There’s an expression that says, “Every happy family is the same. Every unhappy family is different.” I can’t help but think that the same goes for middle school students. The disengaged ones are the most varied, and difficult behavior comes in a million varieties! From sulking to tardies to tipping over trash cans, there’s an endless number of ways a student can tell me there’s something wrong. And the causes are myriad. Empty tummy. Lack of sleep. Overindulgent parents (my most difficult student of recent years was woefully spoiled at home. Teacher gave you a bad grade, son? Have an iPad!)

Fortunately for us teachers, there are as many ways to  increase student engagement as there are wads of gum under student desktops. Here’s five things we do to set behavioral expectations early and maintain them throughout the year.


Call home.

To middle school students, there are two kinds of teachers: those who will call home and those who won’t. The very FIRST week, call home on every kid. By doing this, you are going to let every kid in the class know that you will call home. For the first call home, find something positive (even if it’s minute) and give parents your contact info. If you are truly pressed for time and can’t call on every kid, call on the ones you think MAY be an issue and the ones who are AWESOME. I like to use Google Voice for its automatic call logging – a written history of calls so I can see which families I’ve reached.

middle school behavior

ID middle school student leaders.

Get to know the kids who are leaders and get them on your side. Sometimes, walking around the room, you can see that kid telling other kids to get back on task. That’s what you want and encourage it. Tell them “thank you.” Take the time to cruise the cafeteria or quads at lunch and see who the movers and shakers are. When you need to, you can look to them for help with reluctant learners. Also in the “get to know the kids” category: find out who plays what sports. Sports privileges and the fear of getting them revoked are a great reward and punishment duo. If a student on the track team is acting up in your class, tell the coach. In my experience, coaches are more than willing to add a few extra laps or a hundred additional sit ups in an effort to curb bad behavior in the classroom.

Use time as a commodity.

My grandfather used to say, “Time is all we have. Respecting someone means respecting their time.” Explain that to the kids. Tell them that if they respect YOUR time, you will respect theirs by letting them go on time, early (if your school allows it) or even give them social time at the end of class. FRED JONES is awesome with this. Also, tell them that if they waste your time, you will waste theirs with detention, calling home, long, boring lectures after class when all the other students have left. In addition to taking up your difficult middle school student’s time, you can also take up their parents’ time. Call home and ask the parents to come in for a meeting.

middle school behavior
I’m old enough to remember when sentences on the chalkboard was a common form of punishment.

Be nice (eventually).

I am all business at the beginning of the year. Middle school students are usually not comfortable enough to start acting up until around Halloween, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, as they say. But come November, I start letting my guard down. I tell a joke or two. Let them know I’m human. For you, it may be different. And, if you aren’t funny, find a funny picture on the internet. MEMEs are great for this. Just keep it classy, appropriate, and small. I had a warm up where the kids saw a meme of a sloth. It was pretty fun. The kids had to explain why it was funny. It was a nice little smile on their faces.

Be mean.

Seriously. You might think this isn’t compatible with number four, but it is. Being relatable doesn’t equate to lowering your behavioral expectations. If a situation calls for summoning Zeus’ lightening and bringing the full fury of the heavens down on a kid or a class, do it. Believe me. I’m a pretty laid back guy, but there have been at least five instances in my teaching career when I used a full-volume verbal barrage to bring a class or student under control and show them in no uncertain terms that their behavior was NOT acceptable. You just have to be careful with this as it only works if used sparingly. More than a few times a year and you just become the teacher that yells a lot. Other, quieter nuclear options for punishing atrocious acts or bad behavior are 1) Calmly call security/the office to have a student remove, then diligently fill out requisite referral forms later; 2) Call home and ask parents to come in for a meeting.

middle school behavior-chewing gum
Let students know they are mere mortals (when the situation calls for it).

Keep up with grading.

A teacher who neglects grading is analogous to a boss who neglects to pay his workers.  I once had a normally well-behaved student start acting out. It was near the end of the semester. Turned out, he thought he was getting a bad grade in the class, when in fact he had a B-. I had neglected to update his grade in School Loop to reflect make-up work he had turned in. Once his grade reflected his work, his turn to bad behavior reversed.

These tips are in addition to the usual must-have routines for middle school classroom behavior management, such as those found in the oft-recommended book, The First Days of School. The right approach, the right combination of rewards, punishments, and interpersonal trust can stop disengagement before it happens in your middle school classroom.

Dr. Joseph Gonzales, Ph.D.
Steve Glen

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