Why are the Middle Years Important?

Experiences in the middle years—especially between the ages of 9 to 13 years—have critical and long-lasting effects. During this important transitional time in development, children experience significant cognitive, biological, social, and emotional changes that establish their lifelong identity and set the stage for adolescence and adulthood Eccles, 1999; Del Giudice, 2014. Due to the many changes that occur in a relatively short time span, this developmental period may also be a time of “stress pile-up” when individuals confront many social and emotional challenges that render them more vulnerable to mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety Roeser & Eccles, 2014. Research indicates that a child’s overall health and well-being during this critical period of development affects their ability to concentrate and learn, develop and maintain positive peer and adult relationships, and make responsible decisions Eccles, 1999.
Changing Brain
Middle childhood and early adolescence are times of dramatic brain development. For instance, increased brain plasticity and maturation of different parts of the brain, including the amygdala and reward-related parts of the brain, lead to heightened sensitivity to social cues from peers, social hierarchies, and physical appearance Immordino-Yang et al., 2019. Children become more self-conscious and socially aware, broaden their capacity for abstract thought, and begin to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their social world. The ability to learn new skills and habits is dramatically increased, making the middle years a critical period for laying a foundation for well-being.
Changing Environments
Along with these rapid internal changes, children’s external environments are also changing. For example, classroom environments become more structured and adults’ expectations regarding their behaviour and academic performance increase Eccles & Roeser, 2011. Children’s needs associated with this developmental stage, such as the increased need for autonomy can be met with appropriate supports – including positive adult relationships – across multiple environments in which children spend their time. Without accessible and consistent supports, research demonstrates children can experience significant challenges including decreases in motivation and increases in school failure  Eccles et al., 1993; Eccles, 2004; Eccles & Roeser, 2016.
Changing Relationships
During middle childhood, the nature of children’s relationships with parents begins to change as they begin to seek autonomy and establish relationships beyond the home, particularly with peers. Although children’s relationships with parents remains strong and important during this time, peer relationships increase in their importance and influence Wentzel, 1998; Wentzel et al., 2010. At the same time, children’s connections to non-related adults, such as teachers, coaches, and other important adults in their lives, increases. For example, positive teacher-student relationships become increasingly critical in this developmental period Oberle et al., 2014; Wentzel, 1997; Wentzel, 1998.
In this developmental period, it is common to observe declines in children’s self-reported confidence, self-concept, optimism, empathy, satisfaction with life, and social responsibility Eccles, 1999; Eccles, 2004. However, these declines are not inevitable. During these transitional years there are many opportunities within school and community environments to promote resiliency and buffer children from risks Oberle et al., 2014. Research has shown that positive adult relationships at home, in school, and in community, as well as the promotion of assets, such as constructive use of out-of-school time, and nutrition and sleep, can prevent problems and promote resiliency during the middle years Eccles & Roeser, 2011. Children in their middle years can also develop social and emotional competencies and lifelong patterns of behaviour that will help them thrive.

How can the MDI help?

Discover more about the Middle Years Development Instrument and how it can help shine a light on middle years.