Motivating kids during shelter-in-place

By: Nidhi Patel, 6th grade teacher

Shelter-in-place is hard on everyone. If you were an outgoing person who was always doing things, this change in pace may be difficult to adapt to. If you were someone already suffering with mental health issues, this additional stress can feel like an unbearable load. For adolescents or pre-adolescents, this change is likely to also feel unbearable at times. But why is this so much harder for preteens than for other children? As a middle school teacher, I needed to know.

Let’s start with understanding what’s naturally happening in the development of early adolescents.

Physical: Girls are starting to go through puberty and boys will follow soon after. Hormones that race through the system of our kids can make their emotions feel like a teeter totter. Some minutes are quiet and happy and the next are filled with hostility. Their emotions are also starting to heighten – sometimes unexpectedly – which presents itself to us as preteens being overly dramatic.

Brains: the average 11-13 year old is now starting to think deeply about different subjects. Before, when you ask a child what they thought of a movie, they were largely literal (“it was funny”). Now, you can hear them contemplate deeper moral, intellectual and complicated issues (“when the character made that joke, I think it was more about what he was missing in his life…”). Woah…meta!

Identity: Many psychologists note this as a unique period in identity development where kids start identifying who they are by who they are not. In Dr. Tatum’s words “it’s why all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria.” This can happen with race, gender, sexuality, or other factors that your child identifies with. This can be a very challenging time for many preteens as former friendships break and new ones get formed.

Being social during this time is important for preteens to make connections to others who are going through similar changes and to see older kids who have “lived through it.” These models in society help calibrate coping skills to moderate extreme feelings for the average preteen.

That’s the obvious downside to SIP – preteens don’t have constant models to help them manage their natural swings. Without outlets for their brain development and the natural pull of their identity formation – preteens may be suffering more than children of other ages. Smaller children need physical stimulation which can be replicated at home. Older teens have more established identities and brain development so can engage online to get their social and cognitive needs met by friends and family. Preteens are still developing in so many ways that losing their outside models can alter their normal development.

Some psychologists are already noticing higher rates of mental health challenges in this group as they start to spiral seemingly out of control.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends establishing a regular routine and schedule at home. On top of that, many say you should put your kid to “work” – in the home with daily chores, with family businesses and by exploring aspects of their own interests and identity. Working on new skills or objectives gives kids a new stage to develop their social and physical selves. Exploring interesting topics by making projects, writing or even just reading deeply leverages their national curiosity and identity needs.

Many preteens will resist new structures. And, this is where extrinsic motivation can support your child acclimate to a new situation. This is a perfect time to offer rewards for getting to work (read a book to your sibling) or taking an hour to learn something they might enjoy (research civil rights).

You don’t want to reward things they naturally like to do – likely video games – but incentivize them to challenge themselves in new ways. As they learn to enjoy these new things, you can move the rewards to other new things they can learn and explore. One of the rules of making extrinsic rewards work is that you shouldn’t keep rewards on the same skill once it is developed. Rather, you keep the rewards moving to different things every 3-5 weeks.

Rewards can help motivate preteens to establish structure and routines, to explore new things and help keep their minds focused on positive development. If we can do this effectively, not only can we keep our kids away from zombie scrolling for hours leading to mental and physical fatigue – we can also continue to support their natural development without major disruptions.




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