Tweens experience a number of developmental changes during the transition from elementary school to middle school. By surveying students before and after the middle school transition, researchers have found that tweens' attitudes toward school changes noticeably after entering middle school.
The Middle School Transition - Less Motivation to Succeed
In general, students' intrinsic motivation toward school - their desire to do schoolwork for its own sake rather than for an external reward - has been found to decrease with age. Intrinsic motivation especially drops during transitions between schools, such as from elementary school to middle school. In other words, kids may get a great deal of pleasure from doing science projects in 4th grade but feel like they are doing a project "just to do it" in 5th or 6th grade.
Lower Grades in Middle School
After entering middle school, students tend to get lower grades than they did in elementary school. This drop does not seem to occur because of any cognitive or intellectual changes. In fact, students perform just as well on standardized tests after entering middle school as they did before. It also does not seem that grading becomes more difficult after the transition to middle school. Therefore, students' lower grades probably reflects an actual change in how they are performing during middle school as compared to elementary school. In other words, middle schoolers truly do seem to place academics at a lower importance than they did earlier in their lives.
They See Themselves as Less Capable During Middle School
Finally, students perceive themselves to be less academically competent in 5th grade than they had in 4th grade. In other words, over just one year, tweens begin to lose belief in their own academic abilities. This finding is important because kids who think that they can do well in school are more likely to actually perform well. Notably, the strongest students seem to experience the biggest drop in belief about their abilities over the middle school transition.
Why Do These Changes Occur After the Middle School Transition?
In summary, research has shown that tweens are less interested in school, perform more poorly in their classes and see themselves as less academically capable during middle school than during elementary school. Figuring out why these negative changes occur is not easy and is the subject of ongoing research. There are probably many developmental reasons for the changes, such as shifting interests (e.g., caring more about friends and social dramas) and the beginning of distracting bodily changes. In addition, there seem to be increasing demands from teachers and parents for tweens to get good grades rather than to simply enjoy the learning process. But exactly how much each factor affects students remains unclear.
What Can a Parent Do to Aid in the Middle School Transition?
Many of the factors that affect students during the middle school transition are beyond parents' control. Still, you can play a role in keeping your tween engaged in school. For one, continue to emphasize the importance of "love of learning" during the middle school years. You probably did so naturally during elementary school when grades were less prominent and important; keep up a similar attitude after the transition. Second, encourage your child to realistically assess their academic abilities. As we saw, strong students tend to stop believing in themselves most of all after the transition; your supportive words can help them remember that they are competent. Finally, simply keep these findings in mind. Recognize that the middle school transition is difficult and that your tween may show signs of less school engagement after the transition. Try to be understanding of the challenging changes he or she is facing and know that with some time and support, his or her passion for learning will hopefully reignite.
Anderman, Eric, and Midgley, Carol. "Changes in Achievement Goal Orientations, Perceived Academic Competence, and Grades Across the Transition to Middle-Level Schools." Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1997: 22, 269-298.
Katz, Idit, Kaplan, Avi, and Gueta, Gila. "Students' Needs, Teachers' Support, and Motivation for Doing Homework: A Cross-Sectional Study." The Journal of Experimental Education. 2010: 78, 246-267.