Welcome to the start of the tween years, the bridge between child and teenager formerly known as...well...childhood.

Kids who are not quite teenagers used be called preteens, but now that phase of being acutely aware of peers and pop culture starts even younger. Teachers and parents say it can begin as early as 4th grade for some children, while others hold dearly to childhood.

For kids who move on to the tween phase, the year is marked by a greater interest in fashion, pop music, and celebrities, all of which can be a huge distraction to schoolwork. The good news is that kids still possess a natural curiosity and love of learning. “They have an irrepressible enthusiasm for learning,” according to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ 4th grade curriculum guide. “They are comfortable working independently or with others in small groups.”

The key is to find ways to make learning engaging and fun. For example, 4th graders are inherently social, so having them work in pairs or groups may hold more appeal than working by themselves. The challenge, of course, is getting them to work and not just gab.

Boys and Girls

This is the year when curiosity about the opposite sex may reach fever pitch. “Fourth grade is the time when students usually begin to become acutely aware of boy-girl differences and to experience very strong feelings toward those they like and those they dislike,” according to the Laboratory Schools’ guide. Children are also aware of rules and fairness and preoccupied with friendships and peer groups.

Parents can help navigate these choppy waters by being willing to listen and to show an interest in their child’s social life while gently nudging the child toward educational pursuits. Some kids may need more structure in the evenings, with a strict time designated for homework followed by a short period allowed for talking on the phone.

Children need opportunities to mix with the opposite sex so they can learn to negotiate with kids who may once have been close buddies but now seem very different. A well-run 4th grade classroom will allow for these types of interactions. At home, parents can provide supervised opportunities for unstructured play and socializing.

Extracurricular Activities Galore

Students start gravitating toward their preferred activities in 4th grade. Some choose a sport, others a creative pursuit like music. Some want to do everything. Others will have trouble finding even a single activity that interests them.

Some kids thrive in the competitive environment of team sports, but for others it’s too stressful. Some will choose an activity just because her friends are doing it, while others will crave individuality and seek out a more obscure endeavor.

It is the parents’ role to decide how many activities their child can handle and to make sure the child’s life doesn’t become overscheduled and chaotic. Activities offer a great opportunity for a supervised social outlet, and they allow kids to blossom in areas outside the classroom. Too many activities can lead to burnout, however.

Kids at this age are old enough to understand logistical constraints. Some activities will be impractical because of the distance parents must drive, the time commitment involved, or the level of expense required. Most communities offer an abundance of opportunities for socializing outside of school, making it possible for every child to find something. Scouts are one widely available low-cost option.

If you’re considering being a leader in an activity, talk to your child. He may welcome your involvement, or he may need time to socialize without Mom and Dad close by.

Some children will not want to participate in activities. Help your child find a creative outlet as well as a way to burn off excess energy, whether it’s hitting the playground after school with a friend or spending an afternoon painting.

Family Time

With high expectations at school, an increasingly demanding social life, and the pull of extracurricular activities, it may be harder than ever to schedule family time. But children of this age still need time with their parents even if they don’t realize it. They need a chance to talk about their day, their life, their worries—though they may well reply “Nothing” when you ask them what’s new.

Fourth grade is the year you may find yourself investing in a color-coded calendar to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. But however hectic life gets, consider setting aside time to hang out as a family and—as a tween would say—just chill.

For more information, read “4th Grade Academics: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.