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5 Ways to Teach Respect to Middle School Students

Students expect to come to school to learn math, English, science, and social studies. They expect to attend lunch and spend time with their friends and learn something. Through all of the content lessons that students experience in school, there is also a hidden curriculum that we can find across most schools. This hidden curriculum is character education, as we help students navigate social relationships, expectations, and personal development.

Teaching respect to students is an integral piece of this educational experience. We expect students to follow the rules in the classroom and treat others well. There are multiple ways to support this learning in our students as we move through our school year.

1. Explicitly Teach What Is Expected

We can not ask students to demonstrate what we have not explicitly taught them. Spending one class period discussing what respect means and what it looks like can be an extremely valuable tool in teaching students to act in respectful ways. It is also important to notice that respect looks different to different people. Exploring different perspectives as they relate to respect can be key in raising awareness of these differences in student backgrounds and prior experiences.

Practice makes perfect, so as part of your lessons, you may want to consider role-playing activities to give students a chance to practice being respectful in a controlled environment. Provide students with scenarios in small groups and have them act out those scenarios. Have them discuss amongst themselves or with you as you circulate the room and share your observations. If you have an outgoing group, you may choose to have them act them out in front of the rest of the class and talk through different things that the class sees. 

2. Modeling, modeling, and more modeling.

“Do as I say, not as I do” is an ineffective model for anything in life. It’s unrealistic to expect that others, particularly young people, will see others acting one way and act a different way simply because of what we tell them. The actions, behaviors, and cues that happen around us make much more of an impact than the words someone speaks to us. As an adult in this world, but particularly as a teacher in a school, you are responsible for showing students what it looks like to be a respectful person.

Some of your students have great examples at home, so school is not their only learning opportunity. Other students are not as fortunate and can only learn these positive characteristics from adults they encounter at school or other environments. We must model respect in situations where we are excited and happy, but also when we are frustrated and need to extend grace to others. Students are paying attention in those times, whether we are aware or not.

Honestly, it is during these times that they pay the most attention. Your actions speak louder than your words, so be aware and use them to make a difference.

3. Catch them Being Good

Positive reinforcement is key. This doesn’t have to be tangible rewards such as food or tokens, but it may be. Most times, praise and recognition are enough to let a student know that they have done a good thing and you see it. We all want to be recognized and encouraged for the positive things we do. 

You can encourage and reinforce respect by catching students doing the little things—responding appropriately when frustrated, helping classmates, demonstrating respectful behavior such as active listening, and maintaining attention.

The students who may struggle to show respect the most are the ones who benefit most from this type of reinforcement. While students may not always show respect consistently, I guarantee that if you look for it, you will find it. Search for it, encourage it, and continue to recognize it.

4. Respect Raffle: Teach Students to Look for it in Others

As students start to recognize what respect looks like in different settings or with different people, it is a good time for you to change their perspective. You’ve already taught them how to show it themselves. Now teach them to look for it in others.

This changes their mindset without them even realizing it—if your students are looking for how their peers are showing them respect, they will be less likely to overreact to the ways their peers are not. This is a positive shift in perspective and culture and can create major gains in your classroom.

Create a respect raffle—students fill out tickets with other students’ names on them (and turn them into the teacher) with situations in which they saw respect shown in their classroom or school. At the end of a designated amount of time (week/month), shout out the students who have had their names entered, and draw a winning ticket. The winner gets to pick from a prize box or access another prize or reward from a menu of intangibles (extra recess, choose your own seat, etc.) 

5. Calm, Clear, and Consistent Redirection

Teaching respect, especially in middle school, is an imperfect practice. There will be moments (maybe many of them) that do not go according to plan. The key is to redirect students to appropriate behavior calmly, using clear and consistent messages when this happens.

Discuss what those messages should sound like with your grade level or school-wide teams, and make sure that they are clear. Address a behavior the same way every time, whenever possible, and do it calmly. Many students do things that appear disrespectful in an attempt to gain peer or adult attention. Choosing not to give it more attention than it deserves is an important piece in extinguishing undesirable behavior.


Character education is an important piece of learning that students are exposed to as they progress through their education. Using the strategies above can help you prepare your students for their future in the classroom and the workplace. It is a foundational skill to leading a successful life, and there is no better time to learn it than in middle school - if not earlier!


Written by Jacqueline Underwood

Education World Contributor

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