Puppies and Middle School Children...Some Classroom Management for Back to School!

During summer, I like to reflect on the previous school year and plan for the next one.  I reflect on what worked and what I'd like to do better.  I think about why I do things the way I do them, and how I can tweak and improve my work to make it more effective for my students.

...And somehow, I find ways to take life events and daily occurrences and pull out the lessons that might help me manage my middle school choral classroom better.

Sometimes, the comparisons are ridiculous. 


Puppies and Middle School Classroom Management.  

In February, I unexpectedly lost this incredibly beautiful and sweet doggie, Maxie.

I will never forget him.  He was 11 years old.  Our times together were so very memorable and fun.  Here are some of the things I treasure most about that little boy:  

He was hungry.  He kept our floors perfectly clean because he licked up every morsel of food.  He loved to chase squirrels.  He loved feeling the sun on his back.  He was a great supervisor of laundry duty.

Certainly, dogs go to heaven.  If they don't, I don't know who would.

So, I mourned.  Deeply.  His sudden loss shook me to my core.

I knew that, at my age (30, of course....not), I wasn't going to wait too long for puppy love, but I knew I couldn't get one immediately. It would be irresponsible because from March to May, my world at school with my students is insane as I'm sure most of you can relate.  During that time, we have adjudicated festivals with all 300 choir members and our annual full scale musical revue happens in early May.  

So, reluctantly, I waited.  

The weekend after my spring musical revue, I drove to Waleska, GA, and I met this little boy.  

This is Beaux.


I'm probably biased, but he's got to be the cutest puppy ever.

Then, it gets real...

The peeing.  The pooping.  The shoe-chewing.   The biting.  The out of control jumping.  The barking.  ...And on and on.

...And then you start thinking "What have I done?  Am I ready for this?"  

It's similar to the feeling we get at about the third or fourth week of school after the "honeymoon" period has ended with our middle school children.  

That's when the rubber meets the road.  That's when our words no longer matter and it becomes about what we DO.  

Before I go any further, I want to write two disclaimers:
#1:  I am not a dog trainer.  I am making it up as I go just like I did my first year of teaching!  Thank goodness for "google".
#2:  Middle School children are not puppies...obviously!  :-)

So....how is raising a puppy similar to running a middle school classroom?!

#1)  Both puppies and middle school students need lots of 
Praise, Reward and Positive Recognition.

Where I grew up, when a puppy had an accident in your house, you were supposed to yell at him and then rub his nose in it. 


In my early years of teaching, I remember people telling me "Don't Smile Before Christmas."  

Well, both of those things sound awful to me.   

Whose bright ideas are these and why are they training puppies or teaching middle school?  Would YOU feel good about learning from somehow who rubbed your nose in poop or someone who is frowning every time you enter the classroom?

Right now, with my new puppy, I'm taking him outside several times per day.  When he pee-pees or poops outside, we have a party!  I have a treat ready in my pocket to give to him immediately upon the finishing of the deed.  After a few weeks of pee-pee and poop parties, my little puppy has now gone three days in a row with no accidents inside the house!   In fact, two times, he barked at the door to let me know it was time to take him out!  He's getting it!!  

Puppies naturally want to please, and so do our middle school children...unless we are mean to them, disrespectful to them or don't listen to them. 

Are puppies and middle school children full of energy?  Yes.  Do they need play?  Yes.  Do they do bad things sometimes?  Yes.

The question is how we respond to it.

I learned through many failures during my early years of teaching that positive reinforcement matters.  When I started teaching, I looked 14 years old, so I thought I had to be mean.  They hated me, and they made my life miserable until I figured it out.

When I catch my middle school children doing the right thing, I praise publicly.  Sometimes, I reward them by giving them a sticker.  After receiving three stickers, they get a Starburst.    

It doesn't matter how you praise, but it's important to do it.

It is so important for us, as teachers, to brainstorm about all of the ways we can publicly recognize and reward positive behaviors in our children often.  

#2:  Puppies and Middle School Children need Structure

You come home after a long day of teaching.  You are very excited to greet your puppy.  What do you find?  ...Shredded pieces of toilet paper, piles of poop and pee pee to clean up and chewed up shoes.  

No fun.  

You are angry and  frustrated.  Why doesn't he know better?!

Well...because we haven't set him up for success with clear boundaries and structure.

And it isn't enough to state the rules and procedures.  You have to practice them daily.

Puppies and middle school children feel your anger and frustration when they haven't pleased you, and they respond to it.   Your relationship with them will be impacted.  That's why it is best to set them up for success by providing daily rituals and routines.  

Puppies and middle school children thrive on it.

When I leave the house or when I can't watch him closely, he goes into his crate.  I never give him free reign to roam through the house because if I do, he is going to do something bad.  I'll be upset, and he will feel it.   

When he is out of the kennel, he needs structure too.  We have done our best to set him up for success by always keeping him in our sight when he is out of his crate.  We've placed barriers at open doorways to keep him close enough that we can hear him and monitor his behavior.  By being able to monitor, we can reward the good behaviors and gently correct ones we don't like when they happen.    

Does it take time to teach structure?  Absolutely...but the long-term rewards are immense.   

How do you want your students to come into your room?  Do you want them to wait at the door until you open it?  Or do they get to come in when they want?   What is the first thing you expect them to do when they sit down?  What should they bring to class each day?  How will you dismiss your children at the end of class?  Will you dismiss by rows?  What will they do with their chorus folders?  (Click the link to see a previous blog post on dealing with folders.)

These are just a few things we have to teach in the first few days.  

Our children don't know what we want unless we show them.  Our children and our puppies are not mind-readers.  They need us to patiently guide them.  

I begin teaching structure on the very first day of school.  Two years ago, I created this lesson to help teachers prepare for the first day of school.
In the power point, I've shared ideas for a game to help teachers begin forming positive relationships with their students, a copy of my syllabus, and ideas for setting up your classroom on and before the first day of school.  

#3  Puppies and Middle School Children need FUN, brief effective learning sessions.

I've been teaching Beaux how to "sit" and "stay" as well as a few other tricks.  

I get out the treats, we head to the living room, and we start the training session.  He loves the treats, and he cannot WAIT to figure out how to earn one. 

After about 5 minutes, the little boy is done.  He exhibits all the signs of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  He starts scratching or looking at the bird that just flew by the window.

The truth is that it doesn't matter whether a child has ADD or not.   Nobody wants to sit in a non-interactive, unchanging session of any kind for very long.  We get bored, and we mentally check out. 

Sometimes, my puppy just needs to run.  Sometimes, middle school children need to move.  They give us the signals!  My puppy starts growling and jumping at my feet!  My middle school children start looking at the clock.  It's up to us to learn to recognize the signals and change up the activity or the manner in which we are presenting it so we can create a more enjoyable learning experience for our students.

We have to avoid lecturing the life force out of our children.     

In a 50 minute class period, I have found that using several 10-15 minute learning sessions works well for me.  I like to think of these critical points as I prepare and present my lessons:

1)  I want to have a specific achievable arc of learning.
2)  I want to use effective and varied kinesthetic, aural and visual techniques for teaching the particular learning goals of the day. 
3)  I want at least one moment of laughter and fun!  More if possible!

Otherwise, they check out...just like my little Beaux.

In addition to the teaching ideas for the first day of school that I've shared in "Back to School! What do you MEAN I Can't Smile Before Christmas?!?", I use the game, Forbidden Pattern, with my students on the first day.  This video of the game was taken on the very first day of school with my sixth graders in 2013.

This particular game helps them learn solfege and have a good time doing it!  Forbidden Pattern is Lesson 1 in the S-Cubed series, and it reflects the philosophical and technical basis of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.  It's fun, it's short and effective, and you get to use your special personality traits with your students while building your relationship with them...all while they learn!

Puppies are such a delight.  They are silly.  They are sponges for learning. They want to move.  They want some level of independence, but they aren't ready for too much of it.  

They want to please.  They are loyal.

Adopting a puppy isn't for everyone and neither is teaching middle school.  If we approach puppies and middle school children with anger and frustration, they can turn on us quickly.  When we invest the time and energy to learn and develop positive, proper, and effective teaching strategies and classroom management techniques, it brings out the very best in them.  

During my 23 years of teaching this age group in my public middle school choral classroom, I have found my students to be incredibly generous, loyal and well...silly...just like Beaux!

Look at the energy of this pup!  It beams in this picture.  He needs to run.  He wants to discover, and he wants to learn.  He wants us to notice him. 

This world is brand new to him.

He needs my guidance...My structure...My patience...so that I can teach him what I expect of him.  

He isn't born knowing.  

He is just a puppy.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, and wishing you a wonderful and rewarding new school year with your middle school children!

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  1. Although I work with all age kids, MS kids are my absolute favorites. Why? Because honestly, I believe they appreciate us the most. And they laugh at our jokes. And they love it when we're "observant" funny.
    We once had a dog named Elton Good Doggy. One of my students commented accurately, "Your dog is just like you guys. Super warm and friendly, but haha he does exactly what he wants."
    As a much better mom and teacher than dog trainer, I salute you your patience with both kids and puppies. Great post!

  2. What a sweet puppy! My dad taught dog training classes when I was younger, and I agree that so much of what I learned through observing his classes relates to teaching. Just as you pointed out, they don't come into our classes knowing what we expect of them. We must teach our expectations just as we teach musical concepts :)

  3. LOVE! Middle Schoolers and Puppies...so true. Great post with lots of content to be applied. My family doesn't have a dog, but my children do want a puppy badly. However, we do have a middle schooler and a high schooler. I can't imagine that a puppy would be any more difficult :)

    1. Thank you for reading and for leaving this comment!

  4. This post made me smile! Middle schoolers and puppies..who knew? :-)

  5. While I don't teach middle school, I think there are many points here that I can use with my 4th & 5th graders. I especially like the part about fun, effective learning sessions. Get out the treats and begin, but the attention only lasts so long. Teachers of younger classes have a tendency to use more stickers and other rewards than the 4th & 5th grade teachers. In my elementary school, a frequent comment is that the children should not need a treat to do what they were supposed to do anyway. While that may be true, I think we have to remember that they are still CHILDREN! When teachers complain that these kids are "too grown," maybe it's us who encouraged them to act that way because we stopped playing the games and offering little rewards to make learning fun. Thanks for a great post to get me thinking at the beginning of this new school year!

  6. I'm so glad you shared this post! It takes a special person to reach middle school aged children, and you are definitely one of the special ones. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! #fermatafridays

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