George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

The Art of Managing Middle School Students

Edutopia blogger Ben Johnson offers up tricks of the trade for managing middle school kids.

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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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement 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 Design/Broadcast 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."

Kristina Fellin's picture

Excellent post! I am a middle school Spanish teacher (6th grade) and can relate to the students losing focus and engaging in side conversations. I must admit that I tried the "dictator" role. It got old very quickly. Instead of "Avispas", I use "Juanny dollars" (I'm a huge fan of Johnny Depp so I made money with his picture on it.) When they earn enough Juanny dollars, they are give the opportunity to shop at the Juanny Store. I usually award these dollars for parent signatures, but after reading your post, I'm going to start using it as a reward for appropriate, on-task behavior. Thanks for the idea!

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