🎧 Listen to an audio version of this post:
When people ask what grade level I taught, I know how they’ll react when I respond. Their eyes widen, and they shake their heads. “Middle school! I know what I was like at that age. I could never teach that age,” they say. The fact is that I truly enjoyed teaching thirteen-year-olds. There’s a key, though, to developing a successful classroom for this age group. What helped me the most was having a tried-and-true set of classroom management strategies for middle school.
Of course, teaching any age is challenging, heart-warming, hilarious, exhausting and meaningful all rolled into one. Middle school classrooms are a bit “extra,” though. It’s an age of transition from child to teen, and that transition creates hormones and a range of emotions. Self-confidence can slip, kids can act out and self-esteem issues can impact academics. Middle school learners feel okay one day and out-of-sorts the next. As educators, we need to teach them our subject matter but also ensure they feel safe and comfortable in our classrooms.
These classroom management strategies helped me when I taught English and had close to 40 learners in each class. My schedule was five classes a day, so sometimes I tailored the methods to the time of day (morning, right before or after lunch, last class of the day). If you’re a sixth, seventh or eighth grade educator, select some strategies that work for your personality and classroom needs. The goal is to build relationships and create an environment where students want to learn.
1. Have clear and high expectations
This classroom management strategy for middle school seems basic, but sometimes educators don’t clearly communicate high expectations. This strategy is important for two reasons.
One: Learners need to understand exactly what the goal is so they can strive to reach that goal.
As a routine, post your learning standards and an overall objective for the day or week.
Rules regarding behavior are of course important, too. I posted my class rules as positive statements rather than “don’t do this” in order to create a culture where learners make good choices. For example, “We speak and write respectfully.”
Two: Sometimes learners feel like adults or peers don’t believe in them and expect them to fail academically or behave poorly. This could be because of past experiences or self-confidence issues during the middle school time of transition. When you communicate high expectations for everyone, though, learners will rise to the expectations because they know you believe in them.
2. Set up cooperative seating
Seating arrangements depend on the size of your classroom, but I was able to make group seating work — even with 40 learners in a fairly small room. Some years I had tables and others I had separate desks and chairs, so I had to get creative with the layout to move them into groups. But I made it happen because cooperative seating helps with classroom management. In fact, one year I decided to try individual seating in rows, and I could see a difference in behavior. That was the last time I had an individual seating arrangement!
When learners sit in groups, they get the chance to collaborate, speak to partners, help each other and build relationships. It’s a great setup for differentiation, too, because you can place learners with different abilities together or assign groups different topics. Overall, this is a more conducive environment for learning, so students are more likely to have a positive experience.
This is where clear and high expectations are also important. Learners need to know how to work together in appropriate and positive ways. Of course, they will have their chatty moments. But if you’ve attended a staff meeting, you know that adults have their chatty moments, too. The positive aspects of cooperative seating are worth it, though.
3. Greet learners at the door
Middle schoolers need to know that you care about them. When they have a teacher who cares about them, they want to learn from them. A simple way to show this is by greeting them at the door.
A smile and a greeting every day shows them that they add value to your classroom. I greeted learners at the door every day, five times a day. It was undoubtedly one of the most impactful classroom management strategies. It also gave me a sense of how learners were feeling, and gave them a chance to talk to me if they needed help.
4. Use a signal for attention
With large class sizes, I needed a way to quickly and easily get my learners’ attention. My first couple years of teaching, I didn’t have an effective strategy, and I know I lost a lot of class time trying to transition from one activity to the next. Luckily another teacher told me about attention signals, and they worked perfectly.
There are all kinds of attention signals you can try. A common one is “Clap once if you hear me. Clap twice if you hear me. Clap three times if you hear me.” Sometimes you’ll only have to clap twice to get everyone’s attention. Certain times of the day or year (the day after Halloween, my oh my), you’ll need to clap three times. Just have patience, and you’ll see that learners will help get their classmates’ attention without you needing to raise your voice.
You can also try more creative clapping, snapping or call-back signals, and even ask learners to come up with one!
5. Set aside a spot in the back
On the first day of school, I let my learners know that if they were ever having a difficult day, there was a spot in the back of the room where they could sit. They just needed to quietly let me know as I greeted them at the door. This gave them the chance to work independently and even put their head down for a few moments if they needed to. There are days when learners are going through personal issues, and as educators we can’t expect them to be working at one-hundred percent.
My learners didn’t take advantage of this, and I was able to check in with them and send them to the counselor if they needed more support.
6. Have learners come to you when they need a strategy
At this age, learners can monitor their ability to focus. I kept a basket of squishy toys that are meant to squeeze to help with stress or anxiety. They work when a learner is having a difficult time focusing, too. There were certain learners in my classes who knew when they needed a squishy toy and would ask for one. I also had a learner who would give me a signal, and I would unobtrusively place one on his desk.
7. Use humor
Middle schoolers love humor, and it helps immensely for classroom management. At this age, they are starting to crave independence but at the same time, they’re still kids. So the humor you use should be silly, and it should not be directed toward specific learners. Also keep in mind that not all learners understand sarcasm or jokes.
For example, at random times when my learners didn’t expect it, I would project a funny picture of a dog or cat. One class decided to adopt a particular cat as their mascot, and seeing its picture always made them crack up laughing. So I’d throw the picture up on the whiteboard when learners needed a brain break and a laugh.
If you use Hāpara Highlights for digital learning, you can instantly send a funny link to learners’ devices.
8. Admit when you’re wrong
Just because we’re educators doesn’t mean we’re always right. If you make a mistake or don’t know the answer to something, that’s okay. Let your learners know. They’ll respect you and see that it’s okay for human beings, including them, to make mistakes at times.
9. Find common ground
Finding common ground with learners should be one of your go-to classroom management strategies for middle school. When learners build relationships with you and their peers, they feel welcomed in your learning environment. For instance, I talked to students about a shared interest in movies or music, and that made them want to engage in academic activities in my class.
One year, I had a group of learners who did well in English, but I found out that some of them were having personal conflicts outside of the classroom. The counselor was hard at work trying to resolve the issues between students, but these issues were starting to affect the learners’ ability to have class discussions.
One day, I took them to our school theater space, where there would be room for them to spread out in a line across the room. I read statements out loud. If the statement applied to that learners’ life, they stepped forward. For example a statement could be, “I sometimes feel overwhelmed with homework” or “I wish adults understood me better.” When learners started to see their classmates step forward when they did, they found common ground. Although this didn’t magically wipe away all of the personal conflicts, it did help create a more positive learning environment.
If you’re instructing in a digital environment, use Highlights to send a Google Form survey to learners’ screens and then share the results.
10. Send positive messages
You’ve probably heard about the strategy of giving a learner three positive comments for every constructive comment. This works well for learners of all ages and certainly for middle school students as they struggle with self-confidence. If you have Highlights, you can send a learner an instant message and even include an emoji.
Educator Melissa Teagarden calls Hāpara a “lifesaver for middle school.”
You can also send home positive messages. It could be an email, a hand-written note (let the learner know that it’s a “good” note) or a phone message. Our school had a phone system where we could select a message online and it would play over the phone for parents or guardians. Often these messages were about absences or tardies, but I liked to send home positive messages about progress, involvement in class discussions or good choices. Learners usually came in the next day with a big smile and said, “I got a good phone call!” It’s a simple strategy that has an impact.
11. Make time for movement
We expect middle schoolers to sit in a chair five to six hours a day. Can you easily do that? Most of us need to get up and move every so often. It’s especially tough when learners are exploring a challenging assignment. Sometimes they need a brain break, and movement can help them engage more deeply afterward with the academic activity.
Edutopia writes that a movement break can “reduce stress and increase blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, helping to keep students’ brains sharp, healthy, and active.”
If you have room, play music and ask learners to walk around the room to the rhythm. I usually didn’t have enough space for this in my classroom, so I had learners stand next to their seats and stretch. I also played music sometimes for a quick dance break. Fun and effective!
12. Add in some meditative moments
Sometimes learners (and educators) need to take a moment to breathe. This strategy worked particularly well for my class after lunch or a P.E. class. With the fluorescent lights off, I would ask the class to close their eyes and breathe in and out deeply for five beats.
Sometimes I would also play calming music as I greeted them at the door to settle them into learning and then we’d do our breathing exercise. Students move from activity to activity many times throughout the day, so they welcome the chance to take some deep breaths. It really helped my class transition into reading and writing activities.
13. Change up the scenery
Sometimes being stuck in a packed classroom day after day creates frustration, so why not change it up? If the weather is nice, head outdoors. In the spring, I asked learners to bring outdoor blankets one week, and we read our class novel under a big shady tree. They loved being outside, and we had some excellent discussions about the novel.
14. Rely on a partner teacher
Having a partner teacher in your hallway or nearby is helpful. There may be a day when a learner needs a break from your classroom environment because they’re having trouble focusing. Although the goal is to keep your learners engaged in your own classroom, sometimes a short break helps the learner refocus.
Ask your partner teacher if the learner can sit in their room and work on the assignment. Try this for ten to fifteen minutes, and then ask the learner to come back. Although I didn’t use this strategy often, it did help the learner refocus.