From across the lunchroom, above all the other hubbub, a suspicious sound catches my ear. My middle school teacher radar goes to DefCon 5, and I make my way to a certain table of boys. One of them looks up, a twinkle in his eye, “Mrs. Acuña, you did not just hear our naughty laugh.” “Oh yes,” I say. “I definitely heard it, and guess what? I’m going to hang out with you for the rest of lunch.”
Because this is a regular occurrence, the boys rarely protest my presence. They may ask, with mock seriousness, “Mrs. Acuña! Don’t you trust us?” And I will just look at them, one eyebrow raised.
I don’t waste time asking them what made them laugh. Chances are they’ll deny everything and possibly even head down the road of disrespect. They’ll also just continue the discussion when they’re out of earshot. All I want at this moment is for them to realize I’m onto them, and for them to stop whatever it is they’re doing.
This is a choice I have to make every day: to deal with a situation or to just make it stop. My response depends on who’s involved and what I either know or suspect is happening. I will always get right in the middle if I see or hear meanness directed at another student, or if I hear inappropriate language, or when I sense someone’s about to escalate into rage.
On the other hand, I’ll let it go if it doesn’t seem too serious, if it’s between two close friends, or if there isn’t time to deal with it. How do I know when to wade in and when to turn the other ear? Instinct and experience.
Over the years I’ve learned that getting to the bottom of a situation isn’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s enough just to stop the behavior and move on. They already know they’re being naughty, and they know they’re caught. No consequence needed.
But there are times when the behavior is so bad that there must be consequences. Bullying, cheating, showing disrespect to authority or peers, vandalism–all of these are serious and need to be pursued.
If you are a parent or leader of middle schoolers, don’t be too quick to react when you suspect improper behavior. Take a moment to listen and even ask a question or two, and then choose how to proceed. Maybe laughing and staying close is all that’s needed. Or maybe something tougher.
And here’s a veteran tip: instead of yelling when you confront misbehavior, lower your voice. It’s much scarier–just ask any of my students.