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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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
5. Digital distractions: Preteens may underperform because of media and technology distractions that interrupt study time and impede concentration.
What you can do:
“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