6 Ways to Encourage Pre-Teens to Learn (Without Pressure)
On the one hand, you don’t want them to fall behind at this critical stage in their education. On the other hand, you don’t want to make them feel pressured and uncomfortable with learning, since that will only have the opposite effect from the one that you intend. Finding the right balance is tough but it’s so rewarding when your efforts help to spark a genuine love of learning in your child. Here are our top tips.
1. Ask questions, don’t carry out interrogations
One of the most basic ways to encourage your pre-teen child to learn, and help them feel supported, is to show a genuine interest in their education. But that can be easier said than done, especially if your child is not naturally inclined to be chatty, or they’re getting close enough to being a teenager that they find your interest in their life embarrassing or uncomfortable.
This is often expressed in the “what did you do at school today?” conversation. You know the one:
“What did you get up to at school today?”
“You must have done something, you can’t have done nothing at all for six hours.”
“I had maths. And history. And I played football at lunchtime.”
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
And so on. It can feel like a battle, where you really want to know about how your child has got on at school (not least because you might be concerned that their “nothing” is concealing unpleasant experiences, such as bullying) but they really don’t want to tell you.
But try to imagine it from your child’s perspective. Would you want to give them a hour-by-hour account of a normal, relatively dull day at work? Unless you have an unusually varied and interesting job, that probably sounds like a chore – not only having to recount everything that you did (“I went into a meeting, it was tricky but I managed to get my point across, then I checked over the accounts…”) but also explain any parts of it that your child isn’t going to have the background knowledge to understand (“an appraisal is a bit like when your teacher gives you your report…”). Your child telling you all about what they did at school may feel much the same to them; they’re not interested in recounting the finer details of their Maths lesson any more than you’d find it fascinating to tell them about the printer jam you managed to fix.
Instead, try to ask questions that your child will actually find interesting to answer. For instance, try “what was the coolest thing that happened today?” The answers might range from it being chip day in the school canteen to the class hamster escaping, but it’s less important to get the finer details of every class than to have a conversation that your child finds worthwhile and encouraging.
2. Give them their own space for studying
Could you work if you were constantly being interrupted, or if the TV was blaring in the background? Probably not, but plenty of parents seem to expect their children to be able to do their homework surrounded by the clamour of family life, or to be able to switch concentration from challenging work to dinnertime conversation at a moment’s notice.
As much as possible given your living circumstances, try to give your child a quiet, private space for studying, even if this means missing out on some time to have the whole family together in the evenings. Giving your child their own space has several benefits when it comes to encouraging them to learn. The most obvious benefit is simply that it makes the process of doing their homework that bit easier if they aren’t repeatedly distracted by what’s going on around them.
But beyond this, another advantage is that helps take the potential embarrassment out of studying. No matter how much you’ve tried to encourage their love of learning, your child might well have picked up prejudices from their peers about seeming like too much of a bookworm, so might not be comfortable getting really wrapped up in their studies in front of you and their siblings. Or the inverse might be true: if they’re a weaker student, they might do better if they know there’s no danger of you or their siblings leaning over their shoulder and spotting mistakes in their work. Most of all, giving your child a private space to study in shows that you respect their studies; that you understand that their homework is work, and don’t expect them to finish it off in a matter of minutes at the kitchen table. Demonstrating that you think their studies are worthy of respect will help encourage them to see their work in the same way as they advance to the new challenges of secondary school and beyond.
3. Let them explain things to you while you feign ignorance
One great way to engage with your child’s education and encourage them to learn is to ask them questions about what they’re doing while you pretend you don’t know anything much about it. Nothing gives a child a sense of accomplishment and ownership of a topic than the belief that they’ve learned something that their parent doesn’t know about.
So if your child is telling you that they learned about the Romans in their history class, ask them what they’ve learned, and instead of butting in with your own thoughts, try saying, “I didn’t know that!” Chances are, your child will be extra keen to teach you all about what they’ve learned. This doesn’t just stoke their enthusiasm for the subject, it also helps them learn, as teaching someone else is an excellent way to revise and consolidate information.
Of course, you’ll have to maintain the illusion – but that can be positive too. If your child is asking you for help with their homework on the Romans, you can then show them how you go about finding answers to questions that you don’t know. You’re demonstrating to them that when you find a gap in your knowledge, you don’t give up; you seek out answers for yourself, or try to learn from people who know more. And that’s a great message for your child to be getting.
4. Maintain a positive attitude towards school and learning
Encouraging a bookish pre-teen in their love of learning can be particularly tricky if your own schooldays weren’t so great. Just like any interest that your child has and you don’t share, it isn’t always clear how to relate to them, even to the point of awkwardness. You might find yourself telling relatives that your child is “such a bookworm – didn’t get it from me!” or pointing out that you managed to do well despite the weaknesses in your own education.
It’s perfectly fine to acknowledge that your own schooldays weren’t entirely positive (if your child loves school, they should know how lucky they are), but beyond that, do your best to stay positive about school and your child’s learning in general. As we noted above, the idea that it’s bad to be a swot does still exist in some areas, and you don’t want to encourage those sentiments in your child. If school and education is important to them, you don’t want to change their mind about that due to voicing an ill-chosen thought about your school experiences. It’s about striking a balance: you don’t want them to think that doing well at school is the be-all and end-all to the point that they become stressed or anxious about it, but you also want to be clear that you think their school achievements are valuable.
Even if you liked school in general, you might find yourself being negative about a particular subject – for instance, if your child doesn’t like their new Maths teacher, telling them that you always hated Maths as well. The problem is that what feels like a throwaway comment to you can be internalised by your child as “Maths doesn’t matter”. If you want to relate their experiences to your own, telling them how you coped with teachers that you disliked can be much more helpful and encouraging.
5. Give them the freedom to read widely and provide them with fun learning resources
Reading is one of the best things that your child can do to learn and to build skills for future studying. Your role as a parent is to avoid policing their reading matter as much as you possibly can, or at the very least avoiding seeming like you’re doing it if your child would otherwise be at risk of reading something really inappropriate.
Why is this worth doing? Reading is a positive in its own right, and letting your child take ownership of it by not choosing their books for them is hugely encouraging. It’s remarkable how many writers and academics have as their origin story access to a library card and no restrictions on what they chose to withdraw. At the same time, there are lots of pressures on parents to moderate their children’s reading matter: your child might be inclined to choose books that you think are too difficult for them, too young for them, or to reread the same series until it falls apart. But whatever it is that they’re choosing to read, having reading as a hobby is going to be beneficial for their education. Figuring out which books they’ll enjoy and which they won’t is a skill in itself, even if the process of your child developing it results in them struggling through some books you always knew they wouldn’t get on with.
Being open-minded about the things your child chooses to learn from doesn’t just extend to books; it can also extend to other educational resources. For instance, you might find the Horrible Histories TV series to be childish and puerile – and get sick of hearing the songs – but there’s no doubt that it’s an effective way to teach kids about history. The same goes for any other study resources that they might come across, from YouTube videos to computer games, daft quizzes to comic books. So long as the content is reasonably accurate, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a conventional way to learn. And the inverse is true – some pre-teens really love the Hermione-esque experience of researching something in a dusty library, and there’s no harm in letting them do that either.
6. Let them explore a different approach to education on a summer school course
In much of this article, we’ve assumed that your pre-teen child is mostly keen on learning and school, and just needs a bit of encouragement. But if that isn’t the case, you might find that you can enthuse them about learning by introducing them to an entirely new approach on a summer school course.
Here at Oxford Royale Summer Schools, we have courses for pre-teen students that introduce them to topics and approaches that they’re unlikely to encounter in their school classroom, prioritising interactive learning, discussion and debate. They can learn new skills with immediate practical application on our Coding with Scratch and Game Creation courses – there’s nothing quite so motivational as knowing that by the end of the course, you’ll have done something as exciting as making your own computer game. Alternatively, our Academic Discovery programme lets students take a single, compelling question – such as “185 days in space: a poet’s dream or a zero-gravity nightmare?” – and examine it from different perspectives, from literature to physics, cutting across subject boundaries and challenging their imaginations. Plus they’ll be studying alongside fellow students from all over the world, making new friends and trying out new activities; the emphasis is just as much on seeing the sights and having fun as it is on classroom learning.
Summer schools are naturally great for students who love to study already, but can also help to inspire a love of learning in otherwise reluctant scholars by taking away the boredom and pressure of day-to-day studying and introducing them to new topics, techniques and teachers who can inspire them to learn. It might only be for a week or two, but that can be all it takes to recharge their academic batteries with enthusiasm for the new school year.