Most teachers could talk at length about the specific challenges presented by teenagers: they are often more socially anxious, can be easily distracted, and are prone to extreme emotions. All of these qualities present unique challenges within an education setting.
However, the unique workings of the teenage brain have only attracted academic interest relatively recently. This has lead to an emerging field of research into adolescent psychology, which has found that many adolescent behaviours are rooted in changes to brain structure and hormones. These changes begin at puberty and don’t settle until early 20s (Casey BJ et al, 2005).
An understanding the psychology of teenagers is an invaluable asset for teachers to be able to develop effective teaching and behaviour-management strategies.
An understanding the psychology of teenagers is an invaluable asset for teachers to be able to develop effective teaching and behaviour-management strategies. In this article, we focus on 3 key characteristics of adolescent psychology, and recommend scientifically-backed teachings strategies which educators can use to make learning more naturally engaging for teens.
Adolescent brains show a heightened sensitivity to stress hormones, meaning that stressful situations can elicit a more extreme response in teens compared to adults and children (Romeo, 2013). This can have a negative impact on their physical, psychological and emotional well-being, and is linked to an increase in stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Mental health problems in teenage students have become particularly prevalent in the past few years, with 79% of teachers reporting an increase in stress, anxiety and panic attacks among their pupils in the past two years. This has largely been attributed to the wide range of pressures faced by modern students, including social media and uncertainty about their future (State of Education Report, 2017).
Teachers and students alike have identified exams as an important trigger for stress in students (State of Education Report, 2017). Try running dedicated drop-in sessions for students during exam season, where students can talk to teachers about what’s troubling them and discuss coping strategies.
Participation in extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and drama has been shown to lower rates of stress in school students
Participation in extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and drama has been shown to lower rates of stress in school students (Lindner K, 2002). Encourage students to maintain and nurture interests such as sports and creative endeavours outside of their studies.
When students struggle with stress and anxiety, they will often find it harder to meet homework and coursework deadlines. Allowing some flexibility on when students hand in homework will help them to stay engaged with their studies, and reduce the extent to which school has a negative impact on their mental health.
The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for reasoning, planning and judgement. During adolescence, this area is still developing, so that teens find it harder to concentrate and hold multiple thoughts at the same time. This doesn’t have to be negative – adolescents can also be particularly imaginative and are great at abstract thinking, so the challenge is to harness this specific way of thinking within an academic setting.
Adolescents can be particularly imaginative and are great at abstract thinking
Teens will learn best when lessons are focused on a single topic or theme, as they often struggle to jump around multiple concepts or ideas. Try to unite each lesson around a single topic or theme so that students can get stuck into ideas.
Combat day-dreaming by including activities which require active engagement with the lesson material. Make sure that ‘lecturing’ segments of your lessons are no more than 7-10 minutes long, and are broken up by ‘processing’ activities such as discussing content with a partner, or writing down important points covered.
As far possible, try to remove sources of distractions from your lessons. An obvious one is mobile phones, but periods of silent study can also be a good way to encourage focused work.
During adolescence, teens are developing their sense of identity as their attachment to their parents weakens and their ties to their grow stronger. This can lead to a newfound sense of anxiety surrounding how they are perceived by others and whether they are accepted by their friends.
This, combined with a tendency towards reward-seeking behaviour, makes teens very sensitive to the opinions of their peers. Within a school setting, this can lead to a reluctance to participate in lessons for fear of being judged, and a tendency towards bad behaviour when encouraged by others.
Students are often unwilling to participate or ask for help in class, where they feel embarrassed in front of their peers. Try setting up smaller homework clubs or drop-in sessions where students can ask for help in private and without fear of judgement.
Email is a fantastic forum for help; teens will often feel more comfortable communicating digitally, and it can feel more private than asking for help in person. Share your email address with students and encourage them to use it as an alternative channel of communication.
Email is a fantastic forum for help; teens will often feel more comfortable communicating digitally, and it can feel more private than asking for help in person.
Peer mentorship schemes are a great way to utilise the influence which students can have on each other. Try setting up drop-in sessions or buddy systems between pupils so that students can benefit from the knowledge and influence of their peers.
Casey BJ et al (2005), ‘Imagining the Developing Brain: What Have We Learned about Cognitive Development?’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 104-10
Rome, RD (2013), ‘The Teenage Brain: The Stress Response and the Adolescent Brain’, Curr Dir Psychol Sci
(2017), ‘State of Education: Survey Report 2017’, The Key
Lindner K (2002), ‘The physical activity participation – academic performance relationship revisited’, Pediatric Exercise Science, 14, 155-169