Motivation and Middle School Children

Stacy Zeiger
Middle school is an important time.

Dealing with motivation and middle school children can sometimes be a challenge. These formative years bring a lot of changes to kids' lives, and it can be hard to know what types of activities and knowledge will keep them motivated. However, with the right ingredients and an understanding of how children see the world during their middle school years, you will find ways to encourage kids to go the extra distance.

A Big Transition

Making the transition from elementary school to middle school is often difficult simply because of what is required of students. While some elementary schools ease students into this transition, most require students to go from sitting in one class for the entire day to rotating classes, learning how handle multiple teachers and navigating a much larger school. They may also be accountable for meeting standards that are more difficult and have fewer opportunities to get one-on-one help to meet these tougher standards.

According to the American Psychological Association, students face a drop in grades from middle school to elementary school and this may come from a lack of self-assuredness, an increase in competition and the transition in general. The APA also notes that it is important to take action immediately when a middle schooler's grades start to drop in order to prevent a downward spiral.

Ways to Motivate Middle Schoolers

The Association for Middle Level Education offers multiple ways to take action and motivate middle school students in its regular publication Middle Ground and through regular research studies. A few of the main suggestions from the AMLE are:

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Middle school students must be motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teachers and parents can offer physical rewards for students, such as offering points toward a larger reward, free time or being able to participate in a special event. They can also give positive praise and encouragement, pats on the back and a high five to motivate students. However, students also need to learn to motivate themselves. This can be done by teaching middle school students to set goals and reach them and letting them experience success in small amounts to build their confidence.

The Power of Friends

Friends also play a large role in motivating middle schoolers. According to the APA, having friends is crucial to success in middle school. Psychologist Erik Erikson also explains the power of friendships in middle school. In his eight stages of development, peer relationships are the most important focus for children from 12 to 18 years old. Having friends helps a middle schooler develop self-confidence and begin to form an identity.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers play a huge role in motivating middle school students. The way they present information in the classroom and how they interact with middle schoolers has a direct effect on performance.

Making it Relevant

Middle schoolers have a "me" mentality, so instruction must answer the question, "why is this important to me?" or "how does this relate to my world?" Teachers can accomplish this by getting to know students' interests and incorporating them into the curriculum. They can also bring real-life examples and stories into the classroom to help pique student interest.

Relevance is particularly important in the areas of in science and math, especially when it comes to girls. During the middle school years, girls often lose interest in science and math. According to a study by the University of Michigan, this is partly because girls do not see a connection between being feminine and being a successful scientist. A report from the Girl Scout Research Institute found that in order for science and math instruction to be effective for girls, it needed to:

  • Provide a lot of hands-on activities
  • Emphasize how science can help people
  • Provide examples of females who have been successful in scientific careers

Making it Entertaining

While a teacher's main goal is not to entertain students, middle school students cannot be expected to sit in their seats and take notes for an entire class period or participate in the same activities day after day. Teachers must make the classroom entertaining and engaging by allowing students to participating in a variety of hands-on activities, giving them opportunities to talk about what they're learning or work with their peers and regularly introduce new activities. Bringing technology in the classroom through web 2.0 applications, games and interactive white boards can also make learning more engaging and interesting for middle school students.

What Parents Can Do

Even though they do not have as much influence as peers, parents can still play a role in motivating their middle schoolers. The APA offers three pieces of advice to help parent motivate middle school students:

  • Encourage children to try new things
  • Let them know failure is okay, if they try
  • Remind them that learning takes effort

In addition, parents can help prepare their middle schooler for success by providing systems of organization, teaching study skills and offering rewards for good performance. Regularly talking to your middle schooler and listening when there is a problem will help you recognize and support your middle schooler when problems arise.

Pay Attention

Pay attention to your children or students and watch for the signs of a decrease in motivation. Dr. Robert Balfanz, an educational researcher suggests paying attention to the ABCs of middle school syndrome: absenteeism, behavioral problems and course performance. The earlier you catch a problem and take action, the less likely it is to affect the rest of your child's middle school years and further education.

Motivation and Middle School Children