common types of bullying are verbal and social. Physical bullying happens less often. Cyberbullying happens the least frequently.
    • According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced these various types of bullying: name calling (44.2 %); teasing (43.3 %); spreading rumors or lies (36.3%); pushing or shoving (32.4%); hitting, slapping, or kicking (29.2%); leaving out (28.5%); threatening (27.4%); stealing belongings (27.3%); sexual comments or gestures (23.7%); e-mail or blogging (9.9%).
  • Where Bullying Occurs

    • Most bullying takes place in school, outside on school grounds, and on the school bus. Bullying also happens wherever kids gather in the community. And of course, cyberbullying occurs on cell phones and online.
    • According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced bullying in these various places at school: classroom (29.3%); hallway or lockers (29.0%); cafeteria (23.4%); gym or PE class (19.5%); bathroom (12.2%); playground or recess (6.2%).[9]

Many organizations, schools, teachers, parents, and lawmakers are working to address the issue of bullying. One example is that of ReThink, a technology designed by teenager Trisha Prabhu to recognize bullying online and encourage posters to reconsider their behavior (watch Trisha Prabhu’s TED talk)

High School

As adolescents enter into high school, their continued cognitive development allows them to think abstractly, analytically, hypothetically, and logically, which is all formal operational thought. High school emphasizes formal thinking in attempt to prepare graduates for college where analysis is required. Overall, high school graduation rates in the United States have increased steadily over the past decade, reaching 83.2 percent in 2016 after four years in high school (Gewertz, 2017).[10] Additionally, many students in the United States do attend college. Unfortunately, though, about half of those who go to college leave without a degree (Kena et al., 2016).[11] Those that do earn a degree, however, do make more money and have an easier time finding employment. The key here is understanding adolescent development and supporting teens in making decisions about college or alternatives to college after high school.

Link to learning

What do you think, is college necessary? Is it worth the investment? Read the article “Is College Necessary?” from Psychology Today geared towards parents who can help their teenager decide if college is right for them.

Academic Achievement

Academic achievement during adolescence is predicted by interpersonal (e.g., parental engagement in adolescents’ education), intrapersonal (e.g., intrinsic motivation), and institutional (e.g., school quality) factors. Academic achievement is important in its own right as a marker of positive adjustment during adolescence but also because academic achievement sets the stage for future educational and occupational opportunities. The most serious consequence of school failure, particularly dropping out of school, is the high risk of unemployment or underemployment in adulthood that follows. High achievement can set the stage for college or future vocational training and opportunities.

Try It


unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance
middle school:
a school for children in the grades between elementary school and high school. Middle school usually begins with grade 6 and ends with grade 8
secondary education:
the period after primary education (elementary or grade school) and before tertiary education (college). It usually occurs from about ages 12 to 18, although there is some variation by school and by nation

  1. Rieff, M.I. (1998). Adolescent school failure: Failure to thrive in adolescence. Pediatrics in Review, 19 (6).
  2. Parker, A. K. (2013). Understanding and supporting young adolescents during the transition into middle school. In P. G. Andrews (Ed.), Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 495-510). Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
  3. McGill, R.K., Hughes, D., Alicea, S., & Way, N. (2012). Academic adjustment across middle school: The role of public regard and parenting. Developmental Psychology, 48 (4), 1003-1008.
  4. U.S. Department of Education Mentoring Resource Center (2008). Making the transition to middle school: How mentoring can help. MRC: Mentoring Resource Center Fact Sheet, No. 24. Retrieved from
  5. Brighton, K. L. (2007). Coming of age: The education and development of young adolescents. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
  6. Baly, M.W., Cornell, D.G., & Lovegrove, P. (2014). A longitudinal investigation of self and peer reports of bullying victimization across middle school. Psychology in the Schools, 51 (3), 217-240.
  7. Meece, J.L. & Eccles, J.S. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook on research on schools, schooling, and human development. New York, NY: Routledge.
  8. Coyne, S.M., Padilla-Walker, L.M., & Holmgren, H.G. (2018). A six-year longitudinal study of texting trajectories during adolescence. Child Development, 89 (1), 58-65.
  9. "Facts About Bullying". Retrieved from
  10. Gewertz, C. (2017, May 3). Is the high school graduation rate inflated? No, study says (Web log post). Education Week.
  11. Kena, G., Hussar, W., McFarland, J., de Brey, C., Musu-Gillette, L., Wang, X., & Dunlop Velez, E. (2016). The condition of education 2016, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.