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The Preteen Series: Here’s How You Can Motivate Your Child To Overcome A Learning Slump

Aruna Raghuram Aruna Raghuram 14 Mins Read

Aruna Raghuram Aruna Raghuram


As your once-hardworking child enters their preteen years, you may notice a sudden disinterest in studies and a drop in their academic performance. Here’s what you can do to motivate your preteen

The Preteen Series: Here’s How You Can Motivate Your Child To Overcome A Learning Slump

This is the second of three articles in the Preteen 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, and he’s 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 TV for half an hour?”) because his schoolwork is incomplete. And whenever she isn’t looking, he starts playing video games on the computer!

The preteen years are when academics start to gain importance. However, it’s quite common for children during this stage to lose interest in their studies or start to slip academically. From being diligent and enthusiastic elementary schoolers, some preteens may become indifferent, rebellious, easily distracted, moody, and careless about schoolwork. They can be argumentative and may start challenging their parents. Quite naturally, parents and children get into frequent arguments over academics.

While adolescence has received a lot of attention from researchers and experts, the crucial stage preceding it—the preteen period (9–12 years)—has been less explored. As a parent, you need to be aware of certain cognitive and psychosocial changes that happen in the preteen years, as these changes can impact your child’s motivation to perform well in studies.

Factors influencing your preteen’s academic performance


Preteens 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 a hierarchy, and understand the concepts of mass and volume. There’s a marked improvement in their capacity to pay attention and in the processing speed of the brain. Children are able to observe and focus on many parts of a problem.

Around age 12, as your child enters the adolescent period, their brain undergoes a complete restructuring. This is when the prefrontal cortex, also known as the control center of the brain, starts to develop. Your child transitions to the next stage of cognitive development, which is marked by their ability to think abstractly, problem-solve, and think through the consequences of different actions and points of view.


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

  • Cognitive changes that heighten a child’s ability to reflect on their own successes and failures
  • A broadening of the child’s worlds to encompass peers, adults, and activities outside the family
  • Exposure to social comparison and competition in school classrooms and peer groups—a child can earn status in school depending on their performance, and 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 preteen years fall in the fourth stage characterized by “industry vs inferiority.” Preteens 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, they begin to feel industrious (competent) and become confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, or if it’s restricted by parents or a teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior. They begin to doubt their abilities and therefore may not reach their 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 preteen years, children are beginning to separate from you and assert their independence. So, 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 the academic achievement of preteens may dip and what parents can do to help them:

1. Resistance to schooling system: Dr Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, writes in Psychology Today: “Early adolescence (around age 9 to 13) can be the enemy of school achievement. Rebelling against being defined and being treated any longer 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 preteens 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 become inattentive or socially disruptive in the classroom. They may forget homework assignments, or not show their parents notes from teachers, all leading to poor performance, according to Dr Pickhardt.

What you can do:

  1. Preteens generally do better in school when parents are involved in their academic lives. You can closely supervise your child—both at home and at school. Guide and support her as necessary without micromanaging or doing her work.
  2. Be strict about attendance. Missing school and having to catch up with classwork, notes, projects and homework can be stressful.
  3. Attend parent-teacher meetings regularly. Also, keep in touch with teachers throughout the year to find out how your child is doing.
  4. Help your child resist negative peer pressure by boosting his self-confidence (e.g., by praising your child for putting effort into schoolwork) 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 associated with lower self-efficacy and a lower valuing of school. This finding suggests that the onset of puberty has an impact on children’s motivation to achieve academically.

What you can do:

  1. Send a clear message to your child that education is important, and state your expectations. You can help by making your child understand the relevance of what she is studying. Your preteen may ask you: “Why do I have to learn this? How will it help me in life?” Give her a considered response.
  2. Together with your child, set realistic academic goals and break them up into small achievable tasks so your child experiences success. For example, say your child is struggling with geometry and is scoring only 40%. The goal for him could be to score a 60% in his next test. To achieve this, guide him in setting up a study plan that helps him identify his problem areas. He can then focus on understanding and mastering one concept at a time, with the help of a tutor if necessary. Every little success will lead to a greater motivation to try and perform.
  3. Avoid criticizing the school or the teachers, especially in front of your child. She needs to feel positive about her school in order to perform well academically.
  4. The focus should be on learning. So, think of ways to make learning exciting and fun for your preteen. Applaud effort and progress, not the outcome. Your expectations can make or mar your child’s confidence. Also, don’t compare your child’s performance with that of other children. This could damage his self-esteem.

3. Emotional and social difficulties: If your 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’s 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 you can do:

  1. Connect with your preteen regularly. Your child will discuss something that’s bothering him only if he feels comfortable talking to you. Talk to him 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’re likely to get a one-word answer like “Fine.”
  2. Talk to your teen about what’s troubling her. Listen without judgment and understand the issue. Express your concern at dropping grades, and together come up with a plan to deal with the situation.
  3. Never ignore bullying and emotional difficulties. If the problem cannot be resolved at the parent-child level, approach the teachers and school to sort out the issue.
  4. Watch out for symptoms of anxiety related to studies. Often, anxiety can be misinterpreted as irresponsibility and lack of motivation.
  5. Try to give your child a stable and positive home environment.

4. New academic scenario: During the preteen years, your child may find schoolwork demanding, concepts difficult to understand, and teachers may stop handholding them. So, help your child navigate academic challenges.

What you can do:

  1. Middle school requires students to be both more independent and better organized. 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.
  2. During the preteen 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Encourage your preteen to think critically and ask questions, as the middle-school curriculum focuses on developing higher-order thinking skills, such as reasoning, analyzing, applying and evaluating.
  5. Inculcate the reading habit in your child. Reading can even help him learn all school subjects. Reading a newspaper is a good habit to cultivate.

5. Digital distractions: Preteens may underperform because of media and technology distractions that interrupt study time and impede concentration.

What you can do:

  1. Try to minimize distractions. There should be nonnegotiable rules, for example, no TV while studying. Cellphones can only be used to discuss schoolwork with classmates. Laptops should be used only for schoolwork. Be consistent in enforcing these rules.
  2. You can turn screen time and technology use into a learning experience. For instance, you can watch learning-based programs with your preteen and expose them to DIY videos, online educational games and apps.
The Pre-Teen Series: Motivating your pre-teen through an academic slump


“Here are some methods we use to provide academic support to our daughter:

Since she’s 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 information.”

– Aarthi Prabhakaran, mother of Madhumitha (12)

Physical changes, social pressures and academic expectations can make the preteen years challenging for both children and parents. But these years can also be very fruitful. To quote Dr Eccles, “Through these years, they (children) 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’s important for parents to focus on a healthy relationship. Punishing, preaching, lecturing and threatening will not work. Withholding of privileges—such as not giving them an allowance, not letting them spend time with friends, or not giving them gadgets—for not completing schoolwork is likely to be seen as a threat at this age. Instead, listen without judgment, and acknowledge your child’s feelings and challenges. Then, coach your child to help them manage schoolwork, without trying to control them. Keep the relationship open and respectful so that you’re in a position to influence your child.

In a nutshell

  • Many preteens may struggle with academics for various reasons. Rebellion and loss of motivation are common causes.
  • Parental involvement in children’s schooling and learning is vital at this age.
  • Parents need to encourage autonomy while being available to help.

What you could do right away

  • Start focusing on your child's strengths in the academic sphere and help them build on the
  • Talk more to your child, as talking and listening will help them 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.

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