By: Kimberly Kane
6th and 7th Grade ELA, Delta Middle School, Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year
“Oh, it takes a special person to teach that age group!” This is the response I typically receive when I reveal my chosen career path to someone new. We know from experience that the middle grades are some of the most challenging years of adolescence. Students moving from elementary to middle school have increased psychological distress along with decreased academic achievement (Willis et al., 2019). Distractibility, hyperactivity, immature behaviors, and physiological changes are all hallmarks of middle school-aged students. With this in mind, it is important to remember effective ways to manage student behavior and learning. Through the years I have developed proven strategies to get students through middle school with success. When teachers incorporate structure, consistency, student engagement, and authentic relationships into daily routines, students respond positively!
Structure & Routines
A typical middle school student visits 7 different classrooms in a day. In each setting, teachers have a different set of expectations, routines, and procedures. Think about this from a student’s perspective. It is quite overwhelming for their developing minds. For adults, this would be the equivalent of showing up for 7 different jobs with 7 different employers each day. For this reason it is important to establish clear expectations, routines and procedures and practice them frequently. For example, in my classes, students learn that upon arrival into class, they immediately retrieve their personalized folders from a designated basket and get right to work on a “Do Now” activity. They have a specific binder for solely my class that is divided into sections to keep student work organized. This step keeps math, science, and other class work from getting mixed together and potentially misplaced. They know exactly where to find the work they missed when they were absent. They know what to bring to class, how to enter and exit the room, and even when it is appropriate to sharpen pencils.
This may sound overly structured. Middle school students truly desire to gain independence. They finally have a bit more freedom: in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at recess, and in the classroom. However, if we assume that students know how we want them to respond in our classroom setting without structure, we are potentially inviting unwanted behavior.
Here are a few suggested routines to establish and practice:
Entering and exiting the classroom
What to do upon arrival (and in what time frame this should be done)
Necessary supplies to bring to your class daily
Auditory and Visual Cues
Turning in work
Missing work and absences
Consistency: Fair Rewards and Consequences
Perhaps the most frequently discussed part of a solid classroom management plan is behavior intervention. Remember, our students are going through some incredible changes physically, socially, and mentally. Over the years, I have worked with many teachers in developing behavior management plans for their students, either individually or as an entire class. My first word of advice to each of them is that whatever plan they decide to implement, it is imperative that they remain consistent with their promises, both positive and negative, and follow-through. If a teacher promises a reward or a consequence for a behavior and it is not delivered in a timely manner, trust begins to weaken. Over time, students will begin to learn that their conduct goes unnoticed resulting in even more problematic behavior.
Conversely, the most commonly overlooked part of an excellent classroom management plan is student engagement. Simply put, if a student is bored, off-task behavior is soon to follow. Incorporating movement, an age appropriate pace with smooth transitions, and a touch of novelty will leave students wondering how the class went by so fast. I encourage teachers to integrate some sort of movement within the class period. By posting QR codes with questions or simple tasks on the walls of the classroom, teachers give students the opportunity to get up and move around a bit. This helps to release pent up energy while learning at the same time. In addition, when planning lessons, think about how long each activity throughout the class period will take. Keep in mind the average attention span of a middle school student is 12 minutes. As their attention spans come to an end, it is time to transition to a new task. Finally, novelty is one of the most effective ways to keep students engaged. A few weeks ago, I created the “ELA Cafe.” When students arrived, the room was set up like a cafe complete with tablecloths, floral arrangements, candles, and menus. As ambient music played, students ordered from a choice of appetizers (lower-level thinking tasks) to work on with a partner, main courses (deeper-thinking guided practice), and dessert (independent practice) which they can “take to go” if they do not finish. This was the most positive response I have had to the idea of homework all year!
Nothing I have written thus far matters if students do not know we care about them. Building authentic relationships is at the core of every classroom. In fact, brain science tells us that trust deactivates the amygdala (the part of the brain that signals the fight, flight, or freeze response) and blocks the release of the stress hormone, cortisol (Hammond, 2015). Without trust and a safe environment, it is nearly impossible for students to learn. However, if we truly show that we care about what they feel, who they are, and what they have to say, we can not only create an optimal environment for learning, but develop relationships that will allow us to speak into their lives in order to encourage wise choices-in and out of school.
Teaching at the middle school level is arguably one of the most rewarding careers in education. Every day is a new adventure for teachers and students. Every day we each get the opportunity for a “hard reset” from the day before. Every day students and teachers get the chance to enrich the lives of each other. Middle level educators truly are special people!
Kimberly Kane is a middle school ELA teacher, Instructional Coach/Mentor, and Peer Tutor Facilitator at Delta Middle School. She was recently recognized as one of 7 finalists for the 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year.
Hammond, Zaretta, and Yvette Jackson. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, 2015. Wills, H. P., Caldarella, P., Mason, B. A., Lappin, A., & Anderson, D. H. (2019). Improving student behavior in middle schools: Results of a classroom management intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 21(4), 213–227. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300719857185