7 Successful Strategies for Managing Middle Schoolers

7 successful strategies
When people learn I teach middle school art, the response I frequently hear is “Oh, I’m sorry, I could never teach middle schoolers.” When my full time elementary art position was cut and I was moved to my current position teaching middle school art, I thought the same thing.

After some years of experience, and a lot of trial and error, I finally feel like I can teach middle schoolers. I might go as far to say I actually love teaching middle schoolers. (Yikes, I never thought I’d say that!) They’re independent, yet they still need me. They can create more detailed and difficult art projects than elementary students yet have the same excitement when I introduce a new material. On the other hand, there is their new found interest in themselves, sports, technology, and the opposite sex. Sometimes, these things get in the way of learning and create management problems in the classroom.

Here are 7 strategies to help you manage middle schoolers in the art room.

1. Create a system for getting students attention that you use EVERY time.

For example, when I want to get my students attention, I say “If I could have your attention in… five… four… three… two… one, hands free… eyes on me.” This gives students roughly eight to ten seconds (depending on how fast I say it) to give me their attention. I say “hands free, eyes on me” because a lot of my students continue working or keep their writing utensils in their hands and “beat” on their desks while I’m talking. This phrase reminds them to empty their hands. Using the same phrase over and over again helps create consistency.

2. Stop, stare and smile.

When I’m giving directions or teaching, and students are having sidebar conversations, I say, “I’m going to wait a couple seconds because some people are talking, and what I have to say is important.” Then I literally stop teaching, stare and smile at the student(s) talking until they get quiet.

3. Call or email parents.

No students want their parents to know if they’re not following directions, especially if it means they might loose privileges to technology devices or other personal freedoms. Create consistent consequences in your classroom. Since middle schoolers talk to each other, when you’re consistent, news spreads quickly.

4. Talk to extracurricular activity and sports coaches.

The coaches in my school are very supportive and understand that academics come first. Sometimes what I try doesn’t work, so I have to call for backup. Sometimes all it takes is a coach benching a student for his or her behavior to improve in class.

These 7 tips will go a long way in getting you started on the right foot with your middle schoolers. If you’re looking for even more in-depth info, we’ve got you covered. Take a look at the Managing Middle Schoolers PRO Learning Pack. You’ll learn how to better connect with your students, set clear expectations, and maintain a classroom that is fair and consistent. If you’re just starting at the middle school level, you can also dig into Surviving Your First Year of Middle School Art for more helpful advice!

5. Use positive support.

When you talk to your students, try to stay positive, not negative. For example, at the end of the class, every time the bell rings I say “thank you for pushing in your chair” instead of “push in your chairs please.” Keeping it positive gives the students a compliment and also helps remind those students who forgot without nagging them. It never fails, students who forgot to push in their chairs go back and push them in after I say thank you.

6. Establish opening procedures.

My students know when they come into my classroom, they do one of two things. If there is an art history image on the board they get out their art history journals and start journaling. If there is nothing on the board, they sit down and wait for me to take attendance. This allows them to calm down after an unstructured and sometimes rowdy four minute passing time.

7. Don’t embarrass students.

When students act up, the last thing you want to do is embarrass them in front of their peers. They get defensive and it makes the situation worse. They also are much less apt to apologize and admit their mistakes. When a student acts out, I say something like, “Cassidy, will you please go out in the hall, I will talk to you shortly.” Then I give them some time alone to reflect and calm down.

Overall, my best advice for managing middle schoolers is to reflect on what is and isn’t working. It’s all about trial and error. What works for me, might not work for you. Remember, if you’re having trouble with classroom management; consistency is key.

What strategies do you have for managing middle schoolers?

Share your best classroom management tip in the comments below!

Cassidy Reinken


This article was written by former AOE writer and life-long learner, Cassidy Reinken.


  • Georgia Parsons

    great tips! I find I use a lot of these with my 4th graders too with great success.

  • Bonnie Branson

    I pretty much do all of the above (except for getting sports coaches involved- good idea) but I think the biggest thing is having a good and positive rapport with your students- get to know what they are passionate about and always be ready to explain why they are doing what they are doing, and why it is important. I also believe that it is important to tell your students when you have made a mistake and when you are having a bad day. They “get it.” It’s not an excuse but they appreciate it. I have been teaching middle school students for 6 years and it’s the only age group I “get.” Remember what it was like to be a middle and help them!! It’s a tough time, smile and let them know that the art room is a safe place for them to be themselves, to laugh, learn and CREATE!!! PS – I also keep journals in the art room and show slides, it’s usually tied in to the warm-up at the beginning of class. Have you blogged about this before? Interested in how you use this in your classroom.

    • Art journals are great! My students also have journals, mainly for art history but they’re also used as sketch books. I haven’t blogged about it, although I plan to in the near future when I return from maternity leave.
      I also agree- building relationships with them is key. I too remember middle school and it was awful which inspires me to make their experience better than mine.
      Thanks for sharing!

  • Lindsay trutza

    I teach k-8 in the inner city and have used some of these and will use them in the future. A lot of trial and error, but I found that being positive rather than negative works best. I’m a first year teacher in middle, so it’s a lot of trial and error. Finding projects that both interest them, their ability, and my available supplies is a challenge. I have been having a lot of trouble in 8th with phones though and I’m really frustrated with students constantly having them out. I repeatedly ask them to put them away, but they always come out again and again. Some students give them to me when I ask while others get very defensive like Im trying to take an appendage from them.many suggestions…

    • Does your school have a cell phone policy? Our school’s policy is that students can have them out for educational purposes online. Therefore, if they’re out during other times, teachers are supposed to take them. It helps that our school has this policy because it’s coming from above me. I feel like some years are worse than others. You are right, taking their phones can be very upsetting for some of them!

    • Samantha

      Always take the phone away from the student, especially if they get defensive. Bring it to them as a choice. Either they give you the phone now and they get it back at the end of the period, or they can have security come and get it and risk further consequences. I have only ever had one student choose to have security come and these are hard-headed high schoolers.

      Generally, after a week of a strict policy like this students don’t bring out their phone again.

  • Jeff Lahr

    I have a series of daily rituals that help me stay on top of things. I start by trying to be at the door to personally welcome each artist as they enter the art studio.I begin every day with a five minute silent sketch (we keep sketch books). ! explain the reason for silence is to better engage the right side of the brain. Also, I have the days objectives written on the overhead when they enter class.

    I run both a “fundamental” and “advanced” class at the same time so I have to try very hard to stay on top of things. Some days it doesn’t work and I’ve learned to apologize to the class, and analyze with the class why the day didn’t go as well as I hoped. I then forgive myself for a bad day and start planning tomorrow’s lesson!

    • I also stand at the door to greet students and have students journal at the beginning of the class. I find it helps students transition from unstructured passing time back into the classroom. Great idea for objectives on the board! Interesting how you run two classes at the same time. Way to multitask! I also think forgiving and moving on is great advice.

  • teachkidsart

    Great strategies for middle schoolers, Cassidy! I especially like your suggestion for students who are talking while you’re teaching. It’s so important to not just ignore it or try to talk over them. I think this approach would work well for any grade level, including adults!

    • I agree, Cheryl. I like how she not only stares them down, but smiles. That would be the hardest part for me! :)

    • Thank you! Yes, it works well with all ages.

    • creatifiny

      I like this idea as well. I am transitioning from high school to middle school and I believe this will work great. High school students are more in tune with body language and social expectations so they know when I stop in the middle of a sentence….something is up. I believe middle school students will need the additional verbal reminder along with the teacher’s “menacing smile” (think crazy Loki smile). I love my kids but sometimes it helps if they think you are just a little crazy.

    • Lori A. Collins-Kaylor

      To students who are talking and ignoring instruction, I’ll just stop and say, “I’ll wait.” I will look at the guilty party and either smile, or just give the dead stare. It works, because students will tell the ones not listening, “Stop, she’s waiting!” LOL

      • pnv

        I do the same thing! It’s so cute when they correct each other.

  • mrsdelga

    I find having the students put their phones on their desk and out of their hands where I can see them at all times really helps, this way I know they aren’t texting in their pocket or under the table. I also let them use their phone to listen to music after I have given instruction and they are working. This keeps the socializing and chatting to a minimum.

    • This is also a great idea. I’m an advocate for allowing my students to listen to music but unfortunately it goes against our school policy. I do my best to occasionally bring it up and am hoping that one day, they will be able to listen to their own music because I agree, it decreases socializing and chatting.

    • Sara

      I observed a teacher who had a phone prison for students that couldn’t stay off their phone, it was really effective. Tin coffee can designed as a prison for the phones, she had them put their phone in the can she didn’t take it from them that also helped.

      • Melissa Gilbertsen

        Yep! I have a red pail “phone jail” on a high shelf above my teaching station. First offense I take it for the period, second time they can fetch it from the VP…at the end of the day. So far it’s been effective.

  • Pamela

    Here in the south I hear more of the “bless your heart”. Never a good thing. But I love my little ducks, most days. These are really good reminders and helpful hints for those about to jump into our crazy pool of middle school.

    • Yes! I’ve gotten that too. They are truly “crazy little ducks.”

  • Katie

    These are great- I use these in my classroom and routine helps. I say “1
    -voices off (with a hand movement like talking duck) 2. empty hands (waving empty hands 3. eyes on me or board. (point at eyes and then at me). ok we should all be ready to actively listen” I went over what actively listening means in the beginning of the quarter. At clean up I have routines as well and teach my students that clean up does not mean get up and go. When they believe they have finished cleaning they sit down. we then review what we did for the day and what tomorrow will bring, check to make sure they actually cleaned and then I dismiss them. Great Reminders :)

  • Ross Roadruck

    I’m a bit delayed with a response to this article, but as a current junior high teacher, I can say that I use most (if not all) of these strategies and they work! I agree with you that it is hugely important to develop consistent routines so that when students come to your class from an unstructured event (lunch, PE, etc.) they know what is expected and can work to transition their behavior on their own. Great list of strategies!

  • Deborah green

    After I greet them at the door, and they are working on their “do now”, and I have taken attendance and have gotten their attention (when I say Pablo you say Picasso, “Pablo!”) we do a little recitation:
    Teacher: finish my sentence, If you need it …
    Students: say please and thank you
    teacher: if you borrow it
    Students: return it
    Teacher: if you open it
    Student: close it
    Teacher: if its on the floor
    rudest: Pick it up
    AND THEN…”repeat after me”– with four students at a table, each position is marked with a symbol: star, square, circle, triangle
    STARS- be safe, keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself
    SQUAREs- respect yourself, and others, treat people the way you wish to be treated
    CIRCLE – keep it positive, no put downs, no profanities
    TRIANGLE- we are amazing. The world needs us. we will do our best work today.

    • creatifiny

      I love this, especially the last TRIANGLE line!

  • Leslie

    After 10 years teaching middle school, I’ve learned that the devil is in the details. You want them to be independent, self-thinkers, but in the beginning of the year, you need to be super detailed of how things are going to be in your class. By the end of the year, the kids know the boundaries!

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  • Alexis Lawley

    Okay, so I am a junior in high school and I am trying to get into the heads of the middle schoolers on my bus to try to get them to respect the driver and stop cussing. What would I do to do that?

    • Cassidy Reinken

      Hi Alexis,
      I admire your courage and leadership in wanting to help your peers. I would say lead by example. The middle schoolers are probably acting out to get people’s attention therefore if people stop giving them attention when they do something negative they should stop. (Ideally) However this doesn’t always happen. Are there other people in Junior High who feel the same way as you? Maybe you could talk to them as a group and explain why swearing is disrespectful and if they choose to do it at home that’s their choice but that it is socially not acceptable to swear in public. You’re a great role model Alexis. Best of luck.

  • Heather Barbour

    Thank you for these ideas..I’m new to teaching Art to middle schoolers and have been struggling with classroom management issues, especially with my two sixth graders. They did not finish the first project, an artist’s book about the elements of art. Recently they’ve been working on perspective (for three weeks or so) … there is a lot of unfinished work. I would like to move on, however I also want to motivate them to finish at least one of the perspective assignments successfully. Any ideas?

    • Cassidy Reinken

      Hi Heather,
      Since implementing a modified choice based art curriculum, my students are more engaged , successful and responsible for their learning. I have seen a drastic decrease in unfinished (and thrown away) work. In my opinion, 3 weeks is a long time for students to work on an assignment they appear to not care about. Do you think it’s taking so long because they’re disengaged or because it’s difficult?
      Possibly you could introduce a new assignment with some sort of choice and then tell students they can move on when they’ve finished their perspective assignment. It might give them the motivation to get moving.
      As far as adding choice, teach about portraits but let them choose who they draw and the materials they use. Or have them draw a landscape but they get to pick the type of landscape and materials. Or, choose a broad theme such as change, identity, movement and have them choose the subject and materials. You can limit the materials if it’s their first assignment choice. I find choice assignments are easier to grade with standards based (referenced) grading as well.
      If you’re interested in learning more about choice there is an AOE class starting in January. Best of luck and please tell me how it goes!

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  • mark reiner

    When I am ready to start, I turn off the lights, and count down. This signals to the class that this is “my time” and it is important that when the lights go back on they pay attention, because I am going to share something, usually tied into the goal of the art project. {It should be brief or I find that you will lose them}

    I also do a “good behavior” raffle at the end of class. I number Popsicle sticks so that they can be used for each class based on their number in my attendance per class. I “raffle off” some school money, and a couple of baseball, football or hockey cards…..{you can buy packets at Target near the cash register}

    I insist that each student say “thank you” to which I respond “your welcome”…they really do look forward to the raffle and it is a nice way to teach {reinforce manners} If the class overall has had a bad day, they lose the raffle, but I might give out some “money” to some of the better students …and say “thank you for doing a good job today”

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  • lchavez

    i know this is meant for middle school, but I think the majority of it will work for high school as well.

  • Elizabeth

    What should you do if you are a substitute teacher? It is my first year teaching as a sub and so far I’ve had mostly acceptable behaviorswith classes in middle school. However, I recently had a class that would not do any work. They would not pay attention to a video the teacher left for them to watch and would not work on a worksheet for it. I do not think it’s acceptable for students to walk around the classroom without asking, and they would also constantly do this.

  • Carly Fraser

    hi i love these tips

  • Tara

    Can you tell me more about the art history journals? I love this as an opening warm-up. How do you structure student writing?

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