Motivation and Middle Schoolers

After years in education, I have found it commonplace for middle schoolers to struggle with motivation in school. There can be numerous reasons for this; however, I will discuss some of the more common ones here.

First, middle schoolers are growing up and want to be considered young adults. They often feel the need to exert their independence and not be treated as children. This is normal and, in many ways, a good thing. In fact, creating some separation between themselves and their parents is a primary and healthy characteristic of adolescence. However, establishing new identities is fraught with psychological challenges.

Additionally, middle schoolers are under immense pressure to succeed. They want to prove themselves to their friends and their parents. Of course, the more parents push for achievement, the more teens fight it. If you’ve raised a middle schooler, you’ve probably recognized this cause and effect. You ask them to do something – put out the garbage or do their homework – and the response is not to initiate the desired response...simply because you asked. This is an example of the passive resistance that results from asserting their freedom of choice and independence.

At the same time, there is significant social pressure to fit in and also to be different (mostly by being the same as their friends). This can be overwhelming for many teens.

In school as well, they may feel academically challenged as the work grows more difficult and abundant and the stakes grow more important. For girls, often there is a social stigma attached to being too smart, too academic, or too opinionated.

Teen boys are socialized to display their masculinity, and that can make them more likely to disengage from learning, try to be cool, and impress their peers with antisocial behaviors. Boys also have a desire to be in charge (again, a social pressure), and if they are not succeeding, it is easier to pretend they are not trying than to show weakness.

Middle school is a time of experimentation, social acceptance, and assertion of independence. Executive function is often delayed and long-term planning is less common.

I am often asked how to deal with this. There are no foolproof methods, but allowing for choice is often helpful. Teenagers like to exercise some form of autonomy so providing options is helpful. Try giving rewards for doing chores, provide more freedom, and avoid exerting too much pressure or control. But remember, teenagers want to be adults (but they´re not) and boundaries are necessary. Boundaries allow them to push against something.

These are often the most challenging times for children and for parents. Remember, the better your relationship with your children, the more likely they will come through this period with confidence and success.

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