Behavior Management in Middle School: 6 Components for a Peaceful Classroom
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Middle school. Many people cringe at the thought of teaching a classroom full of prepubescent (or pubescent) children. They are at an age when so many things are changing in their brains and bodies. Navigating that is hard stuff! I think one of the reasons why I love teaching middle school is because I remember very vividly being an awkward preteen. I had some really great teachers to help me get through those tough times (and some pretty terrible ones that made it worse).
The biggest challenge I think for many teachers with this age group is behavior management. In my decade worth of experience, I have tried all sorts of things, but I've found the best method is to just treat them like a human. No fancy charts. No rewards. Here are the 6 components:
Repetition & Routine
The Power of Empathy
Read on to find out more!
Ever hear a teacher way down the hall screaming at his/her students? Don't be that teacher. My number one rule for behavior is respect. On the first day of school I spend a total of 5 minutes discussing my behavior expectations. I tell the students my expectations are simple; I will respect you and you will respect me, my classroom, and each other. So, yea, screaming at them (and them screaming at you) will not fly.
That's an easy thing to SAY, but HOW do you do it?
Treat middle schoolers like HUMANS (after all, they are, aren't they?).
Treat them like equals. Do not act as if you are better than them, that it's your way or no way. Talk to them like you talk to adults. Talk to them normally. Don't talk down to them. Talk to them like they are on YOUR level, not THEIR level. This means speaking with them as colleagues, NOT buddies. I like to consider my kiddos coworkers. (See "Modeling"). I've seen so many teachers epically fail because they try to be "cool" and that backfires majorly. Once the kids think you're their chill pal, they can walk all over you. (As an aside, I think this works with any age...I've never baby-talked my 4 year old son; I always talk to him in a normal conversational tone and his vocabulary is through the roof.)
Avoid power struggles. Ultimately you will get those students who WILL test you. The attitude will come out. Remember, this is a TEST. If you break, that's it, they've got you wrapped around their finger. You cannot engage in power struggles. It's disrespectful for them to talk to you that way, so why would you talk back to them that way? DO NOT argue back. DO NOT give an attitude in return. You're fighting fire with fire. That's when choice comes in.
You know how you model an example of what you want students to write? I know that I do. If I want students to write a decent reading response, I am sure to write an example for them. Better yet, I write one in FRONT of them.
This works the same with behavior. If you don't want kids to talk back to you, don't talk back to them or other adults. If you want them to treat others with kindness, you have to show this to them all the time. Say "good morning" to other teachers. Ask them questions you'd want the students to ask each other. You may not WANT to do this (::giggle::), but you have to show them. (This struggle is real with my 4 year old...I say "hello" to people and "good morning" when sometimes I just want to be left alone. But, think about it. You are trying to show the kids how to be good humans. This forces you to come out of your shell, too!). When you're in the hallway with your students and you see other students, acknowledge them. Point out something wonderful they're doing ("Wow! Mrs. Smith's class sure knows how to walk in a nice line."). Isn't this how you want them to talk to each other?
This also applies to your in classroom behavior. Don't sip coffee all period if you don't want kids to. Don't go on your cell phone if the kids can't. Yes, yes, I know we are adults and we have different "rules", but I am telling you, this will just cause resentment, which is what I assume you'd like to avoid. Do sit properly at your desk. Do read with them when they read. Oh, and be on time to class, too.
The pictures above are all showing student choice. The top row were book club books they picked. I also bring my students to the public library to get books. They also can sit wherever they want.
Middle schoolers have to feel that they have control and this is where choice comes in. Give them a sense of control in any way you can. Here are ways to give them choice:
Assignments: Within their assignments give them choice, even if it's tiny. Since I do everything digitally, this allows lots of room for that. Something as simple as changing a font, color, or background gives them a sense of control. With reading and writing workshop, this is great as well because they can choose what books they are reading, choose how they want to respond to a text, choose a topic to write about, and more. Giving this ability to choose is so powerful.
Behavior: Ok...so a student acts up. She does something wrong. She talks back. She refuses to listen. Choice. Think of what is happening right in front of you. Example: Bob is talking while he's sitting next to a friend in a flexible seating arrangement. Instead of saying, "Bob, you need to move to another seat" (which his response will be, "but I didn't do anything!"). say, "Bob, you are more than welcome to continue sitting next to Larry quietly and finish your work, or you can stay after school to finish it up. What would you like to do?" If he starts fighting back simply state your choices again. Keeps going? Say, "I see you've chosen to stay after school. Please return to your seat." If you follow through with all of the other tips here, it won't go beyond that. If it does, then you have defiance which is an administration or counselor issue.
Other examples of choice in behavior situations:
Backtalk/attitude: "Suzie, I do not speak to you in that tone, so I'd appreciate it if you don't speak to me that way. You can try to explain to me in a respectful way, or we can have this conversation another time when you are calmer."
Computer misuse: "You can use the computer the proper way, or you can choose to write on paper. What would you like to do?"
Wasting time/not doing work in class: First find out if they need help with the work; they may be struggling: "I see you are having trouble focusing. How about you try [sitting in a new place/using a different book/other option]? Otherwise, if you cannot finish the work now you can come after school to do it. What would you like to do?"
Giving them choices makes them feel as if they are in control, even though they may not really be!
4. Repetition & Routine
There are two aspects of repetition here. First, I will discuss repetition in regards to behavior. It's simple, really. If a student refuses to do something, talks back, gives an attitude, just keep giving the same choices over and over and over and over. I've had this happen before. A student was very unfocused and I gave him the choice of finishing it right then and there or after school. He asked if he could do it at home and I simply said, "your choices are now or after school". He continued, saying he could not stay after and I kept repeating "it's now or after school". Eventually, they get the point. Don't change your tone, don't negotiate. You give them the reasonable options and that's that. I do this with defiance as well. I just keep repeating, "this conversation is over" and they'll huff and puff and it's done!
Now, repetition in regards to routine is super important. It is SO important to have a set structure everyday in your room. The students should pretty much do the same thing everyday. They come in, they read, a mini-lesson is taught, they work with partners, they work alone, we share, the end. Every. Day. Kids need that comfort and reassurance. Knowing what to expect makes them feel safe. Now, obviously, they also have to learn to be flexible, so changing it up once in awhile is absolutely necessary, but, for the most part, each day should be the same format.
Check out my TpT store for some products that help me keep routine & structure in my classroom! My students also have the same homework pretty much every week...Reading Record reflection due Monday, Vocabulary Notebook due Thursday and a few things in between.
This can be a real slippery slope. This is NOT PRIZES, for the love of Pete, NO PRIZES. Do not give out pizza parties, or pencils, or homework passes, or cute erasers, or badges. No. No. No. We want kids to be intrinsically motivated to do what's right, NOT motivated by a tangible reward! I am super passionate about this. For example, a school gives out stickers for kids who were caught being kind. Those stickers are added up per class and the class that has the most stickers wins a pizza party. I love love love that kindness is being encouraged, but the issue here is that kids just want that pizza party. We want them to be kind because it's the right thing to do, not because they'll get pizza. I've also seen a lot of teachers do reading competitions...whoever reads the most books gets a prize. Yuck. Way to make the struggling readers hate reading.
So how do we do this? Build those kiddos up. Whenever you see them doing ANYTHING good, you have to let them know. This is important...do not make it a big scene or deal. Don't announce it. Be subtle. This makes it more meaningful to the individual. Announcing it from the rooftops is kind of corny and can make them embarrassed. It's also painfully obvious that you're trying to make the other kids feel bad. So, Suzie picked up Bob's pencil when it fell. Walk over to Suzie, give her a smile and say, "that was really nice of you." Done. Walk away. Or you could even say something to Bob in that situation, "wow that was really nice of Suzie to do that for you." Get out of there! Subtlety is so so important. You have to notice these things...everything. Avoid pointing out the bad...always point out the good.
Same with academics. See my post about how I reward the reading they've done all school year. I don't give prizes. I simply share what they've all accomplished with staff and parents. There is not a first place. Notice improvements. Let them publish their work and share it with as many people as you can.
You cannot hold up the entire class to the same standards. Not in middle school. Not yet. I know someday, this may be the case, but it isn't yet. Give them time. Listen, this isn't sports. This isn't Wall Street. Let's leave the competition where it needs to be. We cannot turn students off to learning.
6. The Power of Empathy
Ah yes, my favorite. Sometimes, you will do all of the above and a kid will just do something terrible. Something that cannot be fixed with choices. This is where empathy comes in.
This is really all about the language you use. You want them to see you as a human being, too. Express that what they did really hurt your feelings; that you care so much about them and that you work so hard to provide a comfortable learning environment for them. You've always treated them with the utmost respect and now, you're hurt. You're sad. Put it on YOU. I guess you are kind of guilting them a bit, but hey, it works! Once they see it's not all about them, sometimes they make a turnaround!
Your students are medium-sized humans trying to figure out this world they are in. Middle schoolers are awkward and clueless. You have to make them feel comfortable. They are figuring out who they are and they are so influenced by people around them. Guide them.
And you know what? This is not 100% foolproof. Have I had kids that, no matter what I tried, no matter how much of all of this I did, this did not work with? Yes. But, a lot? No. I can really only think of a handful of kids this did not work perfectly with, BUT aspects of this DID work most days. And honestly, I probably reached a breaking point with those kids and I started losing my focus. I started getting resentful and I started losing respect for them. Thus, it was hard to control the behavior. That's tough; once you lose respect for them. You really have to try hard to not allow this to happen. I know it's hard; some kids are TOUGH to respect. Just keep telling yourself that they are kids.
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