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  • Writer's picturedrjennifer_tauks

Maintaining the Middle School Ground: Liminality and Middle School

Liminality is a term taken from anthropology meaning, “ a threshold.” It is a transitional phase that anthropologist Victor Turner coined, “Betwixt and Between.” It occurs when a person or group in transition no longer belongs to the previous group, but has not passed onto the next phase. Hence, leaving the person or group with feelings of being in limbo or with ambiguity. In this liminal phase, the individual or group can often feel a potential threat since they are betwixt and between phases of transition.


As a school social worker, I can’t help but to apply this theory to students in middle school. In this example, the middle school students are in this liminal state. They left behind their role as elementary school students and are eventually moving towards becoming high school students. This is the time when childhood ends and adolescence begins. School social workers adopting this conceptualization have the ability to help middle school students, teachers, faculty, and parents, understand and implement strategies within the school that protect the social, emotional, and academic vulnerabilities in this middle ground.


Starting in elementary school, students start to explore and engage with initial skills of play, cooperation, organization, academic readiness, decision making, and communication. Middle schoolers are now entering this unknown phase of academic, social, and physical growth. They are tasked with using advanced cognitive, language, social, and emotional skills, all while their body’s physically develop and change. Middle school students begin to start forming their own opinions, question authority, and become more aware of what is taking place in the world. They are trying to find their place within this new space that are in.


In addition to middle school students starting to understand and navigate a new way of thinking, feeling, and developing, their mental health needs begin to take shape. According to the World Health Organization, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experience a mental disorder (2021). Research also reports that 50% of lifetime mental illness begins at 14-years-old. That is the age when students are generally leaving middle school and beginning high school.


Utilizing the framework of liminality provides safety to middle school students while in this liminal phase. This space secures protection to provide a range of mental health services for students and families, allows time to acquire necessary middle school academic skills, and time for students to explore their social, physical and developmental needs. This framework also posits that this will align middle school students a successful transition into their next phase.


School social workers are often at the forefront of recognizing, addressing, and serving as the primary mental health providers for students and families. However, conceptualizing liminality as the betwixt and between for middle school students constructs a lens for teachers, faculty, outside service providers, and families to take a step back and protect this fragile liminal space for our students and children.

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