Learning & development

May 22 2017

How puberty affects school performance

Professor Andrew Martin MAPS
By Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales

Katharine Steinbeck
By Medical Foundation Chair in Adolescent Medicine at the University of Sydney

Attentive teachers and parents can help developing teenagers navigate academic disruption

The onset of puberty can mark a decline in academic motivation that can reduce school achievement, according to a new study undertaken in Australia. But more work needs to be done to ensure that schools and parents are accounting for the effects of development on how students perform.

Puberty typically begins at about 10 or 11 and encompasses physiological, social, neurocognitive and emotional changes. This makes for one of the most important stages in human development, and a stage that impacts the educational outcomes of children and adolescents.

The effects of puberty

The hormonal increases associated with puberty are thought to affect children and teens in a number of ways.  Emotional responses are heightened and may fluctuate, making responses to adults and peers more unpredictable. Young people’s developing maturity may prompt changes in the way that others relate to them, or the expectations of them held by others. This may in turn affect how they feel and behave at school.

Maturation can prompt adolescents to engage in activities and roles for which they do not yet have the appropriate cognitive skills. Young people may see themselves as “all grown up” and may reject adult authority, including from teachers. This may also impact academic development.

Yet, there are some potential benefits, despite the upheaval.  It is thought that the teen’s brain reward system may be sensitised by hormones, making them more receptive to rewards and feedback from teachers.  This may also influence their motivation and behaviour.

Our Australian study

We worked on a study of 342 young people aged 10-15 to specifically examine the effect of puberty on their academic achievement and motivation.  The study, which was funded by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and has been published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences, was part of an ongoing research program on regional and rural youth.

In order to examine motivation, we looked at academic self-efficacy (also known as self-confidence) and valuing of school (the belief that school is useful, relevant, and meaningfully connected to life now or life down the track). Our measure of academic achievement was students’ performance in mathematics, English, and science.

In order to establish the extent of pubertal development, our research team tested participants’ levels of testosterone and estradiol (a form of estrogen) and asked them to rate their own level of development using schematic drawings of development, known as the “Tanner staging system”.

The findings

The study confirmed that the further along in puberty the children are, the lower their self-confidence and the lower the value they placed on school. In turn, low academic self-efficacy and lower valuing of school are associated with lower academic achievement.

Interestingly, pubertal status was not significantly directly associated with academic achievement. Rather, its negative effects on achievement occurred by way of lowering students’ academic motivation.

The effects are similar for boys and girls but, with girls generally experiencing puberty earlier, the negative effects were experienced sooner by girls. 

What needs to happen?

These findings shine a spotlight on factors that can be targeted during puberty in order to maintain students’ academic achievement. Initiatives to boost students’ academic self-efficacy and students’ valuing of school may help to reduce or offset the negative effects that puberty can have on students’ academic achievement.

We are currently collecting more data and as this longitudinal study progresses we will better understand how transient these experiences may prove as individuals’ adolescence progresses.