Ask any teacher to react to the idea of teaching teens and there will be either a shiver of horror or the exclamation of “bring it on!”. We’re going to find out why teaching teens is a not only a deeply important privilege but how it will also improve your own brain health. We’ll look at the hormonal and neurological changes that take place, and the needs of adolescents, that if met, will make for fantastic relationships and effective learning.
When Does Adolescence Start and Finish?
Going back a couple hundred years, the adolescent period used to be roughly from the age of fifteen to nineteen. These days, it begins at about 12 and can continue to the mid or even late twenties. Adolescence does not coordinate with puberty. Adolescence can begin before or after puberty begins. Given that range of contemporary adolescence, most language teachers are dealing with learners in this phase of life.
Myths We Feed Ourselves About Teens
According to psychologist Dan Siegal, many preconceived ideas we have about teens are disempowering. Let’s have a look at a few:
The first myth is that adolescents have to push against adults and get away from them, that they have no need of parents or care givers. We’ll see that adolescents need to talk to adults, be heard and receive guidance
Secondly, teens are often perceived as being “overtaken by raging hormones”. Yes, there are hormone changes. Males will experience a testosterone increase between 15 to 18 times. Meanwhile females will have an increase of estradiol levels of 8 times the amount. Naturally that changes our bodies and increases our sexual interest (Cameron, J.I. 2004). While these changes can seem rapid, the body knows what it is doing. Three glands, the hypolthalmus and pituitary in the brain and the gonads all work together to make sure this is being administrated carefully.
This idea that teen behaviour is beyond their control has long been propagated and fed to teens and adults. We often use words like nutty, silly, loopy, lazy or crazy to describe this period. In Spain, there is the term “la edad del pavo” the age of the turkey. This is the very period when we can start refining how to regulate our feelings and actions.
Teens are Lazy
No. Consider them tired. Sleep is essential for adolescent memory retention and learning -9-10 hours of sleep is optimum. But consider the adolescents you know and how much sleep they generally get. Chances are, its no way near enough. We are night owls by nature in this stage of life and teens have early start times for high school and a homework load to be done in the evenings.
They're Lucky to Get Out Alive!
And as if that’s not enough, we encourage ourselves and teens to think of this period of life as something to endure and get through as quickly as possible. It’s a period one is lucky to get through alive. We shall see how important this period is and how having a teen in your life can be your life saver.
Adolescence. Why Have It?
To understand what adolescence is, we need to start with the child the adolescent is growing from. The mix of nature and nurture is shaping how the brain is structured. Nature needs a child who has first absorbed the world and been nurtured. But it then needs to move that child out into the world to be independent. Adolescence is that period of interdependent transition. Nature needs to change the brain of the person to make them independent.
Stage One: Achieving Secure Attachment: Seen, Soothed and Safe.
In our childhood years, and indeed throughout our lives, we need to feel secure in ourselves and our relationships so we can go out into the world to explore and transition to adulthood. Small children need to know where their safe place is when things go wrong. They look to us to enjoy their discoveries with them, and their dispair or pain. Seigal uses three S's. First, we need to be seen and recognised. We need to know that our parents and elders are with us in our feelings, that they know and “see” our mind, not just our tears. This connection is incredibly powerful.
We need our parents or elders to sense our distress, be with us in it and soothe us. What we feel as a result is that we are worthy of being noticed.
We need to feel safe. Our job is not to protect our weak parents, we need to feel that our elders can protect us. And finally, at times or even often, when parents and elders mess up, they need to repair the rupture. If parents, carers and elders are good enough 30% of the time, they will create securely attached children. A child who has had this situation growing up, can self-regulate, with a resilient, integrated brain.
Stage Two: Adolescence
By about the age of eleven, instead of the brain making more and more connections through genetics and experience, something changes. It’s now all about energy.
"Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows." Siegal 2016
A phenomenon that Siegal calls “brain pruning” begins. Whether we like it or not, we start to specialise. We can’t hang on to everything. The brain is now working in an entirely different and specialised way. Synaptic connections are physically being shaved off. It is a necessary process to hone skills.
In the late teens and early twenties, the brain is also laying down myelin over connections to improve speed and coordination. This brain remodelling is happening during the adolescent period. Think of it all as a massive construction site. This is where we as teachers can help enormously.
Teaching Teens is an Opportunity to Do Great Things
Our opportunity as teachers, is to teach adolescents how to develop these functions. To assure them that they aren’t out of control or crazed. To empower them and help them know that they are “seen” by us, their mentors and elders, who they still need to turn to as they transition. And very importantly, that their adolescent minds are precious, to be enjoyed and not simply “survived”. Thankfully, this is teachable.
The future needs adolescents with healthy minds. Knowing and emulating the functions of their minds also plays a key role in maintaining the brain health of adults. Yes, that's right. A strong, integrated and growing brain needs not only to exist in the adolescent but also in the adult. We all need to keep our spark and passion. We all need to be interested and engage with novelty, court challenge and maintain our social connections. The adolescent mind is essentially the essence of the healthy mind and teachers of adolescents have the privilege of engaging with all of it.
Teaching English to Teens Course
Now that we have an understanding of what is happening in the adolescent brain and what we need to do in order to help it develop healthily, how do we apply this in our teen classrooms with the pressures on them and us?
The author of the this article, Emma Pratt, is busy working on extending our TEYL course with extra teen modules to explore these issues, offer advice, practical approaches and activities to transform your teen classroom.
Head over to the new course site being built and take the opportunity to look at the content and pre-enrol. We'll let you know when it's ready. Tell Emma what you'd love to know how to do better as a teacher of teens and she'll take your thoughts into consideration as she is writing the course!
Further Reading on Adolescent Brains: