Thriving in the Middle School

At a recent presentation on Thriving in the Middle School, Sheridan Cox and I shared strategies for supporting adolescents as well as insights to support our parent community to understand the challenges faced by students in this key development phase. Here, I summarise some of the take-home points from that presentation. 


What does thriving look like? 

Thriving, often referred to in positive psychology as flourishing, means the capacity to live a fulfilled, happy life while facing challenges with resilience and feeling belonging, meaning and connectedness. 

Thriving in the middle years looks like: 

  • A strong sense of self – values and self esteem. 
  • Working well to achieve goals – doing her best! 
  • Reliable and functional friendships – respectfully solving problems as they arise. 
  • Involvement in a variety of interests – sport, music and mind. 
  • Being physically and mentally healthy. 


Most of our girls are thriving daily in the Walford Middle School. We see it daily in their eager participation, their resilience in their learning, their bonds with peers and their smiling faces in the yard. We understand that there are challenges that can occur during adolescent years and the support provided both at School and at home are critical to supporting each student in our Middle School to be Her Best. Our recent community survey revealed that most of our girls have excellent mental wellbeing, are flourishing and enjoy the positive impact they have on others. 


What challenges do our students face? 

Given the reported challenges associated with schoolwork and the emerging context of generative artificial intelligence good study habits and approaches to learning are more important than ever. Adolescents need to develop effective study habits as these are established in Middle School. This includes having spaces and processes conducive to study, but also the resilience to work through academic challenges with buoyancy. Students need to develop academic buoyancy, the ability to recognise academic challenges, adjust their thinking and deal with the challenge. Then identify the success achieved and continue (Martin and Marsh, 2020).  It is normal for students to feel challenged by school. If they are not challenged then we as teachers are not doing our job! 


Friendships are central in the girl world. Friends can be a source of joy and enrichment, adventure and support. When friendships change, which they often do in Middle School, or there is conflict, our girls can feel like their world is caving in. Rebecca Sparrow has some excellent guidance for parents and teenagers faced with friendship conflicts and dramas. She guides our girls to avoid drama cyclones and to address friendship issues directly with the other person. When conflict arises, she poses the question “is the friendship bigger than the fight?” a great way to get a challenge in to perspective and start the path towards resolution.  


At his recent presentation at the Asia Pacific Summit on Girls’ Education in Hobart, Professor Pasi Sahlberg reflected on the state of play for our young people. He noted the rise of sedentary time and the decline of wellbeing and health, also seemingly correlated with a culture that is submerged in an online world of instant messaging and sharing of a curated highlights reel. The Mission Australia Youth Survey 2022 reports on key issues concerning young people and highlighted mental health and relationship challenges of key concern, but both of these challenges were surpassed by those relating to school.  


We see these concerns emerging with our students at Walford, too. 


What do we do at Walford to help students to thrive? 

Our focus at Walford is ensuring each student achieves Her Best, Her Way. To achieve this we need to balance both wellbeing and academic care. Our pastoral and academic care structures ensure that each student has a carefully-designed network of teachers and peer mentors to whom she can turn, both for celebrating her achievements and for seeking support when needed.  


Our bespoke WEB (Wellbeing, Engagement and Belonging) program includes a range of both education and activities to support wellbeing, engagement and belonging. As well as the explicit teaching of social emotional skills, such as problem solving and communication, there is support from her Mentor not only for one-on-one catch ups for both progress checking and celebration of achievements, but also for support in challenging times. We know that positive relationships with teachers, getting help with schoolwork and talking with parents are key factors that are correlated with girls’ wellbeing.  


At Walford we respond to concerns as they arise, and are proactive in getting ahead of issues by teaching key social and emotional skills that equip our students to prepare for life’s challenges. We encourage students to recognise the difference between finding something challenging and being anxious. We use restorative justice practices to help coach students through conflict resolution, a process that not only restores but builds students capabilities social and emotional interactions. 


What can parents do? 

Parents and caregivers can support their daughters by engaging in co-regulation. This means being the steady presence that helps them to be calm and approach the stressor with an open mind for resolution.  

Parents can offer support and coaching to their daughters through active listening and asking questions such as, “Do you just need an ear, or do you want some advice?” or “What are your options?”, allowing the girl to talk through her ideas. Parents can also validate their daughter’s feelings without agreeing, through language such as “That sounds hard” or “That must have been frustrating.” Listening to challenges rather than fixing or rescuing allows girls to own and solve their own problems, and to build these skills for life. 


There are other simple things parents can do to support the wellbeing of their daughters. These include: 

  • Ensuring she gets a good night’s sleep, with no devices in the bedroom. 
  • Shoulder to shoulder talking, such as in the car or in the great outdoors (just 20 minutes a day has a positive effect on wellbeing). 
  • Connecting with friends outside of school. 
  • Preserving family time such as dinner. 
  • Encouraging a growth mindset and using growth language (“I can’t do that….yet!”) to help her to take on challenges.  
  • Ensuring that school attendance is maintained. 
  • Seeking professional advice if a diagnostic assessment is needed. 


Want to know more? 

My go to list of experts on supporting our girls through the middle years includes work by Madonna King, Rebecca Sparrow, Lisa Damour and Maggie Dent.  


Online resources of use are: 

Esafety Commission: Online Safety 

Ysafe: Online Safety 

Kids Helpline – mental health 

Beyond Blue – mental health 

Headspace – mental health 

Butterfly Foundation – eating disorders 

Encounter Youth- drug and alcohol 


There is no question Middle School is a time of challenge and change for young people. But it is also a time of discovery and identity development, of joy and friendship building. At Walford it is our privilege to partner with parents and caregivers to support students through their middle years, in order to set them up for future happiness and success. 


Alice Speirs
Head of Middle School