Adolescence is a turbulent time in human development. Although physically, teens may be biologically mature, societal norms deem them not-yet-ready for full adult responsibility. Developmental psychologist Erick Erickson described the early teen years as an especially confusing time. Because they still have one foot in childhood, while the other foot is poised to take the leap into adulthood, young teens struggle with identity issues. Educators of middle school and high school students should understand the unique characteristics of middle and high school students to ensure their learning needs are met.
The early teen years are a period of rapid growth. The human brain develops during this time at an accelerated rate, unmatched since infancy. Middle and high school students therefore need large amounts of sleep, usually much more than they actually get. They may become clumsier than they were when younger, as they struggle to adjust to the physical changes they are experiencing. Athletic prowess may be enhanced or diminished. The onset of puberty is accompanied by a heightened awareness of the opposite sex.
Peer relationships become more important than the parent-child relationship. Parents of middle and high school students may struggle with being replaced as the most important influence in their child's life. Teachers should be aware and supportive to both the parents and students at this time. Because this is such a turbulent time for students, they might unleash their frustrations on their peers as their friendships begin to change. As sexual relationships begin to form and teens start dating, jealousies develop. Incidents of teasing and bullying tend to become more prevalent and serious.
Both middle and high school students start to do some soul-searching as they attempt to rediscover themselves and what they want for their future. They become more self-conscious and sensitive about their perceived shortcomings. School guidance counselors may inadvertently add to the pressures when they begin to steer students toward various career paths. Students begin thinking about their post-secondary options as they are given choices about which subjects to study in school. They may experiment with drugs or other dangerous behaviors. They often develop an "it won't happen to me" attitude toward risks.
Implications for Teaching and Learning
Teachers of early adolescents must have lots of patience. They must be firm but compassionate with their students. Both middle and high school students need limits, but they also need a supportive, caring adult role model in their lives, now more than ever. Teachers must recognize that behavior problems in the classroom might be commonplace, but should never be tolerated. Young teens need adults who demonstrate fairness and consistency. Teachers must build activities into their lesson plans to address the special psycho-social needs of this challenging, but rewarding age group.
- The MiddleWeb Listserve; "What Do Students Want (And What Really Motivates Them)"
- American School Counselor Association; "Why Middle School Counselors?"; 2010
- Teaching and Learning; Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students Motivation to Learn; 2004
- Patient Teaching, Loose Leaf Library; "Erikson's Development Stages"; 1990
- National Institute of Mental Health; "Teenage Brain: A Work in Progress"; September 10, 2010
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images Ezra Shaw/Photodisc/Getty Images Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
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