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Lack of Motivation During Middle School: Tips for Parents

Having motivation is synonymous with having a love for learning and challenge. Motivation is often more important than initial ability in determining academic success. However, the motivation-level of many young teenagers often takes a nosedive in the middle grades. The child may begin to grumble about assignments and educators, ask to drop out of a favorite activity, complain that she's bored, or show signs of being lost in the educational shuffle.

Here are some issues that may contribute to your child’s lack of motivation:

• Kids in elementary school tend to believe that the harder you try – the smarter you get! But, as kids move into the early teenage years, they may begin to believe that ability is “fixed” (e.g., “Why try hard if it won't help you to do well?”)  They also start to compare their ability with that of others. This view can dampen motivation. 

• The onset of puberty (e.g., getting her period, or being 4 feet 2 inches tall when your best friend is 5 feet 10 inches tall) distracts many young adolescents. Distractions make it hard to think about the basketball team or the science project that's due. It takes extra effort to concentrate on a social studies test when the child is preoccupied with physical insecurities or concerned about being excluded from the peer group.

• Some youngsters lack opportunities to take the classes or participate in the activities that they need to spark their enthusiasm. This is most likely with children from disadvantaged families or who are at risk, contributing to perceptions that they are unmotivated. 

• Some educators report that it's hard to get children to focus on a long history project when they're used to TV programs and media presentations that are fast, short and entertaining.

• A youngster may be influenced by peers who believe that academic success isn't "cool," or that females aren't good at Math. 

• A young adolescent may lose motivation after moving from elementary school to a middle school (or junior high school). The loss of motivation can be fueled by insufficient support in the new school, or by an increased workload and expectations to which the child hasn't yet adjusted.

• Some unmotivated youngsters may not have learned that school success takes time and effort. Many attractions compete for a child’s attention. Some young people expect school and activities to be consistently exciting. They aren't aware of the fact that - both in school and daily life - they can learn valuable lessons from activities that aren't always fun, and that achievement usually requires serious effort. You can encourage your youngsters, but ultimately your daughter is responsible for seeing that her homework gets done, and your son must be the one to practice his violin.

Here are ways to encourage your youngster's motivation during the middle grades:

1. Steer your youngster toward appropriate classes and suitable activities. Young adolescents need opportunities to excel and be useful. Success can be a powerful motivator, and boredom may be a sign that your youngster hasn't enough opportunities to develop his talents. He may need an advanced English class, a music class, or the chance to volunteer at a nursing home.

2. Insincere praise or praise for poor efforts is no help, but young adolescents need to be reassured that they can do something. Sometimes young people will say they are bored, but it's because they haven't done a particular activity yet. Your youngster may need hints about how to get started with a new project from you, another grown-up, a teacher, or a book.

3. Let your youngster know that sustained effort over time is the key to achievement. Teach her to set high goals and to work hard to achieve them. Help her to see the value of tackling challenges and of finding ways to meet or exceed those challenges.

4. It's important to hold kids to high standards. But when young adolescents are asked to do the impossible, they may stop trying. Don't pressure your 5-foot 3-inch boy to try out for center on his basketball team just because he played center for his elementary school team. Instead, reassure him that, in time, he'll grow taller, and help him to look for other activities in the meantime. In addition to physical attributes, holding realistic expectations requires that you consider your youngster's personality and temperament. Your 6-foot 2-inch boy may not enjoy playing basketball, even though he has the height for it. Make sure that your youngster knows, deep in his heart, that you love him for what he is – and not for what he does.

5. Find strengths and build on them. Every youngster can excel in some area. Identify what your youngster does best, no matter what it is.

6. Young adolescents benefit from seeing their moms and dads putting forth their best effort, completing work, and meeting obligations. So, be sure to demonstrate that you value learning and hard work.

7. A kid’s motivation-level generally improves when moms and dads take the steps discussed. However, patience will be required. Many young adolescents need the gift of time to develop the maturity that allows them to complete homework assignments and chores with a minimum of supervision. 

8. Communicate with your youngster's educators, counselors or principal as needed. A drop in grades is very common when children transition from elementary to middle school. But if your youngster's grade drop is extreme, or if it persists for more than one grading period, contact someone at the school. It's good to be a strong, yet respectful advocate for your youngster. Since middle-grades educators have a very full schedule, you may need to show persistence. Call or e-mail the educators if you think that some of the assignments are inappropriate, or if your youngster is unable to complete them successfully. Be assertive if your youngster is placed in classes that you think are poor in content or that fail to provide him or her with sufficient stimulation.

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