Simplified 2-MIN. READ

Connecting with Middle Schoolers

By: Da’Jhon Jett 02/20/2024
Discover five ways to connect with middle schoolers to enhance learning.
The author, Da'Jhon Jett, stands with his students.

Middle school kids are going through a lot, and for many of them school is the last thing on their minds. New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up and now teach, is a sanctuary city—a safe haven for immigrants. Most of my students are students of color who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Many get up hours before school starts and take on adult responsibilities when they just want to be kids. I try to remember that every day.  

As someone who has taught this age for a few years, I’ve learned how to connect with my students to help them learn. Here are some ideas that have worked for me. 

Build a Sense of Trust

Middle school kids are big on relationships. Their friendships matter, but so do their relationships with adults. They want to make me proud, but they also want to know that I’m there for them, especially if they don’t have support at home. From day one, I set out to build trust with all my kids. I ask them questions and listen. If they know I have their backs and won’t just brush them off, they’ll let down their guard to learn. I know the neighborhoods they live in and have an idea of what they’re dealing with (though I didn’t face many of the problems they face). I remind them that I’m here for them. I don’t make promises beyond my control, and I always keep my word. 

Be Proactive about Reaching Out

I can automatically tell if something is bothering a student when they come into my room. Their clothes might be disheveled, or they’re wearing a hat when they normally don’t wear one, or they’re breaking the norms and acting out. I’ll subtly slip them a note—maybe attached to a paper—that says, “What’s going on?” I encourage them to write to me online privately so no one else has to know. Then, I’ll set up a time to chat. Kids this age do not want to be singled out. They don’t want anyone else to know they’re having a tough time. When they tell me, “Mr. Jett, I’m having a rough morning,” I’ll write back, “Okay, I got you. Let me know what you need.”  

Put Them in the Mood for Learning

Every day, I play a different song as the kids enter the room. They come in dancing and smiling, (and I take requests for future songs), but this small thing is enough to get them excited for class. At first, the whole thing was a little cringy. They’d ask, “Mr. Jett, how do you know this song?” They looked at me like I was old, even though I’m only 31, but I find songs they can relate to.   

I also give them quick brain breaks every day. I incorporate online videos based on what they want to see. Some of the kids will dance along. Some videos just make them laugh. And if I forget our video time, they remind me. When I give them what they want, they give me their best effort.  

Create a Safe Space

I try to create a warm and inviting space in my classroom so my students feel comfortable sharing. I have candy jars, snacks, flexible seating options, and lots of lead pencils, which my kids think are the coolest. I have an ice maker so they can get a cup of ice and crunch on it, which calms them, and we keep the harsh fluorescent lights off. These little things matter. I purchase books they can relate to. Tyrese Sullivan’s book, How TJ Made It and You Can Too! is a great read aloud. It’s about a New Haven native who lost his father when he was a kid and whose two older brothers went to jail. Tyrese didn’t have the grades to make the basketball team, but he had a teacher who believed in him. That’s what mattered.  

Be Vulnerable

When you let down your guard, your kids will too. I also make mistakes on purpose. You can’t make it obvious, or it becomes cheesy, and you lose credibility. You want them to realize they have the skills to figure out where I went wrong. I encourage them to turn and talk to their groupmates to figure out where the error is. It’s important to cement foundational math concepts in their brains so they master the strategies that can help them later.  

Every student has challenges, but at the end of the day, they’re not that different than you and me—they’re just younger people who want to be treated like people—and that is something we can do.

Want to hear more from Da’Jhon? Tune into his Extraordinary Educator™ Podcast for more tips on how to engage your students.