UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

Dana Serwe went into her career thinking she wanted to teach elementary school but, 11 years after being hired as a sixth-grade instructor at Toki Middle School in Madison, she’s still in those same classrooms.

“The most important thing that I hope kids go home with at this point in the year is that they belong here at our school,” Serwe said.

UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

It’s a message that resonates with administrators, as well, knowing the transition from elementary into middle school can be particularly difficult and sometimes overlooked. It’s why staff members such as Cory Foster were brought on board. Foster now works as the school’s student-family engagement coordinator, emphasizing that sense of belonging as kids continue to build a foundation for high school and beyond.

“We’re doing it together,” Foster said. “It’s beyond solidarity, but it’s synergy and energy in here.”

UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

More than half of the middle schoolers at Toki are students of color. Kyle Walsh has only been the principal for the last year, but he said it’s been a priority to make sure those kids feel welcome and have adults they can look up to in the building.

“One of our greatest assets and strengths, I think, is our diversity,” Walsh said.

Still, it’s no secret many kids struggle socially, academically, behaviorally and emotionally when they go from elementary school to middle school. UW-Madison education researcher and professor Geoffrey Borman decided to explore the transition in his research.

“Students are entering puberty and going through all of the sort of physical, emotional changes, cognitive changes, at that period of life,” Borman said. “But then, also piling on top of that, this big change going into middle school from elementary school.”

UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

Borman and his team looked at more 1,300 sixth-graders at all 11 middle schools in Madison and found one of the main struggles for those students was a need to fit in. From there, the researchers developed a survey, asking adolescents to report their biggest challenges with the transition and what successes they had with the shift to middle school. They took those responses and shared them with sixth-graders and asked if they resonated with them. Borman said it was important that those anecdotes and stories came from their peers and not from adults.

“That is something that is much more believable to kids and something that doesn’t appear so preachy and something that they have to do. Rather, this was just simple advice that, ‘Look, you know, this is tough for everybody,'” Borman said.

Borman found that by tapping into that feeling of belonging, reinforcing that the struggles are all temporary and reassuring kids that everyone was going through the changes together, students showed higher attendance, better academic performance and fewer behavioral issues.

Specifically, Borman’s team found their work:

Reduced disciplinary incidents by 34%
Increased attendance by 12%
Reduced the number of failing grades by 18%

Even more exciting, Borman said, is that the low-cost method helped preteens across the board.

“These writing exercises helped all kids. It didn’t matter the color of your skin. It didn’t matter the wealth of your family. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. It benefited all kids equally,” Borman said.

Borman said the UW is recreating the study this year at middle schools in Arizona and Texas, hoping to further replicate the results and prove the affordable option works for sixth-graders across geographic lines. He’s also looking forward to retesting the “self-affirming exercises” with Madison schools, including places such as Toki.

Walsh said he’s open to anything that will help all middle schoolers, especially minority students who might be harder to reach, feel like they’re supported. It’s why he said he’s particularly proud of groups such as the Black Student Union, a club that has gained momentum over the past few years as a place where kids can share their struggles, success stories and suggestions for the school.

UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

“We need student voice. We need them to help us figure out where we’re going because they usually have a better idea than we do,” Walsh said.

“Having that mentality that we can pick each other up and keep moving forward is essential in middle school,” Serwe said.

“It’s no ‘us or them.’ It has to be both of us,” Foster said.

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