How to See When Students Aren’t Engaged: Middle School

By Scott Sterling

This is the second in a series about noticing when students aren’t engaged with a lesson and what to do about it. Each installment of the series corresponds to a grade level. This week: middle school.

Middle school has a reputation as the toughest level to teach. When a middle school teacher tells an outsider what they do, they are often met with either a “Wow!” or a low whistle.

It just makes scientific sense that middle school students would be the hardest to keep on track. Bodily changes and fluctuations in social structures take precedence over school work. It’s natural. Those are also not an excuse. With these best practices and some diligence, even the most confused middle schooler can be turned around.

Laziness begets laziness

Elementary students are more open to learning and following social cues, but middle schoolers are quick to jump on bandwagons. That means if a teacher doesn’t seem engaged, the students will be quick to follow.

The easiest way to show that engagement is by walking around and interacting with students on a constant basis. Temporarily join small groups. Conduct in-person knowledge checks. Simply listen in on conversations. Activity is the fastest way to maintain control of the classroom.

Signs of engagement

  • For middle schoolers, eye contact is already a challenge (they want to be looking at something – or someone – else). If you have eye contact, you have their interest. Don’t settle for anything less.
  • As their parents are more than willing to attest, just because middle schoolers are nodding their heads, they might not be listening.
  • The raising of hands carries a lot more weight in middle school. In many cases, it can be a social risk. Establish an inquisitive culture in your classroom early.
  • Promptly getting on task.


Signs of keen interest

  • Lots of questions being asked. If they encounter something of interest, middle schoolers want to know how this information fits within the world that they are starting to piece together for themselves.
  • Ignoring other classmates. Middle schoolers would much rather chat with their friends, so winning that battle is a big clue.
  • Wanting to modify tasks. It may seem like if they want to bend the rules on a task that they aren’t engaged with the original assignment. What it actually means is that they want it to fit better for their understanding and how they’ve developed their world view. It means they are taking the task seriously.


Reengagement strategies

Most of the reengagement strategies used in elementary school come off as “childish” to middle schoolers, an adjective they avoid at all costs. Things like “1 2 3, eyes on me” are beneath them.

Instead, you’re looking for novelty. The middle school teacher needs to find as many reengagement strategies as they can and swap them out frequently. Something often needs to be new for it to gain a middle school student’s attention. That being said, there is one that makes a lot of sense for middle schoolers and should be employed on a regular basis, if for no reason than to take a quick “temperature” of the room:

Engagement Cards – Each student has access to a green, yellow, and red card on/in their desk. Periodically during a lesson, ask students to hold up the card that corresponds to their engagement level. Green is fully engaged, yellow is sort of engaged, and red is completely lost or distracted (although just the practice of asking for the cards should fix that).

Middle schoolers are full of opinions. They value an opportunity to share their thoughts, especially with adults (who, from their perspective, never care what a “kid” thinks). Regular surveys are great, but the engagement cards give them a quick fix.

Teaching in middle school is a special experience. The skills necessary can’t necessarily be taught, only learned. But keeping the students engaged is necessary to make sure the teacher isn’t the only one doing the learning.

Next Week: High School