Why Everyone Should Teach Teens and Feel Lucky to Do So
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
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.
Dan Siegal likes to try this exercise with groups. Try it with your friends, family or your class, as a way of understanding your own brain and it's differnt reactions.
“Close your eyes. Be still and listen.”
Now say emphatically and with strength these words, pausing between them:
Then pause and gently say, again pausing between each word:
“Yes………..Yes. ………..Yes…………. Yes. ……….. Yes…………..Yes”
Follow with these instructions:
“Take deep breath. Take your left hand and put it on your chest and the other on the abdomen. Apply some gentle pressure. Now swap hands, your right hand on your chest and your left on your abdomen. How does that feel? Now put your hands in a position where they feel most comfortable and you feel most comforted. Breathe.
Sense the breath.
Take a last deep breath, blowing out through the mouth.
What did you feel?”
Our Reactions to "No!"
It’s likely that the feedback that you’ll get about hearing the word “No” will include words like: Tight, scary, angry, hurtful, rejecting, frustrating. restriction, painful, shaming, annoying. My six year daughter informed me it made her think "Please, I won't do it again mama". It really got me thinking about how often I might say "no" and "don't" to her, on top of the rules she is constantly governed by in her class each day (in our TEYL course we look at different ways to deal with rules).
In part, Siegal explains, you are activating a threat state - a reactive state governed by the brain stem. Siegal explains that the “no” brain state feels inadequate and shamed. The brain stem is a 300,000,000 year old brain. It’s often referred to as the lizard brain. It regulates bodily functions and fight, flight, freeze or faint reactions. These reactive states are the basis of stress.
Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile's brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. It's reliable and there to protect us. Stress makes us run faster, or freeze and fake death so something won't consume us. But it isn't flexible.
When We Panic or Feel Stress, What Can We Do?
Placing our hands on our gut area and heart help calm us down. Also sitting and placing our hands on our thighs and our feet on the floor with deep low breathing. As blood is racing away from our extremities to protect interal organs, our hands can feel cold. Focusing our thoughts on our hands and our feet -feeling the floor - can help reverse this. Another action we sometimes do unconsciously, is to place our hand on our forehead. This can bring our attention to our pretfrontal cortex, nestled there behind our forehead, which plays an enormous role in regulating our actions and emotions. More on this later.
Our Reactions to "Yes."
Reactions to “Yes” could include: Comforting soothing accepting relaxing empowering warm loving open affirming relief freeing calming.
“Yes” brain statements Siegal argues, encourage a receptive brain. This is the limbic area which can help regulate our feelings and reactions.
Calming Our Interior State Needs to be Taught to Us
As I mentioned, some actions we do are innate and intuitively done to help us calm down. However teachers, elders, carers and parents can teach children and teens a lot too. Mental state language is where we feed children words to describe how they are feeling. A child might fall, hurt themselves and have an emotion or two or three. Mental state language includes words like “that must feel scary seeing that blood.”, “that hurt didn’t it?”, or “that gave you a fright didn’t it?”. The language shows the child that it’s ok to have the feelings, that these feelings are known by someone other than the child, the feelings have names. As language teachers, the lexis of mental states should form part of our teaching.
In contrast, if a parent shouts “Get up”! , or panics and gets as distressed as the child, they offer no reflective dialogue to help teach children about their emotional state and how to move through it. Worse still, the child might bury their emotions, which is called miscueing, in order to protect the distressed parent. Being with children, being the stronger and wiser adult, and feeding them words to describe how they are feeling helps them accept feelings, move through and regulate them. Unfortunately, this kind of self-awareness is simply not addressed enough.
What are the Main Changes Happening in Adolescence?
In adolescence, here are some areas that are beginning to change according to Siegal:
Self-awareness begins to change. The limbic area works with the brain stem to create motivation. The limbic area is responsible for evaluating things. It decides what is important, good (want more) or bad (want less). There are a lot of emotional and physical responses happening as a result of this area of the brain. Adolescents are also beginning to have a richer sense of who they are. Existential questions begin to be asked and their “go-to” for security changes as well: adolescents often turn to friends rather than parents for help.
Meanwhile in another part of the brain, right at the front behind our foreheads, the prefrontal cortex (remember that?) deals with map making, important moral issues and reasoning. This is a part of the brain we need to work with as teachers. The prefrontal cortex receives info from everywhere. Information comes to the prefrontal cortex from the cortex, the limbic area, brain stem body and social world. It coordinates and balances all of this. It’s important to work on this part of the brain because it deals with:
- regulation of the body
- coordinating inter and intra personal states – communication
- emotional balance
- response flexibility – pause, consider options and choose the optimal response
- the ability to soothe fear and not be driven to act on fear
- insight – self knowing awareness. Mental time travel (where have I come from, and where would I like to go?
- empathy, evaluating perspectives
- morality – “we” I have a responsibility to others and the planet
- intuition – the wisdom of the body. The heart and gut brains that send messages up to the head are important to listen to.
What is Positive About the Teen Mind and What is Dangerous?
Adolescents have a more emotional brain. As a result, adolescents produce very emotional responses to ordinary situations. It can create what we would call “moodiness”. Eye rolling, grumpy short answers and “push back” is a natural product of the adolescent mind and experts agree, don’t waste your time taking them on by starting some argument that begins with ”don’t talk to me like that!”. Give them space.
Added to that, remember where all the love songs, sonnets come from? Yes, this emotional mind can also create great passion and spark. Cherish it, don’t avoid it. As teachers our role is to help adolescents surf their emotions. We need to teach them to be aware of their heart, intestines, limbic area are telling them, and then regulate it. Like I mentioned before, be with them, “see” them, help them feel the emotion and name it. This will help them move through it.
Regulating the wildness that the limbic and brain stem can throw at us is a lifetime practice. Our aim isn’t for all the emotions to disappear into some bliss state. That’s dreaming. Life is full of pain and confusion, highs and lows. It starts in childhood and stays with us. We can only aim to live with it and through it as best we can with the help of healthy mind practices.
When is the Best Time to Talk to Teens?
So, dealing with emotions and life, when are teens receptive to conversations? If you are teaching teens in the afternoon, you could be at an advantage. They may be more receptive. Studies are showing that during adolescence our best time for learning is late morning onwards. According to Francis Jensen, author of the The Teenage Brain, night time is the best time for talking with adolescents about things.
2. Social Engagement
Science says that our years of being on this planet has taught us that if we don’t belong, we die. Acceptance and connection is very important at a primal level. Elders, parents and carers need to recognise this.
However, the negative side of wanting to belong is that our overpowering desire to gain membership can mean we compromise our morality. The adults around adolescents need to help them find their internal compass through self-awareness and equanimity. This balance is driven by the prefrontal cortex. The drive to belong at any cost, moral or otherwise, is driven by the our old primal brain down in there at the lower back of the head. We need to keep that in check.
Group Work and Activity Based Learning
On the upside for teachers, of all this socialising is that adolescents are built for group work and social networks of support. Task-based and team learning lends itself to teens and we need to harness this in our classrooms both for language learning and the social development teens and adolescents desperately need.
We have reward circuitry and adolescents have more than anyone. It’s all chemical. Basically, new and challenging stuff secretes dopamine. Dopamine is good. It creates the courage to seek out new things, and there is a lot of excitement in doing so. When dopamine activity is low, you are bored. Parents are boring. Teachers are boring. Content is boring. A deficiency can even lead to addiction.
Too much of a certain dopamine receptor is also associated with people commonly referred to as "risk takers." The tricky issue is a little thing called hyper-rational thinking. The mind of an adolescent tends to pay attention to the exciting aspects of a choice rather than the dangerous aspects. Adolescents are, as a result, 2-3 times more likely to damage themselves. This is where self-awareness is a key skill to learn, harnessng the power of that prefrontal cortex again.
Teens and Gamification
Gamification done well gives the challenge and competitive risk taking that dopomine rewards us for in feelings like euphoria and happiness. Teens thrive on it. However variety and the unexpected is key:
"...the story on dopamine is that dopamine release is correlated with "unexpected reward." Dopamine is the mechanism by which the brain rewires itself to take new information into account when selecting actions. A surprising reward is cause for updating the brain's goal state values and action priorities. However once the brain's model of the environment has been updated, the reward isn't surprising anymore and the transient dopamine release goes away." - , fmr UC Berkeley Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience
4. Creative Exploration and Challenge
An adolescent wants to explore creatively. This is because the brain is now setting a child up to transition to being independent. It can be irritating, and adults wonder where they get their fashion sense, or crazy expectations, but without this dreaming, energy and creativity, we wouldn’t have major contributions to society. Sufficient challenge, creative angles and novelty are the tools teachers need to work with.
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!
Secure Attachment: Circle of Security: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wpz8m0BFM8
Dan Siegal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kH-BO1rJXbQ
Further Reading on Adolescent Brains:
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