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    Importance of Brain-Friendly Summer Programs for Middle School Students

    Posted December 22, 2023, 10:00 am by Morgan P. Appel

    Studies show that attending high-quality summer programs lead to positive outcomes for students, especially for those in the early stages of their education.

    This begs the question—what should one look for when selecting summer experiences for middle schoolers, such as our own Sally Ride Science Academy at UC San Diego? 

    Importance of Reducing Learning Loss

    Summer programs for middle school students—especially those that deliver a mix of focused immersion in content, hands-on engagement, and fun activities--can help reduce the effects of summer learning loss. In certain cases, what has been often referred to as the ‘summer slip’ becomes a few weeks of unfinished learning. In others, it can be months or more.

    On top of that, studies show that middle school aged students tend to prioritize social needs over academic growth during the school year, leading to loss of motivation and focus. Additionally, learning loss can vary depending on age, subject, and geographic area. This further emphasizes the need for individualized programming to fit a variety of needs and interests. 

    The Middle Years: A Long and Winding Road

    To say the least, the onset of puberty can prove to be difficult for many reasons. Including navigating more difficult subjects and social pressures; dealing with self-esteem and emotional issues as a result of their changing bodies, and managing intense feelings of impulsivity and risk-taking.

    Cognitive Development 

    Studies in developmental neuroscience show that in early adolescence the brain is undergoing significant transformations as people grow up. These changes include an enhanced degree of flexibility, increased capacity for decision making, regulation, and judgment, making it ideal for both learning and risk-taking. 

    Supporting cognitive development during this period requires that a summer program is interesting, flexible in structure, and offers fail-safe learning methods. It must also provide multiple opportunities for success to reinforce the student’s sense of persistence. Capability and confidence go hand in hand—especially for the growing adolescent brain.

    It is similarly important that summer programs use multiple approaches to education as well as build upon previous lessons. This means meeting middle school students where they are and building from that point. This is especially true for summer offerings that tend to be shorter in length than a traditional school year. 

    Social and Emotional Development 

    The neurobiological changes outlined above show undeniable impacts on the social and emotional well being of middle school students. Many students are grappling with issues related to self-esteem, developing their identity, and finding their place in social situations. 

    Early adolescence is a period in which young students are particularly sensitive to social recognition, cues, and rewards. Putting the educational aspects aside, effective summer programming for middle school students provides a structured environment that gives opportunities to improve social skills under adult guidance and mentorship that is individualized and future focused. 

    The middle school years also prove to be a critical period in defining a sense of self, which includes habits that help with growth and long term development. These skills are essential for success in school, college, and career. They include creativity, communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, problem solving, ability to discern truth from fiction, and resilience, among others. Successfully incorporating these skills across activities is also a hallmark of successful summer programs for middle schoolers.

    How to Pick the Right Summer Program for Your Middle School Student?

    As you explore programming options for summer, please bear the following brain-friendly qualities in mind:

    • Make sure the topic is interesting to the student. It allows them to meaningfully engage and go off the beaten path.
    • Uses several different approaches to learning, including varied hands-on experiences and situations.
    • Encourages healthy social and emotional development, while building a strong sense of self under adult guidance and mentorship.
    • Offers the student connections for future success, like higher education or their future career.
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    Morgan P. Appel

    Morgan P. Appel

    Morgan Appel is Assistant Dean for Education and Community Outreach at UC San Diego, overseeing programs for PK-post retirement.