How to Control Middle School Students’ Problem Behaviors

Dear Kid Whisperer,

In the urban middle school where I teach, students get warning checks in their agendas when they misbehave. Once they get to the third in one day, they get detention. It isn’t working with my students and the whole school is pretty crazy. What can I do to get better control of my students? — Steve, Columbus, Ohio


These types of school-wide systems are quite common. Unfortunately, I have never seen them be successful with difficult kids. However, while I have been to many schools, I have not been to every school, so maybe this type of system is really effective with tough kids. I just have not seen that yet.

I will briefly show you one reason why these systems can be less than effective before I show you a way to be highly effective while working within the system.

You say that every kid can do two things wrong every day before any consequences occur? Well, if you have 500 students in your middle school, and two negative behaviors can be exhibited before anything happens to anybody, then 1,000 negative behaviors can occur without any consequences happening to anyone.


In my roles as a teacher, principal, superintendent, behavioral consultant and father, the kids around me know that consequences can befall anyone for anything at any time, just like in real life. There are no warnings; there are no lectures. There are just real-life consequences that are logical and delivered with empathy. What will the consequence be? I usually have no idea. I just sadly tell kids that there will be a consequence, and I come up with the consequence later when I am not teaching, not on my way to an IAT meeting, and not en route to dropping my daughter off at school.

This kind of consequencing can be done with any age kid, even when you work in a building with this kind of system in place. I have yet to meet an administrator who would not allow teachers to create solid logical consequences for students who needed to learn a lesson about how to act in a civilized society.

This is how I would consequence a negative middle school behavior in a school like yours that has a behavior warning system. The first step is that I explain to my students that part of my job is to help them understand how the world works and that I will be helping them to learn this by allowing them to practice acting in a way that does not cause a problem for anyone (if they have shown that they don’t already know how to do this).

Kid Whisperer: Oh man, throwing books across the room? Yeesh. I will be doing something about that later. Don’t let it get you down though. I will talk to you about it later.

Kid: But you’re supposed to give me a warning checkmark!

Kid Whisperer: OK, I’ll give you one when I get a chance.

Kid: Is something still going to happen to me?

Kid Whisperer: Yep.

Kid: That’s not fair!!!

Kid Whisperer: Thanks for sharing.

The kid can throw a fit if he wants. He will also receive a consequence for that if it causes a problem… later.

Later, I will have this student practice not throwing books for an hour after school or during lunches. All he has to do is sit at his desk with an unthrown book on the desk. Once he masters not throwing books (by not throwing books) he is free to go about living his life until he again needs to learn to not cause problems. If he needs to practice again, I’ll be waiting.