The Pre-Teen Series: Motivating your pre-teen through an academic slump

As your once diligent, hardworking child enters her preteen years you may notice a sudden disinterest in studies and a drop in her academic performance. Here’s how you can help motivate your preteen

By Aruna Raghuram

The Pre-Teen Series: Motivating your pre-teen through an academic slump

This is the second of three articles in The Pre-teen Series. Find the first article here and the third article here.

Sangeeta is concerned about her 11-year-old son Rahul. His grades in school are slipping. He is always looking for excuses to postpone doing his homework. His year-ago eagerness to learn seems to be fading away. Academic pressures are mounting; the syllabus is more challenging this year; and Rahul is finding it difficult to cope. His mother seems to be constantly turning down his requests for recreation (“Ma, can I go and play with my friends?” or “Ma, can I watch television for half an hour?”) because his school work is incomplete. And, whenever she isn’t looking, he starts playing video games on the computer.

The pre-teen years are when academics start to gain importance. However, it is not uncommon for children during this stage to lose interest in their studies or start to slip academically. From being diligent and enthusiastic elementary schoolers, some pre-teens may become indifferent, rebellious, easily distracted, moody, and careless about school work. They may start arguing and challenging whatever parents tell them. Academics could easily become a zone of conflict between parents and children of this age.
While adolescence has received a lot of attention from researchers and experts, the crucial stage preceding it, the pre-teen period (9-12 years) has been less explored. However, there are certain cognitive and pyscho-social changes that happen in the pre-teen years that can impact a child’s motivation to perform in academics.

Factors influencing Pre-teen Academics

  1. Cognitive factors
    Pre-teens are in ‘Piaget’s concrete operational stage of cognitive development’, which begins at approximately age 7 and continues through age 11. At this age, children still think concretely, but are able to use logic to reason out things. They however have difficulty with abstract thinking. Children develop the ability to draw inferences, classify objects into different categories, arrange things in hierarchy, and understand the concepts of mass and volume. There is a marked improvement in a child’s capacity to pay attention, and in the processing speed of the brain. They are able to observe and focus on many parts of a problem. Around age 12, as the child enter the adolescent period, her brain undergoes a complete restructuring. This is when the prefrontal cortex, also known as the control centre of the brain, starts to develop. The child transitions to the next stage of cognitive development, which is marked by his ability to think abstractly, problem solve and think through the consequences of different actions and points of view.
2. Psycho-social factors

According to educational psychologist, Dr Jacquelynne Eccles, four key forces influence a child’s confidence and level of engagement in tasks and activities during the pre-teen years:

  • Cognitive changes that heighten children’s ability to reflect on their own successes and failures
  • A broadening of children’s worlds to encompass peers, adults, and activities outside the family
  • Exposure to social comparison and competition in school classrooms and peer groups – children can earn status in school depending on their performance and also experience failure and frustration, especially if they are less skilled than their peers
  • Identity and autonomy issues

In American psychologist Erik Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, the pre-teen years fall in the fourth stage characterised by “industry vs inferiority”. Pre-teens are busy learning to be competent and productive, or may begin to feel inferior and unable to do anything well. If a child is appreciated for taking initiatives, he begins to feel industrious (competent) and becomes confident in his ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, or if it is restricted by parents or a teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior. He begins to doubt his own abilities and therefore may not reach his full potential.
For instance, take the case of Ravi, 10, who has worked hard on a science project. To his disappointment, his teacher does not appreciate it and, instead, praises another student’s project. Ravi can end up doubting his own abilities, which can prevent him from working hard for this teacher’s assigned projects, or even getting involved with science again.

HELPING YOUR CHILD THROUGH ACADEMIC CHALLENGES

During the pre-teen years children are beginning to separate from you and assert their own independence. Hence, they may be more prone to rebellion, disobedience and assertiveness. They are also more likely to be influenced by peers and media. Performance in school and academics is an area where they seek to assert themselves and prove their independence by rebelling against the norm. Here are a few other reasons why pre-teens may slack in academic performance and what you can do to help them:

1. Resistance to schooling system: Writes Dr Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, in Psychology Today: “Early adolescence (around age 9 to 13) can be the enemy of school achievement. Rebelling against being defined and being treated as a ‘child’ can cause early adolescents to resist the educational system at their own expense, the price of this newfound independence being failing effort and falling grades.”
Some pre-teens may succumb to the belief within their peer group that it’s ‘dumb’ to ask questions, it’s stupid to work hard, and it’s cool not to care. As a result, they may not complete classwork, and may be inattentive or socially disruptive in class. They may forget homework assignments, or not show their parents notes from teachers, all leading to poor performance, according to Dr Pickhardt.

What parents can do:

  • Pre-teens generally do better in school when parents are involved in their academic lives. You could closely supervise your child – both at home and at school. You could guide and support your child as necessary without micromanaging or doing your child’s work.
  • Be strict about attendance. Missing school and having to catch up with class work, notes, projects, and homework can be stressful.
  • Attend parent-teacher meetings regularly. In addition, keep in touch with teachers throughout the year to find out how your child is doing.
  • Help your child resist negative peer pressure by boosting his self-confidence (such as, by praising your child for putting in effort for school work) and sharing family values (such as, the value of hard work and perseverance)

2. Loss of motivation: Another problem at this age could be a loss of motivation. A study by Australian researchers titled ‘The role of puberty in students’ academic motivation and achievement’ (2017) examined academic self-efficacy (confidence in one’s ability to achieve) and valuing of school (the belief that school is useful and relevant). This study found that advanced pubertal status is correlated with lower self-efficacy and a lower valuing of school. The study, therefore, suggests an impact on children’s motivation to achieve academically with the onset of puberty.

What parents can do:

  • Send a clear message to your child that education is important and state your expectations. You can help by teaching your child the relevance of what he is studying. Your pre-teen may ask you: “Why do I have to learn this? How will it help me in life?” Give him a considered response.
  • Together with your child, set realistic academic goals and break them up into small acheivable tasks so your child experiences success. For example, say your child is struggling with Geometry and is scoring only 40%. The goal for your child could be to score a 60% for his next test. To achieve this, guide him in setting up a plan of study that will first allow him to see where his struggles are. Then he could focus on understanding and mastering one concept at a time, if necessary with the help of a tutor. Every little success will lead to a greater motivation to try and perform.
  • Avoid criticising the school or the teachers especially in front of your child. Your child needs to feel positive about her school in order to perform well academically.
  • The focus should be on learning. You could think of ways to make learning exciting and fun for your pre-teen. Applaud effort and progress, not outcome. Parental expectations can make or mar a child’s confidence. Don’t compare your child’s performance with that of other children. This could damage his self-esteem.

3. Emotional and social difficulties: If a child is struggling academically, it could be because she is having difficulties with her teachers or other students. She might be getting picked on regularly by a teacher, which would make her hate the subject. Classmates may be teasing or bullying her. This is the age when your child is most vulnerable to bullying. If she is not happy in class, it would be impossible for her to focus and learn. Or, it could be that a crush (common at this age) on a classmate is not allowing her to pay attention in class. Social and emotional difficulties can also stem from a disrupted or disturbed home environment.

What parents can do:

  • Connect with your pre-teen on a regular basis. Your child will only discuss something that’s bothering him if he feels comfortable talking to you. Talk to your pre-teen about his school day when he gets home – what was interesting, what his friends said (get to know them), what the teachers said, and so on. Make sure you find him in the mood to talk, else you are likely to get a one word ‘fine’ as an answer.
  • Talk to your teen about what’s troubling her. Listen without judgement and understand the issue. Express you concern at dropping grades and together come up with a plan to deal with the situation.
  • Never ignore bullying and emotional difficulties. If the problem cannot be resolved at parent-child level, approach the teachers and school to sort out the issue.
  • Watch out for symptoms of anxiety related to studies. Often, anxiety can be misinterpreted as lack of motivation and irresponsibility.
  • Try to give your child a stable and positive home environment

4. New academic scenario: During the pre-teen years, students may find the school work demanding, concepts difficult to understand, and teachers may stop hand-holding them. Here, parents can help the child navigate academic challenges.

What parents can do:

  • Middle school requires students to be both more independent and better organised. You can help by providing structure. Guide your child in setting goals (this will improve focus) and weekly schedules (to manage time better). Set aside a regular place and time to study.
  • During the pre-teen years, the quantum of homework increases. Be available during homework and study time to support him as necessary. Assist him with homework only if your child asks. He may need help to break down assignments or projects into smaller, manageable portions.
  • Don’t take over by doing your child’s homework or project. Encourage autonomy and independence. At her age, your child will appreciate this. But, be available. Even if your child pulls away at times, she needs you and your help.
  • Encourage your pre-teen to think critically and ask questions as the middle-school curriculum focuses on developing higher-order thinking skills (such as, reasoning, analysing, applying, and evaluating).
  • Inculcate the reading habit. Not only does reading help children in all school subjects, it is the key to learning. Reading a newspaper is a good habit to cultivate. 

5. Distractions of screen time and technology: Pre-teens could underperform because of distractions with media and technology that interrupt study time and impede concentration.

What parents can do:

  • Parents need to minimise distractions. There should be non-negotiable rules – no television while studying. Cell phones can only be used to discuss school work with classmates. Laptops should be used only for school work – parents have to keep a watch on this and be consistent in enforcing these rules.
  • Parents could turn screen time and technology use into a learning experience. For instance, they could watch learning-based programmes with their pre-teen and expose them to DIY videos, online educational games and apps
The Pre-Teen Series: Motivating your pre-teen through an academic slump
PARENT SPEAK
Here are some methods that we use in our home to help our daughter in her academics:
  • Since she is a visual learner, we help her make ‘mind maps’ (diagrams to visually organize information)
  • We help her perform DIY experiments (either through store-bought kits or from simple materials available at home) and learn through an experiential process
  • We create fictional stories that relate the concepts, or make interesting anagrams of the first letters of important words that make it easier for her to remember and recollect
- Aarthi Prabhakaran, mother of Madhumitha, who is 12

The pre-teen years can be challenging for both children and their parents – whether it is the physical changes, social pressures, or academic expectations. But they can also be very fruitful. To quote Dr Eccles: “Through these years, they forge a personal identity, a self-concept, and an orientation toward achievement that will play a significant role in shaping their success in school, work, and life.”
It is important for parents to focus on a healthy relationship. Punishing, preaching, lecturing, and threatening will not work. Withholding of privileges (such as allowance, time with friends, or use of electronics) for not completing schoolwork is likely to be seen as a threat at this age. Instead, listen without judgment, acknowledge your child’s feelings and challenges. Then coach your child to help her manage her schoolwork, without trying to control her. Keep the relationship open and respectful so that you are in a position to influence your child – a vital parenting tool.

In a nutshell

  • Many pre-teens may struggle with academics for a variety of reasons. Loss of motivation and rebellion are common causes
  • Parental involvement in their child’s schooling and learning are vital at this age
  • Parents need to encourage autonomy but be available to help

What you could do right away

  • Start focusing on your child’s strengths in the academic sphere and help him build on them
  • Talk more to your child as talking and listening will help her pick up language skills which play a major role in school success
  • Ensure you spend one-on-one time with your pre-teen every day 

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 23 August 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). 

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