Middle School Students and the 4Cs—A Recipe for Success

By Discovery Education

Ways to help students survive and thrive in the middle school years may lie in the 4 C’s: collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity

The middle school years can be among the toughest for teachers, administrators, and students themselves.

In my work across the country helping school systems create professional learning opportunities that help transform teaching and learning, I’ve had the opportunity to see innovative school districts create support systems that are improving the outcomes of middle school students.  While there’s no easy recipe for supporting this complicated group of children, one of the keys to thriving in the middle school years may lie in the 4 C’s of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.  Here are some ways students and teachers can leverage the 4Cs for middle school success:


As students transition to middle school, they go from the predictability of a singular homeroom teacher to the hustle and bustle of changing teachers many times a day by subject. With so much variability between classes, it is essential that middle school teachers collaborate to avoid the chaos that can result from differing classroom expectations.

Joint planning sessions can give teachers the benefit of each other’s experiences with individual students. Sharing experiences helps educators build in additional supports for students with differing needs. And when the whole middle school team is aware of a specific issue, they can support a comprehensive approach that helps the student succeed. Regular collaboration provides the opportunity for teachers to address challenges, taking into account the social and emotional factors that impact classroom behavior and academic results.

In addition, I would suggest that teachers should also be allowed time to observe other middle school teachers on their team in a nonevaluative manner.  Providing the opportunity for such observation can lessen teacher frustration. School administrators should consider release time at least twice a year to allow teachers to see how their colleagues deal with common classroom issues.


Middle school students still want to know teachers and administrators care about them. They need for their personal interests to be recognized and for things they’ve done outside of the classroom to be acknowledged. The most successful middle school teachers I’ve witnessed recognize that every interaction counts – they develop and build relationships with their students and provide encouragement on a personal level. They know who is on the soccer team, who is taking piano lessons, and who can’t wait for the next Marvel movie to come out. The simple fact is that middle school students respond better in the classroom when they know their teachers have also taken an interest in the things that matter to them most.

New teachers or substitute teachers coming into a middle school classroom deserve special preparation. They should be provided the middle school rules and given any classroom strategies that help maintain order.  These might include giving students five minutes to review in small groups before an exam or giving them an extra break during a long afternoon class session. And maybe not trying too hard to keep order during the last period on Friday afternoons!

Creativity & Critical Thinking

Often, school administrators use their critical thinking skills to find creative ways to provide the resources needed to support their middle school teachers. In addition, school administrators also need to allow middle school teachers some room to use their critical thinking skills and develop the creativity needed to manage relationships with their students.

For example, everyone knows that middle school students often find it hard to sit still and focus. They need movement and change throughout a class period. Teachers need to have the flexibility to let students get up from their desks and work in pairs with partners or take unscheduled breaks between exams, and should be encouraged to find new ways to manage their classrooms effectively.

A final thought for administrators: Everyone knows you’re the head of the community, but your classroom teachers need to know that your presence is supportive, and not punitive.  Support from leadership in finding creative ways to improve the middle school experience not only builds a better classroom experience for students, but also helps more deeply engage teachers and helps improve overall school culture.

The Bottom Line

A personal connection between teachers and students can help support middle school success, and together, teachers and school administrators can help build and strengthen that personal connection. Middle school students can be tough to embrace, so training and professional learning opportunities should focus not just on subject matter expertise, but also on adolescent development.

It’s not rocket science – it’s not even middle school science – but leveraging the 4 Cs may help educators navigate the challenges and successfully reach middle school students to positively influence their path in life.

By Justin Karkow, Senior Director at Discovery Education. Karkow is a former instructional technology facilitator for the Wake County Public School System. At Discovery Education, he helps school systems across the country combine digital content and professional learning opportunities in innovative ways that support the success of all students.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance.

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