“A Treatise: The Educational Plight Of The Early Adolescent” by Don Wells

Don Wells is a former head of Carolina Friends School where I taught for 4+ years. He penned this many, many years ago - Candy Beal used it in my middle grades foundations course at State as an opening reading. When I worked on a project with Candy to increase awareness of what its really like to be an adolescent we used Don's piece with teachers at the school to help get them thinking. By that time the number of copies of copies of copies of the typewriter-composed document really showed its age and I retyped it (with Don's permission). It's a powerful piece - Don packs some punches.

I've included the text below and attached as a PDF.

“A Treatise: The Educational Plight Of The Early Adolescent”
Don Wells, Headmaster
Carolina Friends School, Durham, N.C.

I am an advocate for the early adolescent, an advocate for a group of people who have had few advocates and as a result have been lost somewhere in the shuffle. I am a teacher of early adolescents; what I say comes from my teaching and learning experiences with them. I was responsible, with other staff, for the development of a Middle School responsive to the early adolescent. We believe we learned something in our five-year venture and wish to share that learning. The following articulation has come from the trenches and hence it is a bit more besmirched than the usual clear, cool, and concise verbiage that comes from more pristine settings away from daily teaching. Such settings have their place, of course, in support of the trenches.

When attempting to construct a program for the early adolescent, one is immediately struck by both the fact that little study has been done on this age child, and also the fact that few adults truly wish to work with children of this age. The neglect of this age by adults centers around the following reasons:

1) Early adolescents defy being defined, and that’s irritating. We can set some hazy marks about them on a scale relative to any act, value, skill, or any other single thing, but the result is either as useful as a definitive description of all bubbles, or so definitive as to classify all bubbles, save one, the exception. And those things we can’t define, can’t make sound predictions about, indeed those things that even resist our efforts to classify them by the effrontery of simply being themselves, we tend to avoid. In the case of the early adolescent, we have avoided.

2) Because of our inability to define, the holder of the needed information is the child, and what adult wants to be dependent on a child as his resource person? Precious few it seems.

3) The number of persons who had a positive, healthy, happy early adolescence in a supportive, caring environment equals the number of adults presently whole enough to creatively and maturely identify with an early adolescent toward the goal of successful interaction. Such persons were an endangered species long before the blue whale.

4) We all have fragile egos, and we all play to the audience “out there.” When we have our druthers, we pick good audiences because they tend to make us feel good. Early adolescents are very unpredictable audiences, and many times they hiss and boo. Not because they don’t like you, but because they aren’t sure they like themselves; not because they want to corporately hurt you, but because they aren’t thinking corporately but individually; not because they understand and reject, but because they don’t understand that you don’t understand.

5) To appreciate the world of the early adolescent, one must “become” in the world of the early adolescent. Such total immersion is not as necessary when working with other age groups, for we readily accept that we can never experience early childhood again and delight in our ability to enjoy, nurture, and support the childhood experience. Also, we revel in the fact that we can have “adult dialogue” with children beyond early adolescence, and although we then have to take full cognizance of their burgeoning physical and mental progress, they do seem eminently more reasonable than they were just a few years back. Early adolescence cannot be dealt with so neatly, for it had been the stage in our lives replete with terror, anxiety, fear, loneliness, hate, love, joy, desperation, all expressed (or experienced) with the intensity of adulthood yet devoid of adult perspective. It is an age of vulnerability, and vulnerability implies potential pain; adults know that pain hurts, and they don’t often willingly enter a domain in which they will be hurt. So we avoid (deny) because we as adults cannot again handle adolescence.

6) Early adolescents are easily identifiable as imperfect specimens of the human condition. They are not the epitome of anything we can define as “good” from our adult perspective. Since they aren’t consistent, they can’t reach perfection on our terms. We don’t use positive superlatives in describing them. However, all of us generally prefer dealing with those who have “made it” in the superlative sense. Therefore, because early adolescents are moving in such constant flux, they never make it to a desirous end within that stage. Dealing with early adolescents does not afford us the satisfaction of experiencing a finished product, and we lose vision and perspective easily. (And so do they.)

There are certainly more reasons why so little study has been done of early adolescence. Yet they all seem to stem from a common source that we accept as human nature: People don’t like to do unpleasant things, and working with early adolescents is, in large part, not as pleasant as working with any other group of people. Early adolescents are a montage of extremes, and maturity is the triumph of moderation over extremes. But that triumph is a tenuous one for most adults, and working with persons who unabashedly strain our temporary victory is gravely unsettling.

When attempting to construct a program for the early adolescent, one visits as many existing programs as possible. The conclusion reached after many visits is that the state of the art is abysmal, and that the art of “schooling” the early adolescent evolved somewhat along the patterns described below. In my experience I have come to firmly believe that people really do like people, they like doing things for people they like, and they like doing things with people they like. It also has been my experience that people like to be understood, and like to understand others; in fact, such corporate misunderstanding catalyzes the doing with and doing for processes.

In our training to be effective adults in interaction with early adolescents, we are prepared to enter the fray with a virtual arsenal of tools, techniques, and methods to succeed in our venture. Our expectation is that although each of us readily admits that some areas of general weakness remain, we are well prepared to succeed (with humility, of course). We are stunned by the totality of our failure. We discern reasons (rationalizations) why we have failed: These kids don’t want to be worked with; they are impudent, insulting, unkempt, noisy, unruly, don’t know how to cooperate, refuse to even listen, can’t sit still, couldn’t care less about history (or math, or science, or…) even though we’ve labored to explain to them their future need for…, don’t trust adults, can’t stop talking to their peers, play loud music, aren’t really as independent as they think they are, don’t know what’s good for them, and so on.

These are good reasons (The children confirm them daily!) and they prompt us (no longer) to do things with early adolescents, but for them. We as adults are well equipped for this next step, for it is we who are charged by the wisdom of our maturity to do the second mile, and the second mile is a for mile. So we begin doing things for early adolescents, again relying on our arsenal, but chary of stepping across the line from for to with, noting that we have found, and therefore know, that with patiently does not work. We are again stunned by our, no, clearly their lack of decency to accept with courtesy what we can do for them. Not only are we stunned, but being only human we are hurt, angry, frustrated, and finally in sound agreement with those who not so long ago warned us (in futility) that early adolescents were “impossible.”

Most often at this point are options are two: 1) we move on to a more appreciative group on which to cast our pearls; or 2) we are trapped by our contract, situation, lack of success in other areas, or whatever, to remain in the domain of the early adolescent. It is at this stage, the stage holding the predominant position in American education today, that we begin doing to early adolescents. We do to them because despite our best efforts we have been unable to do with them or for them. We must do to them for their own good! It is pertinent to note at this point that we have evolved to this position honestly, that we arrived here after traveling at least the second mile, that we have been willing but they haven’t, that we remain good people and remain earnestly trusting and wishing that it were another way, but now know that it isn’t. And from our wisdom we note for others that doing to is the (sigh) only way, and counsel neophytes as we were counseled. We know that they may try, but we also know that they will learn as we did. And they do. And the consistency of our corporate evolution toward doing to lends a certain rightness to it all, for we all confirm each other’s prognosis, then grit our teeth, stiffen our upper lips, and carry on.

It has been my experience that people don’t enjoy to other people unless they are a bit sick, for doing to implies control. It has been my further experience that people like even less being done toward. Early adolescents are being “done toward,” and they resent their position. Like all spirited people who are oppressed, they don’t take their medicine kindly. For in doing to, we as adults are controlling the decisions, experiences, trials, roles, indeed the very life experiences of the early adolescents. And when by our thoughtful, structured actions we are controlling the learning of others, the process is doomed. That is our present course of action with early adolescents!

When attempting to construct a program for the early adolescent, one realizes the wide disparity between the data we have on the early adolescent and the programmatic response we devise. What data? In short, the daily manifestations of early adolescents themselves: their response to our solution. In more detail, I have listed below some aspects of the early adolescent we know about through sound developmental research, and following these is our professional response to each aspect. (I accept the fact that there are exceptions if the reader accepts the fact that there are always exceptions, and that is not what we are talking about!)

1) FACT: Early adolescents need to try on a wide variety of roles.
RESPONSE: We class them in a few general roles to make them a manageable lot.

2) FACT: Early adolescents vary enormously (as much as five years) in physical, mental, and emotional maturity and capability.
RESPONSE: In schools chronological age is still the overwhelming method used in grouping students.

3) FACT: During early adolescence, the development of control over one’s own life through conscious decision making is crucial.
RESPONSE: Adults make all the meaningful decisions for almost all early adolescents almost all the time, but they do give the early adolescent the “freedom” to make the safe (read: meaningless) decisions.

4) FACT: Early adolescence is an age where all natural forces (muscular, intellectual, glandular, emotional, etc.) are causing precipitous peaks and troughs in their entire being.
RESPONSE: We demand behavioral consistency of the early adolescent, and in schools we even punish some for not achieving this consistent state despite the fact that it is totally impossible for many of them.

5) FACT: Early adolescents need space and experience to “be” different persons at different times.
RESPONSE: We expect them to “be” what they said they were last week, because otherwise we cannot do to them with forethought.

6) FACT: Early adolescents are preoccupied by physical and sexual concerns, frightened by their perceived inadequacy.
RESPONSE: We operate with them each day not as though this were even a minor matter in their lives, but as though such concerns did not exist at all!

7) FACT: Early adolescents need a distinct feeling of present importance, a present relevancy in their lives.
RESPONSE: We place them in institutions called “junior high schools,” which outofhand stress their subordinate status to their next maturational stage, and then feed them a diet of watered down “real stuff.”

8) FACT: Early adolescents, up to the age of fifteen, continue to show wide variances in skill and conceptual areas strictly due to developmental variances.
RESPONSE: We have used our counseling apparatus to lock children, before age fifteen, into programs such as college prep, technical, vocational, or secretarial for their next four years of schooling which will, of course, dictate in large part the child’s future occupational horizons.

Our present course of action with the early adolescent is nothing less than absurd. It appears that in the face of what we know, we do quite the opposite. Yet we are, as people generally are, good people, concerned people, people ready to right wrongs. Perhaps the elusiveness of solutions lies in the fact that the solutions are both obvious and simple. After all, much of our education has caused us to look with suspicion upon the simple and obvious, and to promptly circumvent the obvious and make the simple complex. Below are a few simple and obvious conclusions:

CONCLUSION: Since early adolescents don’t fit into neat classifications like (we suppose) other children do, don’t classify them. At all. Ever. For there is no need to, and there is harm in trying to do so.

CONCLUSION: Since we don’t know how to best place early adolescents in groups, let them place themselves in groups. Since we do know that peer friendship is of prime importance, that at least can be maximized.

CONCLUSION: Since we know so little about early adolescents, we must ask them questions, listen to their answers, and formulate programs from that dialogue.

CONCLUSION: Since early adolescents need wide intellectual, effective, emotional, and role experience, we must provide them an environment that allows them to experience each at their whims stem from an earnestness to learn.

CONCLUSION: Since early adolescents are newly aware for the intensity of life, we must live our maturity with them openly. It keeps alive the trust that they can weather their turbulent times, for they recognize and trust the fact that you did.

CONCLUSION: Be suspect of locking early adolescents into roles that you, not they, are comfortable with. They need to experience a wide variety of roles, acceptable and not acceptable, before they can wisely decide in which they wish to venture forth.

CONCLUSION: Take them seriously, but keep yourself in balance. If an early adolescent hurts you, it is a childhood nettle not an adult thorn.

CONCLUSION: When an early adolescent believes he/she is the ugliest person in his/her peer group, believe it! You have been given an important piece of data. Only subsequent to your acceptance of that bit of data are you afforded the freedom to provide perspective.

CONCLUSION: Some early adolescents are verbal and articulate; most are not. Provide opportunities for expression involving the total person and study the results. These acts of expression do speak louder than words.

CONCLUSION: For children newly perceiving a world filled with terror, while in an age replete with vulnerability, a community of loving adults makes that world bearable and teaches the efficacy of love.

CONCLUSION: Openness to the freshness and challenges of early adolescence by adults thwarts adult tendencies toward ossification. It also legitimizes the thrill of growth when such growth is shared by an adult and child.

CONCLUSION: Remember – always remember – that these children and you are engaged in a process which will end for each of you when the bell tolls, not when the bell rings!

The above “conclusions” are not harbingers of a new, massive, expensive program that pretends to be a panacea for early adolescent education. They are calls for adult help in cleaning up the complicated morass we’ve created, for the fact that there are problems in schooling is not a kid’s problem, but an adult problem. They legacy of maturity is not to pass “the problem” off on the kids in the shuffle.

Something else of critical importance has been lost in that same shuffle; the fact that during early adolescent years, the making of the adult is accomplished (with perhaps minor modification at $40.00 an hour on the therapist’s couch ten years later). Therefore, for those who are in earnest about improving the quality of life, a professional focus on the early adolescent is critical. Otherwise we all shall continue to lose, by choosing to lose, in the shuffle.

Don Wells


Reformatted and retyped by Matthew J. Ross, May 2003



  1. Great Article. Thank you for sharing! Really an awesome post for every one.

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