Academic Learning Among 11-13 Year Olds

At no other time in life do children have a greater capacity to learn than during adolescence. Learn more.
By Michelle Anthony, PhD
Jan 30, 2013



Academic Learning Among 11-13 Year Olds

Jan 30, 2013

Most 11-13 year olds have entered a new stage of academic learning: middle school. Formerly miniature high schools (hence the name “junior high”), most schools for this age group have converted to become team-based learning centers geared specifically for the needs of the young adolescent. The goal is to maintain adult influence, emphasize more interdisciplinary learning, and establish a “safe landing” in the larger academic community that makes up the middle school years. For some children, the transition from elementary school to middle school is bumpy, for it involves expanding their world, increasing their independence and upping their responsibility. For possibly the first time, your child will feel competition for grades, he will need to learn to manage more work, harder work, more long-term, multi-part assignments with less parent involvement, all while delving into learning in new ways: math morphs into algebra, science into biology, and so on. 

At no other time in life do children have a greater capacity to learn than during adolescence. Researchers believe this heightened learning capacity is due to the increased connectivity in the brain, which is related to the increase in intellectual capacities such as memory and reading ability. Brain development in pre-teens also leads to increased abstract thinking skills (for more on these changes, see the cognitive development article). Hypothetical reasoning such as deductive logic is a direct result of children’s advancing cognition, and it leads to new abilities. Now, children are capable of mentally holding and manipulating unknown entities (the ‘x’ in algebra, the formulated hypotheses in science). These new skills expand the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning exponentially. Increased memory and the enhancement of executive function skills allows foundation learning to become automatic and thus to free up learning energy for going deeper into subject matter or to add layers of complexity to problem solving. 

Early adolescents are able to project into the future. They can use thinking and reasoning to develop expectations of specific outcomes, and to formulate long-term goals. While they are able to think abstractly, they still rely on active over passive learning, manipulating ideas in interactive ways. They are capable of building off the ideas of peers. At this point in development, children are capable and eager to become more active participants in exploring and understanding areas of interest across disciplines, if their academic confidence has not be deflated.

Children’s perception of themselves as learners and their ability to do well in school influences not only the effort they bring to their work, but also the ultimate level they are able to achieve. When children are young, they do not see a distinction between ability and effort. However, as they get older, cultural influences come into play. In eastern cultures, children continue to believe that effort will lead to increased intelligence. In contrast, in western industrialized cultures, children come to associate intelligence with a fixed and given entity. Thus, no matter the effort, they believe intelligence is static and will not change. As a consequence, if they do not believe they are smart, they will often not see the value in putting forth effort, as they do not believe it will change the outcome or the state of their “inborn” intelligence. Combine these beliefs with the increase in the importance of peers over academics and we can understand why many middle schoolers begin to turn away from school, procrastinate on assignments, blame others for failures, or try other tactics to avoid feeling unable or not intelligent.  

Researcher Howard Gardner challenged this notion of limited static intelligence with his framework of Multiple Intelligences. Under this framework, rather than a fixed IQ, children are born with various abilities and talents across 8 domains: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and naturalist. Drawing on this body of work, children have a learning profile as opposed to a set and (in our culture) limiting level of intelligence. Preteens and teens, who are naturally self-critical, benefit from understanding their own learning strengths and weaknesses as being part of their academic whole. They also benefit from hearing about the need for skills and training, as opposed to drawing on the notion of being smart or intelligent. To determine your child’s learning style, review this article. To determine her multiple intelligences profile, take this multiple intelligence test, or this one.

Expectations in school shift as well. By 6th grade, children are expected to begin to analyze their position on moral or political issues. They are expected to consider ideas that would be contrary to fact (e.g., what if nighttime had sunny skies). They will begin to question attitudes, behaviors, and values they previous accepted blindly. They will begin to think about the way that they think (metacognition) in new ways. 

Parents can support children in these fundamental changes. For example, support your child in noticing and realizing what strategies he uses to learn, what kinds of questions he asks (to himself or his teachers), and how successfully he feels these ways of learning are working for him. As adolescents vary considerably in their effective use of strategies, having your child reflect on his learning and reasoning processes empowers him to make active choices and advance his thinking skills across all areas. Ask questions to encourage your child to elaborate on information, and model and discuss successful strategies across contexts. 

Children experience development at different rates and to different degrees. The development may seem inconsistent and erratic as well. One day they may seem to have it all together, and the next day, they do not. This is a challenging time for young teens. They begin to realize what is important to them, what skills and talents they possess, and what learning they believe will apply to their future lives. Parents’ patience and warm questions allow children this age to clarify and expand their thinking. In addition, you can encourage your child’s independent learning to explore areas of interest or to tie what your child is learning to everyday life or his future goals.

Children this age need support in finding balance. School’s role and importance increases, but school is only part of your child’s intellectual curiosity. Activities and extracurriculars can help your child escape from the demands of school, or extend the passions that get ignited there.

Stages & Milestones
Cognitive Skills
Age 13
Age 12
Age 11
Middle School
Child Development and Behavior
Learning and Cognitive Development