Classroom management can be a struggle for new and seasoned teachers alike. Even with the best lesson plan, keeping kids engaged isn't easy. When designing an approach for your classroom, it's important to consider where your students are developmentally. Here, we've tapped into brain science to get your classroom management for middle school on point. (If you're teaching online, try these virtual classroom management strategies.)
Classroom Management for Middle School
Effectively employing middle school classroom management strategies requires some understanding about the adolescent brain—and what a marvel the adolescent brain is!
During adolescence, the front part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is still being developed. This is the area of the brain responsible for performing executive functions, such as decision-making, emotional regulation, and cognitive flexibility. The adolescent brain is malleable; it can change and adapt to its environment, and certain activities can aid in its healthy development well into adulthood. And while the adolescent brain can also be impulsive and vulnerable, it's quite responsive to positive feedback.
Let’s think of this plasticity as an opportunity for us as middle school educators to use classroom management strategies to meet our students where they are, and to help them develop into healthy and happy adults. These techniques will help you meet these all-important goals.
1. Greet Students at the Door
We all know that transitions from one class to another in middle school can be chaotic. This is where some middle school behavior management know-how comes in handy. One way to help students regulate their behavior and get themselves into a learning mindset as they transition into your class is to greet them individually at the door. In fact, a 2018 study found that positive greetings at the classroom door produced significant improvements in academic engagement and reductions in disruptive behavior. When greeting your students, be sure to:
- Make eye contact with the student
- Say the student’s name
- Use a nonverbal greeting like a handshake, fist bump, or high-five
- Say a few words of encouragement to the student (e.g., “I am so happy to see you today,” “I can’t wait to hear what you thought about last night’s reading,” or “I know you had a rough morning, so please let me know if you need anything”). Or simply ask how they're doing.
2. Have a “Do Now” Ready
This is a proactive classroom management strategy that sets the tone from the get-go. Students know from the start exactly what to do, eliminating confusion that can lead to distractions and misbehaviors. This can be avoided by having a “Do Now” that's either written on the board or is already on your students’ desks before they enter the classroom. An effective “Do Now” adheres to these criteria:
- It can be completed in 3–5 minutes.
- It is a written product.
- It is typically “academic,” but you can also integrate a social-emotional learning (SEL) component.
- It doesn't require any explanation from you as the teacher. Explaining the “Do Now” defeats the purpose of having your adolescents develop their self-management and self-direction skills.
3. Conduct Empathy Interviews
Classroom management issues can sometimes stem from a lack of positive relationships and trust between teachers and their students. Empathy interviews are a way to build trusting relationships.
In empathy interviews, teachers schedule 20-minute blocks of time to ask individual students the following questions:
- “What are your hopes and dreams?”
- “What is one thing I (teacher)/school should continue doing?”
- “What is one thing I (teacher)/school should stop doing?”
- “What is one thing I (teacher)/school should start doing?”
Our students say empathy interviews make them feel that their opinion is valued, and they enjoy the opportunity to get to interact with their teachers on an individual basis to talk about their experiences at school. Teachers may find that empathy interviews allow them to slow down, focus, and truly listen and learn about the student experience at their middle school. Empathy is a crucial part of relationship building.
4. Serve as a “Learning Guide”
When we talk about classroom management, images of quiet adolescents sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the class may materialize in our minds as the “gold standard” of classroom management. In our experience, to best meet the needs of the adolescent brain, teachers have to view themselves as “learning guides” who manage through observation. As teachers, we must always have positional awareness that takes us to different parts of the class—not just the front—to observe the students completing tasks or interacting with one another. Resist the temptation to sit at your desk and grade papers!
Positioning yourself in different parts of the class and observing students also provides you with specific information to use when praising students who are engaging in positive behaviors in class. We have found that, along with empathy interviews, observing student learning provides us with crucial information to inform our practice and our collaboration with colleagues. Many improvements to our instruction and SEL supports have come about while teachers were observing their students as they learn.
5. Let Students Make Choices
Middle school students are faced daily with a barrage of situations where they have to make decisions. Given that their prefrontal cortex is still developing, we must provide them with many opportunities to make decisions to ensure they do not engage in poor choice-making into adulthood. When developing academic and SEL tasks in class or school-wide, we ensure that our students are provided with choices to demonstrate their learning by giving homework options, using project-based learning, soliciting independent study project ideas, collecting their feedback on school-wide issues, and conducting student polls that lead to rich and productive debates. All of these strategies provide our middle schoolers with opportunities to express their learning and creativity in a safe space.
6. Use Nonverbal Interventions
Imagine this scenario: You’re modeling a strategy, demonstrating a lab, or explicitly teaching a skill to your students. You notice that a student’s misbehavior needs to be corrected in the moment, but you don’t want to break the flow of your lesson. What do you do?
In this case, try using a nonverbal intervention:
- Make eye contact with the student and deliver your “teacher look.”
- Shake your head indicating “no.”
- Use a gesture that expresses your desired behavior (e.g., sitting up, putting a cell phone away).
- Walk in the direction of the student and stand near them.
Believe it or not, teachers break the flow of their lesson more often than students do. As much as possible, use a nonverbal technique to redirect student behavior in order to keep the lesson going.
7. Call Out Student Behavior Anonymously
Inevitably, there will be times when student behavior needs to be corrected. Rather than singling out students, try stating the correction anonymously. There is no need to publicly shame. Here are some examples:
- “Two pairs of eyes are wandering. I’d appreciate all eyes on me, please.”
- “I'm noticing some side chatter. For this part of the activity, we need silence for the next couple minutes.”
- “If your head is on the table, please sit up and show me that you’re ready to proceed with the lesson.”
8. Establish Classroom Routines
Routines are not only important for effective classroom management, but they also matter for growing adolescent brains because they aid in executive function skills.
Routines are explicitly taught, modeled, and performed consistently in the classroom. Here are some examples of classroom routines:
- Putting backpacks away and organizing desks
- Sharpening pencils
- Turning in a homework assignment
- Asking to use the bathroom using a nonverbal signal
- Checking out a book from the classroom library
- Writing down homework in an academic planner/agenda
- Performing classroom jobs
Remember to talk with your students about the rationale behind various routines. Cultivate a greater sense of ownership and community in your classroom by inviting students to create some routines and procedures with you.
Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explains how classroom routines can be reimagined so they're indeed culturally responsive. In other words, they emphasize interdependency and social connection—they're tied to collectivist values as opposed to individualistic ones. Try these:
- Recite a common poem or verse with your students that highlights your school’s or classroom’s values. Do this every day. Honor your students’ languages by reciting the poem or verse in each of their languages.
- Employ “call and response” or play music when transitioning from one activity to another.
Much research points to the benefits of mindfulness-based techniques for all ages, but in particular for adolescents. In our experience, taking the first 2–3 minutes of class to engage with your students in mindfulness-based activities allows middle schoolers, and even adults, to become focused and ready for the classroom tasks at hand. One of our favorite and easiest techniques to engage our middle schoolers in mindfulness is guided breathing. This practice has been shown to reduce stress and lead to increases in self-regulation and quality of sleep, which is so important for the adolescent brain’s development.
10. Do a “Child Study”
The adolescent brain is complex and can cause educators to experience both wonder and frustration. Lean on your teaching team to engage in a process we call "child study." At our public Montessori middle school, child study is an approach that allows our teaching team to productively discuss students using a wide range of data to understand their development and give them the support they need. Most of the students discussed in a child study are demonstrating academic or social behaviors that may put them at risk. Child study is a holistic approach to understand each student’s development at the intellectual, physical, emotional, and social levels. It also allows us, as the adults, to develop a plan of action to support students’ success at school.
Child study has the power to change a school’s culture from deficit-based to one rooted in curiosity around each student’s strengths. In some schools, the child study process is held at the school-site level and may involve a cross-functional school team, but we've also found that the process can be successfully applied by grade-level teams.
Middle school teaching is a special calling. Dr. Maria Montessori said it best: “Adolescents must never be treated as children, for that is a stage of life that they have surpassed. It is better to treat adolescents as if they had greater value than they actually show…”
Whether you're teaching in-person or online, we hope that these classroom management strategies—rooted in brain science—create a learning environment that meets your students' needs and ultimately helps them succeed in school and life.
More Middle School Classroom Management Strategies
Do you have creative ways of keeping your middle schoolers engaged and learning? Maybe you have ideas about how to improve the techniques we've shared here. We’d love to get your thoughts. Share your strategies with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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Dr. Sue Chapman
Professional Learning Consultant, Heinemann