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The Art of Managing Middle School Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

I remember a situation a while back when my class of middle school students was working in groups, 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 got their attention by praising and rewarding a group with "Avispas" (the school mascot stamped on a sticky note used for extra credit). "This group knows what they are supposed to be doing . . . !" As soon as I did this, other groups got the message and I did not have to keep nagging them to pay attention and get busy. It’s amazing how hard students will work for a simple extra credit post-it, funny sticker, or smiley stamp on their paper.

Routine and Surprise

Routine and structure are also important for middle school students (thanks, CHAMPS), but so are spontaneity and obtuseness (out of the blue surprises). Middle school students need a structure to look forward to like the monthly "auction" activity where students could bid on stuff using their "Avispas" (extra credit post-its). I donated items for this that I got from conferences and workshops such as novelty pencils and pens, sticky pads, erasures . . . just small odds and ends. I also talked to school counselors and the Gear Up College Reps on campus and they usually gave me lots of college swag. I always had a mystery bag that they could bid on, too. To raise the stakes and spice it up (literally) I’d go to the local convenience store and purchase individual packets of candy like the sour pickle balls (students loved them!) and spicy tamarind candies (favorites in south Texas). Students would always ask me, “When is the next venta (auction)?” Of course I would tell them I did not understand and make them say it all in Spanish, but we always had a good time. When the students came into the room and saw the numbered envelopes on the wall (I had to put them way up high to keep curious students and students with sticky fingers from handling the goods). In Spanish I would say, “How much for envelope number seventy three?” and students had to respond in Spanish. Just like the price is right, I would ask them once they won the auction if they wanted to trade for the mystery bag or keep what they had.  Students really got into this and seem to forget that the auction was all done in Spanish . . . which was by design.

My spontaneous and often obtuse jokes and riddles also helped me to get students to focus again (once they get the punch line in Spanish). When I saw that learning was dragging, I found that telling a (moderately embellished of course) personal story was incredibly powerful, even in Spanish. A few of my students might have actually believed that I was a matador, but most of them played along with my stories because they were interesting, they could laugh at me, and it distracted them.

I have always believed that the best discipline plan was to have a good lesson plan, but for squirrelly 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, but they also can be easily drawn into the learning with solid expectations, behavior boundaries, and crazy, fun, active learning experiences.

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

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Classroom Management

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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
Online Community Manager

[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!!! :)

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I love your auction, Ben! What a great way to get them excited about practicing their Spanish. After a couple decades with middle schoolers, I have learned that one great way to keep them on task is to make sure the task and its directions are clearly spelled out. If they have questions, it works well for all of us if I can say (with a smile), "Go back and read those directions." I love the bashful smile and "oops" look they give me when they realize they didn't need my help to keep going. I think they want to be independent, and if I plan my lessons well, they can be (and maybe they also learn to refer back to those directions).

William Ooms's picture

Middle school students are very aware of what is around them. They are interested in very thing that they see, hear, smell, touch, and any one they come in contact with. I have plaques around my classroom and my eighth grade students know exactly how many I have. I then use these plaques to teach them. When I move a plaque, to draw their attention to this particular plaque, we have a discussion about the importance of the people in the plaque.
Most middle school students, like all students, have a sweet tooth. I teach math. When I see there needs to be more excitement to what we are learning, I break out the candy jar. Those students who were in Never, Neverland are trying their hardest to be one of the first three with a correct answer.
I agree with the comment that as teachers we need to know our students and what will motivate them. Just using the names of students on word problems, I have found, gets them involved with the learning process. When learning is about them, they are interested in it.

LDelgado75's picture
DAEP Assistant Principal, mom, reader & runner ( jk about runner part).

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

Lauren Ashley's picture

I completely agree with you! I am a student teacher and I am in an eighth grade science class. The students are such little squirrels! But it makes class so much more interesting because they do have very good questions that do take part in the discussion, most of the time. I am definitely a relationship builder with the students and I do appreciate the kind of relationships that I do create with them. I especially enjoy when they come to me with science information they found online and want to know more!

Art Encounters's picture

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Well, art classes will play a major role in middle age students because they learn and adopt various creative and innovative things.

Matt W.'s picture

Best quote ever on Middle School classroom management:
"I have always believed that the best discipline plan was to have a good lesson plan, but for squirrelly middle schools students, you have to have plan A, B and distraction lesson Z."

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.


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