Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 3: Middle Schoolers are Perceptive

It is a mistake to assume that one can pull the wool over the eyes of a middle schooler. Oh sure, you may be able to get away with it for a little while, but make no mistake, middle schoolers are perceptive. They can see through facade of a fake smile or disingenuous praise. When they walk through the doors of a classroom, they are looking at the bulletin boards, the way the desks are set up, and the teacher’s body-language. And, they can tell what kind of learning experience they will encounter in a classroom based on the climate set by the teacher

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not a new term. But it has been in the forefront of edu-speak over the past several years, and more importantly, as a result of the pandemic. One of the organizations that I rely on to keep abreast of research on SEL is the Collaborative for Academic Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website. Introduced to this website several years ago by a good friend (@scottpetrie), I keep this website on speed-dial (I know I just dated myself) as it offers a plethora of strategies to help develop social-emotional skills.

But beyond using the resources from CASEL, I also believe it’s just as imperative to look at the work by Dr. Hardiman: Brain-Targeted Teaching. I was introduced to Dr. Hardiman through my doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins. I regularly go back through her book The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools (2012) to remind me of important considerations to help me help my students.

I gravitated towards her research because it’s practical. Now, this blog post isn’t going to go in-depth on all six brain-targets, but rather I want to focus on Brain-Target One: Establishing the Emotional Climate for Learning. Target One addresses the interplay between emotions and learning.

“Positive emotion has been shown to improve learning outcomes” (Hardiman, 2012, Loc 874). 

Hardiman (2012) postulated that “setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day” (Loc 1016). Research on the effects of poverty and stress on learning and cognition revealed that stress has a negative impact on the overall development of the child (Hardiman, 2012). Although we cannot control what happens outside of the four walls of a traditional classroom, we can (and should) work to establish a warm and welcoming environment for our students. 

It’s important for teachers to set a positive tone for the classroom. This can be accomplished by simply smiling and acknowledging when students enter the room. Some teachers like to stand at the front door and high five their students as they enter. Others may circulate through the room as the students amble in to greet them and ask about their day. I’m the type who walks around the classroom to catch up with students, taking note of their body-language (i.e., easy laughter, bounce in their step,  slouching, scowling face, clenched hands).

When the bell rings, I always greet them, and I expect a collective greeting in return. During the class period, I continue to circulate the room to chat with students, give feedback on their work, answer questions, etc. During the pandemic, I missed being able to individually greet each child and read their body language as they came into class. To address that gap, I put together a Google Form that asked students how they were feeling at that moment by selecting from four different emojis. I always watched the responses come in during the first few minutes of class which was extremely informative. But more importantly, it alerted me to which students might need a bit of extra help, a kind word, or more time to complete an assignment. I collected these responses every single day for the past year and a half during the pandemic.

So you can imagine how touched I was when several students wrote in their last Living History Journal just how much they appreciated (1) an adult asking them how they felt and (2) that someone cared about how they felt every day. It’s no jump to speculate that many students experienced a stressful home environment during the pandemic. I read about it in their journal entries, but I also knew from my own experience living during the pandemic. The unknowns were so hard to live with…for everyone.

But this brings me back to Dr. Hardiman’s point about the importance of establishing a warm and inviting learning environment for students. Students cannot learn when they are not emotionally connected (1) to the teacher, (2) to their peers, and (3) to the learning content (Hardiman, 2012). I cannot say that I was successful in establishing this every day, but it was something that I put high on my To Do List because middle schoolers are perceptive. They didn’t live in a bubble that the pandemic was only happening to them. But I think that (at least I hope that) they looked forward to coming to my class because I was always interested in how they were doing that day—that remains my first and most important priority when it comes to teaching.


Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Corwin.

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