Parenting Through the Middle-School Motivation Loss

How students can lose academic focus in middle school, and what parents can do.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Fall semester is a good time to revisit a common question that can trouble many parents of children in 6th or 7th grade: “Why has our young adolescent, who worked hard and achieved well during elementary school, started to slack off in middle school, and become less dedicated to doing school work and less caring about performance? And what might we do to help halt faltering effort and falling grades?”

What follows examines four factors that can come into play when this middle school motivation loss occurs:

  • Disorganization of coping, because middle school is more complex than elementary school.
  • Distractibility of attention, because concerns with social and bodily change can override academic focus.
  • Social cruelty, because teasing, rumoring, exclusion, ganging up, and bullying can elevate concerns for safety.
  • Resistance to authority, because dismissing and lying about schoolwork can express rebellious independence.

In each case, countermeasures parents might want to take are suggested. 

Disorganization of Coping

To begin, it can help if parents appreciate the magnitude of change required of students transitioning into middle school, where new organizational demands can take a lot of getting used to. 

Institutionally, secondary school is not elementary school. Elementary school was much smaller and sheltered and simpler to navigate than middle school. For example, while athletics in elementary school was mostly recreational and fun for all, athletics in secondary school is more seriously and selectively competitive—for trying out, for getting playing time, for the importance of winning. Then there is larger school size, organizational complexity, increased expectation for student responsibility, and the demands of multiple teachers who are simultaneously giving more cumulative homework. These all demand a major adjustment. It is not uncommon for young people to exhibit more disorganization during this changing time before learning to catch educational hold. 

In response, parents can coach coping with this increased complexity by helping the young person keep a schedule or calendar for planning control so that: 

  • A time frame beyond the present can be kept in mind.
  • Anticipation and management of multiple demands can be learned.
  • A self-organization system can reduce slippage of significant commitments.

Daily discussion of short- and long-term demands is worth having. 

Distractibility of Attention

Socially, elementary school is still primarily a culture of childhood, with most students family-centered and focused on staying closely attached to parents. Middle school is a culture of early adolescence. By this age, the separation from childhood and parents has begun—young people starting to push against, pull away, and get around parental authority for freedom to experiment with more individuality and to assert more independence. Now some traditional focus can be lost.

At this juncture, belonging to a family of friends who are all changing in a similar way is vitally important. However, finding and fitting into a peer group is complicated by social insecurity and self-consciousness over puberty. Changing bodily shape can cause one to feel more out of control and affect social image and treatment received. Now concerns about physical appearance and social belonging can become an overriding priority, sometimes at the expense of academic focus.

Parents need to “thread the needle” between being empathetic about the more complicated physical and social experiences and being insistent that school work still needs to be attended to and accomplished. “Readiness” to face a new day at school now has three challenging components that parents need to be sensitive to — staying physically, socially, and academically prepared for the demands at hand. 

Experiencing Social Cruelty

In one of my earlier books, Why Good Kids Act Cruel (2010), I described why and how social meanness between students can increase in middle school as young people urgently vie with each other to establish social standing and ensure social belonging. Five common forms that social cruelty takes are teasing (putting down), exclusion (keeping out), rumoring (gossiping about), bullying (threatening), and ganging up (out-numbering.) 

When any of these behaviors significantly comes a young person’s way, the school experience becomes emotionally dangerous, and now concerns for personal safety can override academic focus. In addition, what parents may notice is more reluctance getting ready for school and more sadness when returning home. 

Since the code of the schoolyard (“don’t tell on peers”), and the principle of independence (“handle your troubles yourself”) can cause a student not to tell parents when being hurtfully treated, it can be helpful for them to declare at the outset of 6th grade that they know how social going at middle school can become rougher in the five ways described. They are in the know, and they would wish to be told if any of these behaviors are repeatedly directed at their adolescent so they can provide emotional support and some coaching advice for how to respond to and reduce these painful experiences.  

Resistance to Authority

When a young person starts separating from childhood and parents in service of asserting more independence, they can become more resistant to parental authority through using delay, argument, refusal, ignoring, and lying to get around what they have been told to do. 

This resistance can carry over to middle school, particularly about homework that teaching authorities increasingly assign. One of the major causes of lowering grades in middle school is not doing homework and being graded down accordingly. The resistant young person may have dishonestly reported “no homework tonight!” when there was, may not have brought assignments home, may not have finished them completely, or may not have turned them in.

The best way to discourage this resistance is not acting emotionally upset or offering rewards for compliance or threatening punishment for noncompliance, but by providing calm, steadfast supervision. “If you can’t regularly bring the homework home, if you can’t thoroughly complete it, if you can’t manage to turn it in, we will provide the necessary oversight to help you get these tasks done.” 

Middle school is a huge transition and it’s easy for able students to academically underperform as, for a developmental while, their primary concerns are directed elsewhere. In these cases, parents can effectively provide organizing, focusing, strategizing, and supervisory support.