I have always loved teaching teenagers. This precious time between childhood and adulthood presents individuals who are speedily acquiring a personal sense of ethics, who can express with assuredness their perspectives on many issues and also have an exuberance of energy and verve that is fun to be around.
That said, I once heard Dr Michael Carr-Gregg characterise teenagehood by stating that a teenager’s developmentally appropriate characteristics would be considered a major personality disorder if they presented in a grown adult. Likewise, writer Maggie Dent picks up on this theme. She writes: “[B]eing an adolescent can feel a bit like having a temporary brain injury and if my son or a student had a brain injury I would not yell at them for being forgetful or overwhelmed. I would support them to remember things and treat them with patience, compassion and kindness. When we lecture our teens, they feel they can’t do anything right. When we criticise, they feel useless and incapable. When we nag, they feel disrespected.”
Teenagehood is known to be the time when we are most prone to peer influence, likely to participate in risky behaviours, express emotions more frequently and more strongly and are most likely to make impulsive decisions.
Often expression of these traits takes the form of self-centredness, forgetfulness, wild mood-swings, frustration and poor decision making.
While these can make teenagers challenging to negotiate with, it is important for us all to appreciate that much of this stems from biology and is developmentally normative.
Every parent or teacher who deals with teenagers will likely have experienced the frustration of teenage forgetfulness, this is particularly the case when it relates to an instruction that the teenager does not connect with emotionally. Homework and household chores will tend to fall in to this category and can lead to conflict and negative consequences for teenagers. However, there are a number of neural developments that combine during teenagehood to exacerbate this situation.
During this period, teenagers experience significant synaptic pruning – the process in which the brain sheds excess neural connections for the sake of efficiency. This is most pronounced in adolescence with some regions of the brain experiencing a 50% reduction in neural connections. Teenagers also experience a surge in hormones that can affect the limbic system which regulates our emotional state. This can act to magnetise attention to inputs that are considered more emotionally resonant and divert attention from others which are not. This is why teenagers can find it especially challenging to negotiate multiple tasks at once.
Much has also been written about the relative immaturity of the teenage prefrontal cortex which also explains decreased organisation, logic and consequential thinking.
The largest ever study into the middle years of schooling was conducted in Melbourne in the early 2000s. The Middle Years Research and Development (MYRAD) study found that in order to curb the disengagement that characterises this period schools need to implement a student-centred teaching process that allows for student agency and choice, creates “real world” rather than theoretical applications of learning, anchors learning experiences in the students’ social and emotional world and emphasises the importance of a positive relationship with teachers.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Jean Russell, summarises the importance of the teacher-student relationship stating that “Middle-school students’ relationships with teachers is critical… This includes teachers treating them with respect, valuing them and being interested in their lives.”
While there is no doubt that teenage behavioural peculiarities can try one’s patience, when we use our empathy and an appreciation of the developmental quirks of this period we can adjust our approach to ensure reduced conflict and greater engagement.
James McCue from Edith Cowen University suggests a range of strategies in an article on teenage decision making. A summary includes:
1. Be aware of upcoming events that may present teenagers with decisions that need to be made.
2. Present scenarios which may present a risk, or will require a decision…to explore healthy, or safer choices.
3. Encourage your teenager to stop and think.
4. Provide a decision-making compass.
5. Remind teenagers to ask for help.
6. Use mistakes as learning opportunities.
At King David we understand that for teenagers to thrive, their teachers and their parents need to gain an appreciation of who they are at this stage of their lives. We are careful to design learning activities and curricula that speak to their needs and use our growing understanding of their brain development to set them up for success. Perhaps most importantly, we take the time to foster positive relationships that allow our students to feel respected and understood in a safe learning environment.