What You Can Do to Help Motivate Your Middle Schooler

Posted on February 16th, 2012, 0 Comments

School achievement and commitment, or the abrupt and unexpected lack of these, can be huge issues with middle school students. In fact, some middle schoolers seem to go from stellar student to slacker almost overnight.

Why now?

During middle school:

The jump in expectations for self-regulation and independent functioning is often way ahead of even the brightest students’ developmental capacity. Suddenly they have lots of teachers each with their own assignments and standards. Plus middle schoolers have to learn how to juggle sports and other extracurricular activities as well as their newfound social lives.

Students with learning disabilities often struggle to keep-up academically. These kids frequently find that the compensating strategies that worked in the smaller more structured elementary grades no longer work as well.

Students go through a daunting range of social changes. Hormones kick-in and go into overdrive. Popularity often becomes the primary concern. Romance enters the picture. Looking cool often seems essential to survival, and being a conscientious student may no longer seem cool.

Students’ views about ability and effort tend to change. Younger children tend to believe the harder you try, the smarter you get. But as children enter early adolescence, many begin to believe that their ability is fixed and to compare their ability with others. Middle schoolers are more likely to believe that the harder you have to try, the less able you must be. Thus, in the middle grades, working hard in school may not be seen simply as “uncool,” it can be stigmatizing.

What can parents do?

Help them organize. It’s wise not to impose more structure than is needed, and young teens vary a lot in the amount of parental involvement they need. But many middle schoolers benefit from some parental involvement when it comes to homework. Having a specified study time – a time when they’re not allowed to do anything else even if they claim they have no homework – can help you avoid a lot of arguments and help them build willpower and good study habits.

For this intervention to work well, you’ll need to involve your teen a lot in the process. Together agree on a specific time and duration for study. A good general guideline is 10 minutes of study per school night for every grade in school. For sixth graders, this would mean 60 minutes a night; for 7th graders, 70 minutes; and so on. After you establish a study period, check on your teen regularly and stay with it. At the beginning there is likely to be quite a bit of resistance and there’s a good chance that very little work will get done. But once you get past the initial pushback, many kids will stay with a study period with less battling because they like that they’re getting better grades and catching less grief from their teachers.

Allow natural consequences. If you find your teen – who has not turned in homework for a couple weeks – frantically working to complete the backlog of assignments before the end of the grading period, you may be tempted to call the teacher and intervene. Don’t do it. A rescue will just make your teen feel dependent on you in a way that neither of you wants. And your teen will learn a lot about the importance of organizing and prioritizing from the natural consequences.

Be mindful of what and how you praise. Let your teen know what skills they possess and make sure that they know they have developed those skills. Words like “hardworking,” “persevering” and “careful thinking” will help you motivate them without pressuring.

Rather than giving global endorsements like “You’re such a good kid!” or “You’re so smart!” be specific. Kids can’t learn from vague praise. Saying things like, “I enjoyed reading your paper; you’re becoming a strong writer!” or “You’ve worked hard to learn those math formulas; you really know that stuff!” will have more effect.

And use non-comparatives – words like “smart” or “bright” instead of “smartest” or “brilliant.” Viewing themselves as the smartest, quickest, or the most creative encourages kids to crave the exhilarating experience of being the “best,” and there will always be someone who is smarter, quicker, or more creative.

Model work as fascinating. If you’re a parent, you’re a model. In fact, our day-to-day modeling is our highest form of influence in our teens’ lives. If we regularly come home from work downbeat and cranky, we’re modeling that work is something to be avoided. And because school is our kids’ workplace, we’re likely to see similar behavior from them. So at the end of the day, try to summon whatever energy you have left and share the highlights of your day with your teen.

Be a safety net for your young teen. Middle school is when many of us parents begin to become more demanding about grades and test scores. At the same time we become dramatically more reluctant to make and enforce all kinds of rules, including rules about studying and doing homework. Researchers have suggested that this decline in parental involvement and monitoring is in response to parents’ recognition of the adolescent’s need for autonomy. However, the decline is probably too much for many young adolescents. So try to strike a balance, providing your young teen with the guidance they need while giving them room to find out who they are and what they’re capable of doing.

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