Early Adolescent Achievement Drop: Falling Effort and Grades

Don't let the onset of adolescence demotivate school achievement.

Posted Mar 15, 2009

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.

Common expressions of this disaffected "independent" attitude include:
"It's dumb to ask questions,"
"It's smart to act stupid,"
"It's stupid to work hard,"
"It's cool not to care,"
"It's good to act bad,"
"It's right to buck the system,"
"It's good enough to just get by."

This change in motivation can catch parents off guard when the conscientious child who took pride in doing well becomes the apathetic adolescent who seems not to care about doing poorly. The old academic priority of working hard to achieve gives way to a more urgent priority, to socially connect with friends and be popular. Energy that used to be invested in doing homework is now diverted to talking long hours on the telephone and to instant messaging over the internet.

In most cases, this performance drop doesn't really mean the adolescent no longer values doing well academically, it just means he or she doesn't want to do the work to do well--class work, homework, reports, projects, papers, and studying for tests.

So it is at this juncture that parents find themselves confronted by a number of anti-achievement behaviors. The most common ones are:

1) Not delivering or intercepting deficiency notes sent home,

2) "Forgetting" or lying about homework assignments,
3) Not turning completed homework in,
4) Not finishing class work,
5) Being inattentive or socially disruptive in class.

All these behaviors contribute to the early adolescent achievement drop, and they are all easily remedied. What it takes are parents who are willing to take stands for the adolescent's best interests against what he or she wants.

Two stands NOT to take to address these behaviors are becoming emotionally upset or resorting to rewards or punishments to encourage different choices. Although both stands can work with a young child who wants to please and values material incentives, they tend to be counter productive with the adolescent who often courts parental disapproval and may resent a show of parental control over desirable resources.

GRADES ARE TOO IMPORTANT TO BECOME EMOTIONALLY UPSET ABOUT. Growth is just a gathering of power, from dependence to independence, the job of parents being to help their adolescent gather that power in an appropriate, not inappropriate ways. It is NOT appropriate for parents to give the adolescent power to get them upset over grades because then the academic focus is lost and the young person wins influence over parental feelings. "I can really push my parents' buttons by doing poorly in school." When parents get upset over grades, they only turn a performance issue into an emotional encounter with their adolescent.

GRADES ARE TOO IMPORTANT TO REWARD OR PUNISH ABOUT. Parents often mistakenly believe that offering an adolescent some significant payoff for good grades will be seen as a reward, when it is not. In fact, most adolescents will see it as a threat that they resent. "If you say you're going to give me five dollars for an A, that just means that if I don't get an A, I don't get the five dollars." As for punishment if certain grades are not maintained, taking away some resource or freedom "until grades improve," that approach usually engenders more resistance than cooperation. "I don't care what you take away, you can't make me do my work!" And the adolescent will go down in flames to prove to parents that such power tactics are doomed to fail. When parents reward or punish grades, they only turn a performance issue into a power struggle with their adolescent.

What then are parents supposed to do? Just stand by and watch their early adolescent fail by failing to work? Sometimes that's the advice middle school teachers give to parents. "Don't be overprotective. Let your child fail and learn responsibility from the consequences." This is usually bad advice because unless the adolescent manages to self-correct in consequence of failing, deciding to bear down to bring grades up, he or she will only learn to adjust to failure, treating failure as okay when it is not.

After all, a report card is meant to act like a mirror, the adolescent seeing in that evaluation an adequate reflection of his or her capacities. For parents to say to an unmotivated adolescent who is capable of A's and B's, "All we want you to do is pass," is tantamount to giving up on their child, abandoning their responsibility to influence school behavior. But if emotional upset and rewards and punishments tend to be ineffective with the early adolescent achievement drop, then what are parents to do?

The answer is SUPERVISION. Remember that the early adolescent, unlike the child, does not want parents showing up in his or her world at school. This is one of the more reliable tests for determining that adolescence has begun. The child is excited by a surprise classroom visit by parents: "Mom! Dad! Look who's here!" The adolescent is mortified: "Mom! Dad! What are you doing here?"

Desire for social independence means keeping parents out of his or her society of peers, particularly at school. Now the company of parents at school feels like a public embarrassment because he or she should be able to handle school without their interference. To which parents reply: "We have no desire to interfere at school so long as you are taking care of business. However, if you do not do schoolwork and if you are acting inappropriately, we will extend our supervision into your school to help you make better choices. This is not what we are wanting to do; but is what we are willing to do." The operating term to us in supervision of this kind is TOGETHER.

So, if deficiency notices are not delivered home, parents may want to say something like this. "Since information for us the school entrusted to you was not delivered, we and you will meet with the teacher TOGETHER, and you will have the opportunity to explain why the notice failed to reach us, and what you are going to do differently next time so it does."

If parents are told there is no homework when it turns out there was, they may want to say something like this. "Since you said you had no homework, but you did, we and you will meet TOGETHER with the teacher. At that time, you will have the opportunity to explain why you said there was no homework when there was, and what you will do differently the next time so we will be told the truth. And this weekend, before you get to do anything you want to do, you will have to complete the missed assignments, turning them in for zero credit because they are now late."

If the adolescent still fails to bring assignments home, parents may want to say something like this. "Since you can't manage to bring homework home, we will meet you after your last class and TOGETHER we will walk the halls and make the rounds of all your teachers to pick up your assignments."

If the adolescent does the homework but chooses not to turn it in, parents may want to say something like this. "Since you can't manage to turn your work in, we will go up to school with you and TOGETHER walk the halls and make the rounds of all your teachers to make sure they receive your assignments." (Why would an adolescent do the work and not submit it? It makes perfect resistant sense: "You can't say I didn't do it, but you can't make me turn it in!" Middle school backpacks and lockers are stuffed with completed homework that never made it to the teacher's desk.)

If the adolescent is talking out or acting out disruptively in class, not completing teacher assignments, parents may want to say something like this. "Although this is not something we want to do, we are willing to take time off from work and sit TOGETHER with you in class to help you behave appropriately as the teacher asks." For most early adolescents, this is way over the line: "You can't do that! You'll embarrass me!" To which parents reply: "We have no desire to embarrass you. If you don't want us there, simply take care of business at school. Otherwise we will provide you with this support."

Usually, an early adolescent will not welcome any of these options, considering them outrageously invasive, preferring to correct self-defeating conduct instead. What parents are saying in each case, however, is that so long as self-correction does not occur, they are committed to steadfast supervision because they know improved school performance will ultimately cause the adolescent to feel better about himself or herself as well as keeping educational options later on.

The early adolescent achievement drop begins in late elementary school and becomes much more widespread in middle school. Parents must remember: now is later. Help keep their student's academic effort up in early adolescence with their supervision, and the teenager is more likely to keep it up during the high school years.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: THE MESSY ROOM: Symbol of the adolescent age,