What Trainee Teachers should know about the Developmental Psychology of Teenagers

Being a student-teacher is tough enough, but it may be especially difficult at the secondary level, where high school students are in the throes of modern adolescence. According to Psychology Today, adolesence is the period from age 13 to 19 where both the mind and body take the tumultuous journey from childhood to adulthood. Much ado has been made about adolescents’ tendency to engage in various forms of experimentation and challenging behavior, seeking to push the envelope and stress their independence opposite traditional authority figures. So, what should student-teachers preparing to educate classrooms full of high school students know?

The challenges associated with teenagers are covered by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Unlike students in elementary school, beginning in junior high students are likely to begin challenging their teachers more directly, seeking to test boundaries. Challenging behaviors are often associated with the formation of cliques, where students begin forming intense friendships with like-minded peers. Students may resist being seated apart from friends, requiring a student-teacher to insist on a formal seating chart.

Not relying on a formal seating chart could cause problems as students sit according to clique and become increasingly disruptive. The problem of disruptive students is also caused by increasingly intense romantic attachments, with adolescent boys and girls engaging in flirtatious behavior during class. Unless such behavior is clearly disapproved of by the teacher at the outset, students are likely to become more vocal and brazen with their flirtations, ignoring the lesson and distracting students who are trying to learn.

Such envelope-pushing behavior will be stressful for the student-teacher, who may be relatively new at acting as an authority figure. A student-teacher will face an extremely difficult first week, with many students seeking to find how much they can get away with. Therefore, before taking over as the classroom teacher, a student-teacher should consult with school administrators to find out the best method for enforcing discipline. Are there specific forms? Should an assistant principal be called on an in-classroom phone in the event of acute student misbehavior? What are tried-and-true methods of classroom management used by veteran teachers? Going into a classroom of adolescents unprepared can break a student-teacher.

Firm discipline is necessary for a student-teacher of teenagers, but it is also important to understand other factors of adolescent development. Teens are more able to exercise independent thought and exploration and interpret things based on future goals, providing ample opportunity for teachers to engage students in the learning process. Student-teachers who offer more academic freedom to teenagers may find immense reward, with teenagers relishing the opportunity to exercise this freedom and focus more on subject material that speaks to them. A student-teacher could offer various options for an assignment, helping boost adolescent self-esteem and decision-making skill by allowing students to choose which option feels most worthwhile. However, one must make sure that all options are covered comprehensively and have clear expectations to avoid teens taking an “easy way out” and not doing a complete job.

Rapport may be easier to build with adolescent students through the use of humor and linking subject material to popular culture. This could give the student-teacher additional avenues to boost academic performance: Allowing students to compare academic concepts to pop culture may be rewarding for both pupil and instructor and generate genuine interest in learning.

Finally, adolescents are often mature enough to understand that the real world is not too far away. Student-teachers, often in their early- to mid-twenties, are in a unique position to provide up-to-date information about the initial challenges of college and entering the “real world.” This can be a special tool to help student-teachers gain respect and appreciation from high school students, who may come to prefer the popular culture and “real world” lessons of their student-teacher to the more strictly academic lessons of their normal teacher.