Engaging Middle School Students in Large Group


Have you ever been in front of a room full of middle schoolers and wanted to throw something at them? Have you ever felt like they make it simply impossible for you to teach?

If you have, then you’re not alone. Because there’s something about being in a room full of middle schoolers that leaves you wondering, “Are they even capable of listening?”

The truth is a room full of middle school students requires a lot more room management.  While you can let middle schoolers in a Small Group setting have a little more freedom, middle schoolers in a large group space need a lot more structure in order to avoid total and complete chaos. 

As Duffy Robbins says, “middle school students are drawn to the oldest person in the room who takes them seriously.” And in my experience, that’s so true. Because as much as middle schoolers are still kids, they’re also not. They really want to matter. They want someone to talk to them like they’re adults. They want to be taken seriously. And when they feel like they’re being treated like children, they simply shut down.

I think that’s why one of the mistakes a lot of people make in managing a large group of middle schoolers is to try and control the room. Keep in mind that more rules or severe consequences don't necessarily equate to better behavior. In fact, I think what I've learned about managing a room full of middle school students is that the more you let them go, the easier they’ll come back to you. Whether it's a moment of laughter, or talking to the person next to them for a second, or letting them scream out an answer, the more chances for freedom you give them, the more likely you’ll be to have their attention as you go. 

I think of it like Spiderman. (Yes, this is a very strange comparison, but just go with me!). When Spiderman opens his palm, he can throw his web away before pulling it right back to him. The same is true for middle schoolers. You let them go, but then in a second, you pull them back. 

So how do we do that? How do we make it work? Well, something that has really helped me is to change the pace of how I’m talking. It helps me keep control of the middle school students in the room, no matter if it’s in Small Group or Large Group. Maybe you start by talking really, really fast. You tell a story, and you get really excited as you go. But then all of the sudden, you stop, not because you’re glaring at kids who are talking, but because you’re making a conscious choice to leave students on the edge of their seats. Communicators call that a pregnant pause, and trust me, it works. Because all of the sudden, the kids who weren’t listening realize you’ve stopped talking. Just like that, their attention is back on the stage because they’re wondering what’s just happened.  

Another trick? Change your position in the room. A lot of times people want to call out the people who are distracting the room, but that unintentionally breaks up the flow of the room. Instead, if you just walk toward them while you keep talking, they will actually stop talking (most of the time).

I think so many of us as student leaders or communicators think, "I just want them to listen while I'm teaching.” I understand that, but the reality is, most middle schoolers just can’t solely sit and listen. It’s just not going to work for their phase of development. That’s why planning times that allow them to stop and interact or move around throughout your talk will help them tremendously. Say things like, “Turn to the person next to you and share your answer,” or, “On the count of three, I want everyone to yell this out,” you’re planning in times for them to get loud and start talking without interrupting your message. If you plan those times for them to interact and talk, then they’ll be less likely to start chatting when you don’t want them to talk. They'll be better behaved and more focused because you've given them an outlet already.

The truth is, a lot of how we interact with middle schoolers depends on our personality make up and the quality of relationship you have with the students. What works for me may not work for you. But what works for you may not work for me in my context with my personality. That’s okay! But let’s keep sharing with each other what is and isn’t working so we can all keep getting better. 

What’s your strategy for communicating with a large group of middle schoolers? 

Ashley Bohinc