The 3 Rs for Middle School Success

The importance of focusing on relationships, reflection, and retakes

Is great teaching rocket science?


It’s actually far more complicated.

Maslow & Bloom

The middle school years can be some of the most exciting, yet nerve-racking phases in life. Recent studies have identified the vast differences between the young and mature brain and the implications for teaching and learning. Neuroscience clarifies the necessary elements in an environment conducive to cultivating student success.

When it comes to middle school students’ success, educators benefit by understanding this principle: to grow Bloom’s, we must first cultivate Maslow’s. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies the basic needs children require such as food, shelter, acceptance and security, and small accomplishments, in order to have the confidence to fulfill their academic and critical thinking potential. This critical thinking potential is analyzed and described in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In education, sometimes we force-feed academics, yet starve students’ basic Maslow needs. If we want to increase students’ success, in most circumstances, the process needs to be reversed: we must meet Maslow before Bloom.

Enter the new 3Rs for middle school success.

The middle school brain often has an overactive amygdala and an underactive prefrontal cortex, which means that middle schoolers struggle with emotional regulation, stress, impulse control, organizational and planning skills, causal connection, and rational judgments.

Though reading, writing, and arithmetic are crucial parts of our students’ success, with educational neuroscience in mind, consider these 3Rs first: relationships, reflection, and retakes.


In real estate, the three things that determine the value of property are location, location, location. In education, the three things that determine the value of the learning environmentare relationships, relationships, relationships.

Perhaps the most important element in student success is the teacher-student relationship. Dr. Rita Pierson nailed a complex neurological principle in her “Every Child Needs a Champion” TED Talk when she stated, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

Though it is of course possible for them to learn from a teacher they dislike, neurologically speaking it is more difficult because when students are negatively stressed, their affective filter increases, which decreases their ability to learn.

How can educators decrease student stress? Build positive relationships with them. Why? Positive relationships increase a positive mindset and, according to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, when our brains are operating from a positive mindset, the likelihood for learning increases exponentially. A positive mindset increases learning because we are more creative, enthusiastic, cognitively engaged, and nearly all of our body systems function more effectively.

Students who feel valued and have a positive connection with teachers also perform better because kids strive to please those they admire and respect, thereby putting more effort into their assignments. They also are not afraid to seek input and help from people who provide them positive support and guidance, an important component in being successful.

According to Emily Gallagher, author of “The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students,” teacher-student connection has a profound positive influence on achievement:

Teachers play an important role in the trajectory of students throughout the formal schooling experience (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008). Although most research regarding teacher-student relationships investigate the elementary years of schooling, teachers have the unique opportunity to support students’ academic and social development at all levels of schooling (Baker et al., 2008; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; McCormick, Cappella, O’Connor, & McClowry, in press). Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005).

Gallagher further elaborates that when there is a teacher-student disconnection, there can be a decrease in achievement:

Although many studies focus on the importance of early teacher-student relationships, some studies have found that teacher-student relationships are important in transition years; the years when students transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high school (Alexander et al., 1997; Cataldi & KewallRamani, 2009; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989). Studies of math competence in students transitioning from elementary to middle school have found that students who move from having positive relationships with teachers at the end of elementary school to less positive relationships with teachers in middle school significantly decreased in math skills (Midgley et al., 1989).

See figure 1 for ideas on growing positive teacher-student relationships.

Figure 1 – Ideas for Growing Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

  • Smile, make eye contact, and greet each student by name often.
  • Learn student names, hobbies, strengths, and areas for growth as soon as possible.
  • Spend 60 seconds talking with each student often, as 1 minute of positive conversation with a student is more valuable than 55 minutes of whole class discussion.
  • Clearly communicate that your main goal is to help students be successful in both the Maslow and Bloom areas and describe a variety of ways in which you will give support.
  • Make a positive phone call home about each student in the first month of school.
  • Provide descriptive feedback on assignments that encourage and foster improvement.
  • Play learning games with students such as Vocabulary Bingo or Jeopardy.
  • Admit mistakes and be human.
  • Teach stress management and SEL.
  • Be positive and enthusiastic.
  • Incorporate storytelling into your lessons, as stories create positive emotional connections and increase curiosity and learning.

In addition, students benefit when they have safe and positive relationships with other students. Educators play a large role in facilitating those relationships and providing opportunities for students to learn how to connect with others in a productive way (see figure 2).

Figure 2 – Ideas for Growing Positive Student-Student Relationships

  • Model social-connectedness … teach students to greet others by name and with a smile every day. Show appreciation … have students draw another student’s name and write a thank you note to express appreciation for something specific.
  • Model digital citizenship and connect students via social media by using a class Twitter hashtag or Today’s Meet and post questions both content and personal interest-related for students to discuss.
  • Play “Have you ever…” as an energizing brain break with students and have them discuss their shared experiences with others so students make connections.
  • Share something you appreciate about a colleague or friend and model for students how to express that appreciation to someone else in class and then practice together.
  • Have students create personal interest posters and post them so they can learn about each other.
  • Incorporate collaborative groups often and explicitly teach students how to show appreciation and respectfully disagree with each other to cultivate relationships and value diversity.
  • Unite students in a goal such as a Penny Drive for Vets or by serving as reading buddies with primary students, as it builds civic duty and increases student confidence when they are united in helping others.
  • Assign students to study/support groups (I call them “Got Your Back” groups) with 4-5 students in each group so they can call each other for help. Some students are too shy or intimidated to do this on their own. Consider establishing community-building expectations for the group such as knowing five positive things about each person in your group.

There is one more relationship that is important to an environment conducive to learning: the teacher-parent relationship. Some parents did not have positive personal experiences in school or with their child’s other teachers, so establish a positive relationship with parents early in the school year (see figure 3).

Figure 3 – Ideas for Growing Positive Teacher-Parent Relationships

  • Make a positive phone call home during the first month of school; introduce yourself and ask at least one question about the parent to learn more.
  • Ask caregivers to complete a survey about their child’s strengths and interests and one area for growth.
  • Provide resources in both Maslow and Bloom areas for parents to access.
  • Invite parents to attend a “Parent University” night in which you will provide 3-4 specific content and critical thinking strategies they can use to help their middle schooler at home.
  • Provide quick facts or “Neuro Nuggets” about the young brain to parents and share some of the differences between the young and mature brain and methods to positively enhance healthy brain development during the middle school years. Helpful topics for parents to know more about may be related to sleep and exercise needs, stress management, digital citizenship, etc.

A colleague once made an important distinction for me and it has influenced how I view my role as an educator. She said, “Students do not work for us, we work for them.” Many educators lack this mindset and, therefore, misunderstand what our mission is: to create an environment that students want to be part of, and that environment is rooted in relationships, relationships, relationships.


Much research has documented the benefit of setting goals and reflecting on what worked or didn’t in meeting the goal. Middle schoolers benefit from goal setting because it helps to develop executive function skills in the prefrontal cortex and reflect on which strategies are working.

Help students reflect on their social (Maslow) and academic (Bloom) strengths and areas for improvement and develop a plan to increase success with small, achievable goals. This will allow for several quick and easy successes. Social strategies such as making eye contact and smiling at others they walk by in the halls or academic strategies such as studying and quizzing each other for 10 minutes daily can be specific strategies to use in their success plan.

In addition, help students establish a few long-term social and academic goals that require more patience and effort, such as joining a team or club to make more friends or using specific study methods to improve a low grade.

Setting goals, identifying small strategies to implement, and reflecting on strengths and areas for improvement are powerful components to increasing students’ success because goals without strategies and reflection are just wishes.


When I first started teaching, I never allowed students to redo an assignment or test because I thought that made the class too easy and students wouldn’t take it seriously. When discussing the topic with a colleague, he told me that he didn’t allow retakes as he was preparing kids for the “real world” in which there are no retakes. With my limited experience in working with adolescents, his sentiment sounded reasonable.

However, after working with students for years, I noticed that 10-20% of my students weren’t ready to demonstrate proficiency on an assignment or test the day it was given. They simply hadn’t developed enough understanding (neural connections) with the content to be successful.

When I allowed students a few extra days or weeks to practice the content and redo an assignment or test, they would have much higher levels of mastery simply because they had more time to learn and connect with the content. In other words, they were afforded the luxury of turning the light bulb on, and their competence and confidence greatly improved.

To qualify for a retake, a student would need to complete a few extra practice assignments or watch a review video to allow more time to practice the content. The retake quiz or assignment also looked a little different than the original. Some teachers only allow certain assignments to be revised while others may allow all of them to be. Either way, to grow a “growth mindset” students have to be allowed to revise their mistakes and demonstrate their proficiency, even if it takes a little longer.

If you think you are preparing kids for the “real world” by not allowing retakes, consider this: all major tests, from driving tests to the bar exam, allow retakes. Perhaps a more important life lesson is allowing students to analyze, reflect, and learn from their mistakes so they don’t repeat them.

Establishing a positive middle school environment is both an art and a science that blends Maslow and Bloom principles of relationship, reflection, and retakes. When we address these 3Rs, we cultivate the healthy foundation that blooms students’ competence, confidence, and comprehension.