4 Brain-Based Rules For Teaching Middle School

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Teaching middle school is a wild ride! You’ve got the impulsiveness, the lack of hygiene, and the dirty minds to deal with each day. You’ve got the thirteen year olds who think they’re always right, the fringe students whose personal identities are in constant flux, and ultimately, a social world that trumps everything else. They say it takes a certain type of person to teach middle school as if you have to be some sort of wizard or morphing alien, but I took to this demographic really quickly and I have always thought that middle school is the secret gem.

Middle school sign.

My first year of teaching full time as a 7th grade science teacher was a tough year. Not going to sugarcoat it. I cried more times than I remember over behavior issues, parent issues, and generally, just stress.

That year, I read a book called Guys are Waffles, Girls are Spaghetti by Chad Eastham. It helped me to see how I could use information about adolescents’ brains to manage my classroom. Here are the notes that I took from reading that book:

Make a whole out of parts of information, hence the “spaghetti brain” Separate information into individual compartments, hence the “waffle brain”
Tend to use both sides of the brainConcentrate on one thing at a time
Can easily multitaskNeed a clear focus in conversation
The visual/verbal section of the brain is larger than boysTend not to like eye contact
Talking releases pleasure chemicals in the brain of a teenage girlLike to have more personal space
Use two to three more words each day than boysIgnore things at which they feel deficient
Vision is better and energy is higher after satisfying hungerTend to have more energy when hungry

I decided that there were things I could do immediately to acknowledge these differences between girls and boys and use them to my advantage, and I have utilized these strategies for years now!

Seating Boys By The Aisles

One thing that really stuck out to me was that boys need more room. They move around more and feel more comfortable with some breathing room around them. In my science class, I had 9 three-seat tables. When I made my seating arrangements, I tried to seat all of the boys in one of the two ‘aisle’ seats, with the girls in the middle.

This little change really made a difference for two reasons. One– the boys could stretch their legs out to the sides and be freer to stand up. Two– it was a boy-girl-boy-girl seating arrangement, which became an accidental but excellent passive classroom management strategy– the opposite genders sort of kept each other in check. The boys especially were less likely to act silly and say impulsive things when they had a girl sitting between them.

Middle school classroom.

Middle School Classes: Chunking Directions

This seems pretty obvious, but the ideas in the book reiterated to me the importance of chunking directions into bite-sized pieces. I think when you have a big picture of what you want kids to do, it’s easy to get carried away with giving too many instructions at once. I became more conscious of the length of my sentences, especially for those ‘waffle brains’. Directions need to be short and to-the-point so that kids can accomplish each task and not become overwhelmed.


For labs and even other shorter activities, I would type clear, numbered steps and color-code them, then display them on the main screen. This change in how I gave directions helped me to feel less frustrated and especially helped my boys to be more successful in accomplishing multi-step tasks.

I also utilize timers. Sometimes this is just telling the students a direction and giving them a time frame (for example, “I’d like you to write what you think will happen when I add heat to this mixture. You have 1 minute and 30 seconds. Go!”) For longer tasks, it’s amazing what a visual timer on the main screen can do to keep students focused. There are fun classroom timers at Classroom Timers.

That year, I also participated in a webinar by Dr. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind and Super Teaching. The webinar was sponsored by Scientific Learning at SciLearn.com and it was called “7 Discoveries from Brain Research that Could Revolutionize Education”. The following are some takeaways from the webinar that I implemented into my teaching practice immediately and that I have continued to refine.

Positivity Leads To Retention

There is a strong link between emotions and cognition. In order for kids to reach higher-order thinking, they must be in a “good state of mind”. This is because the correlation between kids’ emotional states and their learning is 75 to 80%! Events that coincide with positive emotions produce better memories and better learning than events that coincide with negativity, fear or frustration. And get this– it takes twenty to thirty minutes of chemical recycling for the body to return to normal after a negative experience.

Furthermore, the dopamine release that accompanies a moment of accomplishment or pride instantaneously increases a student’s motivation, attention and memory. The relevancy in the middle school classroom is tremendous. When giving public feedback to students, it’s so important to keep in mind how any tinge of negativity would affect that child’s ability to learn for the next half an hour! Even if a students’ answer is pretty off-base, I try to react positively with something like, “Wow, Ben, I’m impressed by that high-level of thinking, and I think that’s an area worth exploring, but I’d like to keep this conversation around …”

These are strategies that I have employed over the years that I believe foster more positivity and get kids to smile (even if they are rolling their eyes at the same time!):

  • Storytelling about relevant but funny things that have happened to me (for example, when I teach about inertia in physics, I tell the story about how as a waitress I spilled an entire tray of ice water down the back of a bride at her rehearsal dinner!! It was the fault of inertia!)
  • Using music to enhance the learning environment (I always have the kids who sigh when I put on classical music at the beginning of a lab, but yet minutes later, they’re focused and feeling good, not even realizing that the music is affecting them positively!)
  • Using mini-celebrations (awarding high-fives, busting out a dance move, or getting the entire class to ‘snap clap’ in response to an excellent answer from a peer)
  • End the class with something interesting or fun like a strange fact or a silly YouTube video featuring the content of that day’s lesson (making your students feel happy as they walk out of the room will increase their brain’s ability to process what they’ve been exposed to during that class period)
Middle school - pens on teacher's desk.

Discrepant Events & Momentary Diversions

The adolescent brain responds dramatically to events that are out of the norm. I once took a graduate course that was sponsored by Flinn Scientific and there was a module on ‘Discrepant Events in Chemistry’. The instructors gave excellent examples of how, as a science teacher, you can do demonstrations and provide hands-on experiences for your students that pique their interest because of strange or unexpected events. But this concept applies to other classroom events as well, especially because the middle school brain responds most to novelty:

  • Place an odd object (something really large or otherwise misplaced in the classroom) somewhere that is visible to the students so when they walk in for class, they are immediately wondering what is going to happen that day
  • If the students are looking a bit bored or low-energy, randomly instruct them to gather their materials, stand up, and shift three seats to the right (this request will be met with sighs and eye-rolls, but everyone will be in a better mental place when they arrive at their new seat!)
  • Take a “30-second Silent Freak Out” (my aunt was a 5th grade teacher for 25 years and she taught this trick to me. Sometimes this is the only way forward on a ‘Full Moon Day’ when your lesson is not going as planned or you want to pull your hair out for some reason. Take a deep breath and tell the class that you’re all going to have a 30-second Silent Freak Out. It is what it sounds like– 30 seconds of everyone silently screaming, throwing their hands in the air, and fist pumping! It’s a great stress reliever!)
  • Pop a totally random photo in the middle of your Powerpoint presentation, like the latest pop star doing something silly. Breeze by this slide without saying anything and all of a sudden you will have kids sitting up asking you to go back, go back!

Seizing opportunities to meet kids where they are cognitively and creating opportunities to get middle schoolers engaged is the key to unlocking the ‘certain type of person’ middle school teacher mystery! I hope that some of these ideas are helpful and I’d love to hear more of yours in the comments section!

Why Middle School?
Some basic facts about Middle School students in this great video by Summer Howarth.

This article was originally posted on Sunrise Science by Karla.

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I am certified in New Jersey to teach H.S. Biology, Chemistry, and Elementary Education and I hold a M.S. Science Education with emphasis in Chemistry. I have eight years of teaching experience including 7th and 8th grade science for 7 years at my Alma-mater middle school.


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