Why do we need middle level schools to be socially inclusive?

Creating an inclusive, educational atmosphere that ensures every middle school student becomes a healthy, productive and ethical individual is a central focus of middle grades education.

  • Bullying and other mean-spirited actions can have violent and tragic outcomes: 71% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools (Bradshaw, Sawyer, & O’Brennan, 2007). Students with disabilities are at greater risk for being victimized than their peers without disabilities.
  • Verbal and social bullying represent the most prevalent types of bullying during the middle grades, with the highest rates of occurrence reported among sixth graders (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009a).
  • If the norms in a peer group support socially irresponsible behavior (e.g., bullying), students are less likely to be involved in school activities: and their sense of connectedness to school can suffer, along with achievement levels and health behaviors (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009a).

Students in the middle grades have the ability to perceive deep truths and are making decisions that will affect the way they live the rest of their lives. This transitional time between childhood and adulthood is the prime time to introduce students to important concepts, such as the need to seek social justice. (McHugh, Reedy, & Yehle, 2017)

How does Unified Champion Schools support the needs of young adolescents?

The middle school years are critical times of development for young adolescents; in fact, youth go through more developmental changes during these years than any other time except the first two years of life. The various characteristics of young adolescents point to the needs of all students to be part of a supportive environment in which they interact, are respected, and are recognized as important members of the school community.

In the area of moral development, young adolescents:

  • Are in transition from moral reasoning that focuses on ‘what’s in it for me’ to consideration of the feelings and rights of others.
  • Are generally idealistic, desiring to make the world a better place and to make a meaningful contribution to a cause or issue larger than themselves.
  • Are capable of, and value, direct experience in participatory democracy.
  • Are likely to believe in and espouse values such as honesty, responsibility and cultural acceptance, while at the same time learning that they and the people they admire also can be…intolerant.

In the area of psychological development, young adolescents:

  • Tend to be self-conscious and highly sensitive to personal criticism.
  • Desire recognition for their positive efforts and achievements.
  • Are psychologically vulnerable because at no other stage in development are they more likely to encounter and be aware of so many differences between themselves and others.

In the area of social-emotional development, young adolescents:

  • Have a strong need for approval and may be easily discouraged.
  • Are increasingly concerned about peer acceptance.

These characteristics reinforce the needs of all middle level students to be part of a democratic learning environment where students interact, are respected and work for the good of the whole as well as the individual. It is clear that once an inclusive environment is created, it is beneficial to all.

Because the Unified Champion Schools program addresses the developmental characteristics and needs of young adolescents, it is an important program to be implemented in middle level schools.

Picture of an Inclusive Middle School

As you walk through the front door of the school, the positive atmosphere speaks volumes. All visitors are escorted around the school by an inclusive pair of school ambassadors—one student with and one without an intellectual disability.

With great pride, your guides explain that the Unified Club has become the most popular exploratory activity in the school. The students share that last year the Unified Club for eighth grade teams organized pep rallies for every intramural and interscholastic competition with a Fans in the Stands cheering section at all Unified games. And members of the seventh grade teams focused on making the lunchroom a welcoming place and took charge of seating options to make sure that everyone had a place to sit and someone with whom to talk.

As you walk by the gymnasium, you notice an inclusive physical education class where students are participating on Unified teams. Your tour guides enthusiastically tell you about Unified Sports and explain that they both play on a team. In addition to the ongoing bocce tournaments that take place during lunch, there are both Unified basketball and soccer teams.

Before you leave the school, the principal invites you to attend the Inclusive Leadership Team meeting. As you listen to discussions about future assemblies, ways to ensure that new students are paired up with other students who serve as their peer buddies, and specifics about this year’s R-word campaign, it becomes
obvious that everyone is committed to making their school a truly inclusive school.

You leave the school with a smile on your face and many stories to share with others. It is clear that this is a middle school that fully embraces social inclusion and is creating a school environment where all students are engaged and successful. It is truly a Unified Champion School!

Get Started!

  1. Submit an interest form or contact Princess Brinkley, Unified Champion Schools Manager, at (608) 442-5663 or unifiedschools@specialolympicswisconsin.org
  2. Download the Middle School Playbook, a comprehensive guide for grades 5-8
  3. Read our National Standards for Middle Schools