So, last week I talked a bit about how middle school students are simultaneously capable of far more and far less than you would think. You can read that post here. Today , I want to talk about some ways to motivate and/or discipline them that I have found useful.
When I started out in my current job, I really struggled. I had these huge classes of middle school kids (between 26 and 80 at one point). Because class was held in the theatre, they sat in the bleacher seating, not in regular desks. This many kids in a non-traditional setting made it really hard. Also, they had to choose between chorus and band. Sometimes it wasn't that they really wanted to be there--they just maybe disliked chorus slightly less than they disliked band. In other words, the vast majority of these kids were not intrinsically motivated by the content of the class. A few were, but most were not.
I nearly went crazy for the first few months. I was unhappy, and so were my students. As their behavior got worse and worse, I decided to match them with punitive actions. I acted very strict and gave out demerits for every infraction of my rules--of which there were many. I became like a policeman and the disciplinary measures became overwhelming for me to track.
S0, I started experimenting and finally found success with the following principles. Incidentally, I don't claim that these are unique to me. I'm just telling you what I found that worked.
1. Reward, reward, reward. Students of this age will respond far better to rewards than to punishment. I found a few rewards that have been very successful. For example, if a student answers a question correctly, I throw them a starburst. You would be amazed at how this very small thing motivates them. I also found out that if I let students earn minutes of recess by behaving, singing a passage well, etc., that they will do almost anything to earn those precious minutes. This has been as close to a silver bullet as I've ever found. If you think about it, most of what adults do is because we seek a reward, not because we are trying to avoid punishment. We go to work every day to earn money. We exercise (at least I've heard some people do this) to look and feel better. When the motivation is a penalty, we are not nearly as quick to comply. Lots of people speed, cheat on taxes, etc. What's the difference? There's no reward for compliance--only penalties and many people decide the risk is not as great as the potential reward. Think about that. Most of us interact with kids using negative consequences and very little positive. Let them earn rewards they like instead of withholding privileges. This has been transformative for me.
2. Be as immediate as possible. I used to let them accumulate recess minutes in a bank and then, on a few days I'd let them go outside during chorus time and use whatever minutes they had. I generally made sure these days overlapped with days we couldn't have normal rehearsal for various reasons. However, I've found that letting them use these minutes each week works much better. In order for either rewards or consequences to have much of an impact on this age, they need to be immediate. Adolescents simply don't think in the long term. Next month might as well be next year or next decade.
3. Use small, bite-sized chunks. A colleague of mine has his 7th graders devise, execute, and then write-up a significant science project each year. The level of detail and organization this requires is substantial and flies in the face of everything I believed about what 7th graders could do. So, I started observing this and trying to figure out why it worked. First of all, he focuses like a laser on this project. It is a major point of emphasis in class and the whole years is structured around it. Secondly, he has broken the assignment into tiny, bite-size chunks and mini-assignments. For example, if you say, "You have a science project due in 6 months" they will accomplish nothing. But, here's what he does: "Next week, you need to bring in three news stories on scientific topics." Then, they have to come up with a few questions those articles raise. Then they have to suggest an experiment that might answer a question. Then they have to identify the dependent and independent variables that would be used. On and on. Tiny, bite-size chunks that they report on at regular intervals. My colleague requires them to come in for two of three conferences with him to check on progress, discuss problems, etc. He makes himself available for this on weekends and holidays and so on.
4. Be as concrete as possible. Adolescents do not generally deal with abstraction. Our school gives out demerits for infractions of rules. These have their place, but I have found them to be of limited utility. I used to spend a lot of time after play rehearsals picking up sweatshirts and books and binders and all manner of things. Saying "please" didn't do much. So, I gave out demerits. That didn't do much, either. Part of the problem is that the demerits don't really do anything until the students have accumulated 5 of them. Then they have to go to detention. But that is too abstract and too distant for most students. So, I decided that if I was running a maid service, I would insist on being paid. I now pick up whatever is left and then email an invoice charging three cans of Dr. Pepper--to be paid for with the student's own money per item. Since doing this, I hardly ever have to pick anything up, and I don't think I've ever had to pick up the same student's stuff twice. I can only conclude that it's a much more concrete and immediate consequence than the demerits.
5. Be consistent. In working with middle school kids, you have to have a very clear idea of what you want. You have to focus on that like a laser and not be distracted. Pick one or two things you will not budge on and then be unyielding. Middle school kids, for the most part, do not understand exceptions. There might be a very good reason to make an exception. Don't. Nuance generally does not work. You will give them a complex explanation of why, in this case, you are going to make an exception. It might make sense and they will nod and acknowledge that they understand. But they will not. All that will register is that you made an exception. I have fallen into this trap over and over. They are not as mature as they look. Their ability to deal with abstractions is very minimal.
6. Understand what you are trying to do. You need to very clearly understand what you hope to accomplish with discipline or motivation. Let me give you an example. When I was younger, my mother got tired of picking up our stuff--which we left liberally all over the house. Anything she picked up was put in a closet and to retrieve it, we had to do chores.
This is a logical and very rational bit of discipline. And, as far as I can remember, it did absolutely nothing to change our behavior. As far as I know, we still left things out at the same rate. So, in terms of changing our behavior, it was not successful. But, it was a wonderful way to teach us a lesson about life and real-world. It was also the right thing to do. So, I think it was a success--but not in the short-term. It's important not to confuse means and ends--but it is also devilishly difficult at this age.
Pick what you want to achieve and then focus on it relentlessly.
7. Realize that there are some things that you just have to bite your lip and deal with. The reality is that some middle school boys would literally rather die than sing loudly and with energy and emotion. They don't want to look stupid or be made fun of. That means there is literally nothing I can do to compel them to do this. So, I need to not fight it. I try to encourage and motivate, but I have also come to accept the parameters I'm dealing with. Similarly, some kids will simply not clean their rooms regardless of what you threaten. So, decided if it's really worth the effort.
There's more I'd like to say, but I think I'll save it for future posts.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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