How Tweens Change in Middle School

Girl with laptop in classroom

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Children are always growing and changing, but the preteen years are especially significant in your child's emotional and physical development. 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 change noticeably after entering middle school.

If your child is getting ready to enter middle school, here's a brief sampling of what you can expect. 

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

Not surprisingly, grades are also impacted during the middle school transition for many students. After entering middle school, students tend to get lower grades than they did in elementary school.

A drop in grades 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 reflect 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 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 6th grade than they had in 5th 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?

So, what's up? Why all these changes in a short period of time? 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 You Can 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.

Encourage your child to realistically assess their academic abilities. 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. All your tween to talk about challenges as well as successes, and be sure to put your listening skills to good use. ​

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Haladyna T, Thomas G. The Attitudes of Elementary School Children toward School and Subject MattersThe Journal of Experimental Education. 1979;48(1):18-23.doi:10.1080/00220973.1979.11011707

  2. Gillet N, Vallerand RJ, Lafrenière MK. Intrinsic and extrinsic school motivation as a function of age: the mediating role of autonomy supportSoc Psychol Educ. 2012;15:77–95. doi:10.1007/s11218-011-9170-2

  3. Lippold MA, Powers CJ, Syvertsen AK, Feinberg ME, Greenberg MT. The Timing of School Transitions and Early Adolescent Problem BehaviorJ Early Adolesc. 2013;33(6):821-844. doi:10.1177/0272431612468317

  4. Onetti W, Fernández-García JC, Castillo-Rodríguez A. Transition to middle school: Self-concept changesPLoS One. 2019;14(2):e0212640. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212640

  5. Evans D, Borriello GA, Field AP. A Review of the Academic and Psychological Impact of the Transition to Secondary EducationFront Psychol. 2018;9:1482. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01482

Additional Reading

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.