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Classroom Management | Student Engagement | Middle School

4 Best Strategies to Ensure Your Middle Schoolers Pay Attention

May 10th, 2022 | 10 min. read

Mike Cescon

Mike Cescon

With past experience in teaching, a couple of degrees in writing, and an upbringing immersed in medical jargon, Mike is positioned well to hear out the most common questions teachers ask about the AES curriculum. His goal is to write content that quickly and effectively answers these questions so you can back to what matters - teaching your students.

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As a middle school teacher, you’re probably well aware of how difficult it can be to get students to pay attention in class. These days, middle schoolers seem to be suffering more and more from short attention spans and behavioral problems, which makes your job all the harder. 

So why aren’t students paying attention in class? And what strategies are out there to hook students’ attention? 

As a CTE curriculum developer, teachers often approach us with questions about how to keep students engaged with their course. In response, we’ve developed a list of reliable ways you can keep your students motivated each class period. 

In this article, you’ll discover 4 of the best strategies you can use to handle middle school students not paying attention in your class: 

  1. Use Relatable Examples
  2. Break Instruction Into Smaller Chunks
  3. Incorporate Bell Ringer Activities
  4. Promote Active Learning

By the end of this article, you’ll know more about the common issues that cause students not to pay attention, and how you can use these strategies to re-engage them. 

1. Use Relatable Examples

Copy of Unnamed Design (5)If you’re like most middle school teachers, you’ve probably heard some variant of the phrase: “But when am I ever going to use this?” 

Though you’re likely sick of hearing it, this is an important signal you shouldn’t ignore. It indicates that your students don’t feel like the information they’re learning has any practical application in their lives. This will make it way harder to teach, since your students don’t see any real reason to pay attention. 

To get around this, one strategy is to use more relevant, relatable examples in your lessons, so that students feel like you’re adding real value to their lives. 

Why Relatability Matters

It’s not easy to be a middle schooler. They’re growing up in a constantly-changing world, and they struggle to keep up with it while worrying about their grades, futures, social lives, and more. 

The point is, your students are exposed to thousands of ideas and pieces of information every day, and that can be overwhelming. To break through all of that white noise, you have to draw connections between your lessons and the things your students value. That way, they’ll begin to see reflections of themselves in your course material, and will naturally start to pay more attention. 

How To Make Your Course More Relatable

It’s fairly simple to make your course material more relevant to your students: you just have to think hard about who your students are and what’s important to them. What do they do in their free time? What do they love to talk about in class? 

Take these insights and apply them to your lessons. Is there a way you could showcase examples or assignments that evoke your students’ passions and hobbies? 

For instance, if you teach computer applications and your students love social media, why not prepare a unit based around social media safety? You could teach your students best practices for using social media and keeping themselves safe. Along the way, your students will pick up valuable insights while learning more about the platforms they love. 

If you do it right, making your course more relatable for your students will go a long way toward increasing their engagement. 

2. Break Instruction Into Smaller Chunks

Copy of Unnamed Design (6)Lately, you may have noticed your students not paying attention or misbehaving more than before. There could be several reasons for this: some say peoples’ average attention spans are simply getting shorter, while others blame behavioral issues on COVID trauma caused by children’s isolation during the pandemic. 

Whatever the reason, the reality for thousands of teachers across the country is that their classrooms have recently become much harder to control.

One of the best ways to get around this, however, is to break your instruction up into smaller chunks. This will make it so you don’t overwhelm your students with too much information all at once. 

Why Breaking Up Your Instruction Matters

Whether middle schoolers’ attention spans have shortened, they’re unused to being back in the classroom, or some combination of both, it can be tremendously helpful to break up your instruction into smaller chunks. 

Think about it: if students have shorter attention spans, what benefit will lecturing at them for twenty minutes have? After a few minutes, their eyes will likely glaze over as they think about their after-school plans or hobbies. 

On the other hand, if students are still unused to being back in the structure of a classroom, overwhelming them with sweeping lessons and projects will probably just frighten them and cause them to retreat into themselves. 

Either way, if you start making your lessons and assignments smaller and more digestible for your students, they’re less likely to check out or feel overwhelmed by the information being presented to them. 

How To Break Your Lessons Up Effectively

When it comes to breaking up your lectures, the most important thing is to give your students time to digest and consider each new piece of information you present. In other words, don’t spend a whole half-hour lecturing while failing to give your students the chance to ask questions, take notes, or think about the lesson. 

Instead, consider lecturing for only a few minutes, and then asking students for any questions or to journal their thoughts about what you just said. Do this five or six times, and you’ll have divided your whole half-hour lecture into several smaller, more focused sections.

How To Break Your Assignments Up Effectively

On the other hand, when it comes to assignments or projects, be sure to separate the whole assignment into individual, attainable tasks that students can complete piece by piece. This will help students manage the assignment as a whole, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by what you’re asking of them. 

For instance, say you teach career readiness and assign your students a project on interviewing a professional in the field they one day want to enter. Instead of cutting them loose and expecting them to accomplish it on their own, break the project up into several steps. Some of these steps might be:

  1. Choose the industry they’re interested in entering. 
  2. Identify strong interview candidates who work in the industry, 
  3. Reach out to some of these candidates via phone or email. 
  4. Set up a date for an interview with one or more of them

By breaking your lectures and assignments up into smaller pieces, you ensure your students aren’t overloaded with information or stress. 

3. Incorporate Bell Ringer Activities

Copy of Unnamed Design (7)The first few minutes of a class period can often be the most delicate. You’re trying to reign students in, after all, when moments before they were in the hallways chatting with friends or browsing social media on their phones. 

For many middle school teachers, gaining students' attention at the beginning of class can be more troublesome than you’d think. Though your kids might be sitting at their desks, their minds are still in the hallways with their friends, making it difficult to get them focused on the lesson. 

A surefire way around this is to start class with a bell ringer activity as a clear indicator to students that it’s time to settle in and pay attention. 

What Bell Ringers Are and Why They Matter

A bell ringer is a short activity or assignment that students complete at the beginning of class. 

These can take several forms depending on your course. Math classes, for instance, might have students complete practice problems, while English classes may have students complete a brief Write for Five or journaling activity. No matter how they look, however, a bell ringer activity shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete. 

So why are bell ringers important? Well, bell ringers clearly mark the borderline between free time and class time. 

In other words, they serve as a strong signal to students that class has begun and it’s time to pay attention. These activities also immediately engage students and get them to think critically about the information they’ll be learning that day. If done well, bell ringers will prime students to learn about whatever topic or subject you’re teaching. 

How To Incorporate Bell Ringers in Your Class

Depending on your course, your bell ringers can take many different forms. Some of them include:

  • Questions of the Day are bell ringers where you ask your students an interesting question to prepare them for the day’s lesson. Usually, the question will be designed to get them to think critically about the day's topics. These work well in social studies, English, and other classes. 
  • Vocabulary Reviews are activities where you have students fill out worksheets or answer questions regarding vocab they should have picked up in the previous day’s lesson. They should help students review essential terminology, and can be a strong CTE health science bell ringer
  • Current Event Activities are when you present students with news articles on current world events that you believe have relevance to your course. Students then read the article and briefly reflect on how it connects to what they’ve been learning. These activities can work well for many classes, but fit perfectly as bell ringers for business education or history.

After choosing what bell ringers you think would work best for you, simply start each day of class with one. Try to keep them interesting and relevant so your students will be more willing to participate with them. 

Also, it’s important to use these bell ringers to pivot into the meat of the day’s lesson. If one of your students answers the Question of the Day with particularly good insight, for instance, you can probably use their answer as a springboard to launch the class into a great discussion.

4. Promote Active Learning

Copy of Unnamed Design (8)When most middle school students imagine class, it’s unfortunate that the first image for many of them is a lecture or presentation where the teacher is talking at them all period, while they sit there and struggle to pay attention. 

However, many teachers and students don’t know that this is only one type of learning--called passive learning--which actually works best when used alongside other teaching methods

Instead of passive learning, you can promote active learning, a kind of teaching style where students participate in class and get far more involved in their own learning process. 

By using active learning in your class, you’ll help to draw students in and get them to pay more attention.

Why Active Learning Matters

If students are forced to sit back and watch lectures, videos, or presentations all day, it’s much easier for them to tune out of a lesson and become distracted. Though lectures definitely have their place in a classroom, if they’re used too often, students may feel like their own input isn’t expected or valued. This will lead them to disengage from your course. 

However, if you incorporate active learning in your class, it signals to students that you want to hear their thoughts and have them take a more hands-on role in their education. Students who love the course material will be encouraged to speak up in class, while those who dislike it will still feel a push to engage and contribute, since you expect it from them. 

All in all, active learning is a solid way to handle students not paying attention in your middle school course.

How To Promote Active Learning in Your Class

There are many ways to promote active learning in your classroom. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Class discussions are an alternative to lecturing where the entire class comes together to have a conversation about a specific topic. You might lead off with a lecture before asking students to form their desks in a circle and play a part in the discussion. If done well, your students will feel like they’re all equal contributors to their own learning. 
  • Project-based learning is a teaching philosophy that involves assigning in-depth projects to students to test their critical thinking and creative skills. To complete the project, students have to actively brainstorm, plan, and execute their ideas. This forces them to directly engage with the course material. 
  • Journal or blog writing is another common way teachers incorporate active learning in the classroom. With this method, you might request students to keep a regular journal or blog that they fill out at the end of every class to reflect on the lessons they learned. You might collect and grade their responses to ensure students are thinking deeply about the course material and paying attention. 

Active learning aims to make students play a bigger part in their own education. By giving them more authority in the classroom, you signal to them that you both respect their input and have high expectations for them to contribute in class.

Need More Ways to Engage Students?

If your students aren’t paying attention in class, it can severely hamper your ability to teach, and negatively affect their learning. Worse still, it can be tricky to solve, especially if you don’t know why your middle schoolers are misbehaving or zoning out. 

In this article, you’ve discovered some of the best strategies out there to handle students not paying attention in class. If you employ one or more of these, you’ll be able to rein your students in and make your course one they remember.  

However, these aren’t the only engagement strategies out there. If you want more options to pick from, or more insight into why students aren’t engaging with your course, then check out this free eBook on Keeping Students Engaged with CTE

This guide goes in-depth into the factors that may be killing student engagement in your classroom. It explores topics like forced learning, technology’s place in education, and considers students' opinions on what makes them pay attention in class:

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