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The Art of Managing Middle School Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Squirrels. That is what they remind me of. We were all that age once and we were all just like squirrels! Have you ever watched a squirrel? Zoom, freeze for two seconds, flick tail, and repeat. The trick for being a successful middle school teacher is holding their attention for more than just those few seconds. Believing that that is possible requires a huge leap of faith and trust.

It doesn't take long for teachers to learn that it is impossible to speak over middle-schoolers, and the "dictator" act may get compliance for a bit, but in the long run, only builds ill will and passive disobedience when you turn your back.

So what is left? How does a middle school teacher cope? Two tools: Distraction and Relationship.

I have found that middle school students thrive on relationships and respond well to praise. Having fun, letting your hair down, sharing personal (relevant) experiences with them builds those relationships. On the other side, getting to know the students' likes and talents creates a connection that allows you to push a student to greater heights than would otherwise be possible (thanks, Flip Flippen). But even with all this, sometimes their squirrely-ness is overpowering. That is when you pull out the secret weapon: distraction.

In the Classroom

Students were working in groups last week and I could tell that they were getting off target because side-bar conversations were sprouting up. So I told them, "Páranse" (it means to stand up) and started asking them in Spanish to point to and touch several objects around the room and on the walls. I was able to bring it back to having the students talking (in Spanish) by asking them What is this? (¿Qué es esto?) It only took a couple of minutes to get them all focused again and we were able to continue.

Every now and then I get their attention by praising and rewarding a group with "Avispas" (Hornets stamped on a sticky note used for extra credit). "This group knows what they are supposed to be doing...!" As soon as I do this, other groups get the message and I do not have to keep nagging them to pay attention and get busy. Those extra credit stickers work the same way.

Routine and structure are important for middle school students (thanks, CHAMPS), but so are spontaneity and obtuseness. Students need something to look forward to like the "auction" activity where students can bid on stuff using their "Avispas." I use items for this that I get from conferences and workshops -- novelty pencils and pens, pads, erasures, just small odds and ends. I always have a mystery bag that they can bid on, too. Students really get into this and seem to forget that it is all done in Spanish, which is by design. My spontaneous jokes and riddles help me to get students to focus again (once they get the punch line in Spanish). Personal stories are incredibly powerful, even in Spanish. Few of my students actually believe that I was a matador, but they play along with my stories because it distracts them.

I have always believed that the best discipline plan is to have a good lesson plan, but for middle schools students, you have to have plan A, B and distraction lesson Z. It's important to remember: Middle school students sometimes get flustered and frightened easily, while also being easily drawn into the learning with solid expectations and behavior boundaries.

What techniques and strategies do you use to successfully cope with middle school students?


Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cameron Godfrey's picture
Cameron Godfrey
9th Grade Student

I'm not a squirrel. I might have only been around for fourteen years but that doesn't that doesn't guarantee me to be any less human or any less capable of trust than you are.
When did school become about "managing" students? Dehumanizing students as "squirrels" who are incapable of paying attention is no way to get them to pay attention. They're capable I promise. They're not being engaged so they're not engaging. We were all that age once, like you said. I was that age 2 years ago. I've grown since, I know, and I might still be just a teenager with the "epidemic" that is ADHD but I didn't go to middle school for the last 3 years to be managed, I went to be taught.
You have brought up some great insight that needs to be addressed, as many students are proving to be a hassle and to have trouble paying attention, but not nearly to the point where they can't be trusted to behave as human beings.

Zainab's picture
K-12 teacher from UAE, Dubai

Thank you for the article and to bring this topic up .
I like the two websites you added.
I love teaching MS students they are hard to deal with but still I love them .

tvan's picture

I agree that building a repoire with our students is really important. When they feel comfortable with a teacher, they'll be more likely to participate and be in engaged. Here's another Edutopia blog post that can give some insight: "What Teacher Do You Want?" http://www.edutopia.org/blog/what-teacher-do-you-want-philip-mcintosh

Also, there's different learning styles so it's important to diversify how the material is being presented, how students express their learning, and how students can be in engaged. For more details, you can go to http://www.cast.org/udl/
In addition, I think gamification is a great way to incorporate some friendly competition in the classroom and keep students involved as well!

Karry Santiago's picture

I have taught seventh grade for seventeen years. I have found that building a relationship with my students is very important in order for the students to want to learn. I am able to get my students to strive to do better. I can get my students to do things in my class that other teachers can not. I think this is because my students know that I truly care about them and want them to be successful. I remind my students about their behavior by saying things like thank-you to those students that are coping down the daily objective. This reminds them what they are supposed to be doing with positivity.

Melanie Stuhr's picture

I completely agree that teachers must build relationships with students in order for them to feel welcome and safe in their classroom. I am a sixth year teacher and have come a long ways since my first year. I have discovered the best ways for building these relationships and how to make students know they can trust me as a teacher. I like students to know I am going to do what is best for them to make them become successful. Students who I am able to build relationships with generally tend to do better in both behavior and academics.

I also agree and can relate that students respond well to praise and reward. We have a reward system in place at the school I teach at and it's absolutely wonderful. Students who are spotted doing the right thing earn an "Eagle Buck" that they can spend at the Soar Store every other week. Items vary from school supplies to extra time on a computer. The students love getting these fake dollar bills as an incentive for making smart, positive choices.

Ms. Breon's picture
Ms. Breon
Seventh Grade English Teacher from Yorktown, Virginia

You bring up some great points. This is my fourth year teaching middle school, and I can see the huge difference this year in the relationships I am building. Students are willing to work much harder for me because they know that I care about them as a person. I like the distraction idea, which is something I do regularly, but never thought of it as an actual distraction. I sometimes will tell my students a long and elaborate story (that perfectly exemplifies the topic of the day) and when I'm finished, they desperately want to know if it's true. I try to make the story as ridiculous but plausible as possible. Those distractions may seem silly, but students need to be refocused sometimes. Sometimes the two minutes off-task make the difference between productivity or melt down the rest of class.
Great read!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia

[quote]I sometimes will tell my students a long and elaborate story (that perfectly exemplifies the topic of the day) and when I'm finished, they desperately want to know if it's true. I try to make the story as ridiculous but plausible as possible.[/quote]

Ms. Breon, I love this. I suspect my inner seventh grader would enjoy your class.

Ms. Are's picture
Ms. Are
MS ELA and journalism, CA

"They're not being engaged so they're not engaging."

A beautiful voice of reason from a student sheds heaps of light on the "lack of management." I don't manage my students ... they're 11 and they need to be engaged to be involved. Thank you for speaking up in the community!

Christina's picture

My littles love to help. I ask them to get involved in their education. I expect them to know their grades when I ask, how they are doing, and what's up in general. The relationship is there and not just because I see them for a few minutes at break or lunch. They actively help with campus events and look forward to pitching in. It's the best way to make their education theirs!!! :)

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