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OMG, I Can't Even: Drama, Social Skills, and the Teenage Brain

Alex Shevrin

Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school
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Four female students are standing in a hallway beside their lockers, talking to each other in pairs.

If you're teaching or raising teenagers, these sentence stems may sound familiar:

  • "Did you hear what she said about. . ."
  • "I can't believe he. . ."
  • "She's such a. . ."
  • "OMG! I'm going to die if. . ."
  • "Look at this chat/screenshot/Snapchat! Can you believe. . ."

Social "drama" among teenagers is ever-present, overwhelming, and isn't going away. By better understanding the needs that teens are expressing through drama, we can support them in developing healthy skills that will serve them throughout life.

About Drama

What is drama, really?

Characterized by conflict, gossip, he said/she said, and heightened emotions, "drama" is really just a shortcut for saying that our students lack social and emotional skills. While it's easy to dismiss drama as insignificant, we can instead examine it as an opening to build skills around decision making, perspective, empathy, and mindfulness.

Why is drama so present for our teens and adolescents?

The key to understanding drama lies in understanding the teenage brain. Many teenagers are motivated to have healthy social connections with others, and as Ross Greene says, kids do well if they can. If kids can't (or in this case, can't even!), something must be getting in their way. When we think about healthy social interactions, what's getting in the way could be teens' and adolescents' own brains.

Social-Emotional Disconnect

Here are some of the key areas where teen brain development impacts social skills.

Impulse control

The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and long-term planning are not yet fully developed. While adults with healthy social skills might consider the impact of their words or actions and the long-term social consequences of in-the-moment decisions, the teenage brain isn't good at slowing down before acting. In particular, teens can be more impulsive in social situations, especially when they feel threatened. This has even greater implications for children who have experienced trauma and may feel constantly threatened and unsafe, further decreasing their ability to access the parts of the brain that manage rational thought. After a conflict, a student says to me, "I don't know why I said those horrible things. It seemed like I couldn't stop myself." Indeed she couldn't -- her brain couldn't slow down her impulses.

Heightened emotions

Teens have a heightened capacity for fear and anxiety. Often the emotion underlying my students' drama seems to be a fear of being judged, ridiculed, or ostracized. Two students pass each other in the hallway in a seemingly neutral way, and then my student remarks to me, "Did you see the dirty look she just gave me?" With their brains predisposed to these heightened fears, no wonder teens are so focused on potentially negative outcomes of social interactions.

Decision making

At the same time that teens are impulsive, they may also engage in hyper-rational thinking that minimizes negative impacts or risks. I see this play out in social settings where students rationalize negative behavior through a lens of "fairness."

  • "She said that to me, so of course I'm going to say it back to her."
  • "I'll stop talking about her when she stops running her mouth about me."

This hyper-rationalization pairs with underdeveloped empathy, leading to situations where considerations of others' emotions might not play into decision making.

These challenges apply to a healthy developing teenage brain. We must also layer on the impacts of complex trauma, substance use and abuse, disordered attachment, and many other influences that might cause the brain to develop differently.

What Can We Do?

The good news is that the teenage brain is malleable and primed to learn. This gives us a great opportunity to teach social skills, mindfulness practices, and empathy development.

Honor the experience instead of judging.

Although some teen drama may seem trivial to us, it's deeply felt through the heightened emotional capacity of the teen brain. If we minimize, patronize, judge, blame, or dismiss the importance of our students' emotional experience, we miss the opportunity to develop skills, and worse, we damage our caring relationships with these young people.

Teach social skills.

We can teach social skills through direct instruction by offering scenarios and working through them to help students practice ways of thinking and responding. Using hypothetical scenarios removes the heightened emotions that students typically experience in social settings and allows them to work through possible responses more slowly than they might in practice. In a language arts class, a teacher might have students think through a scenario from the current class book. A social studies class might consider the social and emotional conflict that contributed to a historical event.

There are also some fantastic resources to be found in the concepts of social thinking developed by Michelle Garcia Winner. Her work offers concrete strategies, tips, and procedures for children, adolescents, and adults to develop effective social skills.

Don't react. Reflect.

Teachers can also support social skill development through embracing and reflecting on drama rather than just asking students to stop it or "leave it at the door." Diving deep into drama with my students has allowed me to truly see their world as they see it. I start by listening nonjudgmentally and asking lots of questions, not to understand the details of the situation but to understand how my student is making sense of those details.

I might then use "I wonder" statements to explore different ways of approaching the situation:

  • "I wonder what would have happened if you ignored her instead of confronted her."
  • "I wonder what he was thinking in that moment."
  • "I wonder what kind of pain she might be in to say something that mean to you."

I try to avoid "you should," "you shouldn't," and most especially "you can't."

Knowledge is power.

Finally, we can give students the gift of knowing how their own brains work. There are many teen-friendly resources for learning about the working of the adolescent brain, and learning about this opens the door for teens to better understand their own responses and impulses.

The path to healthy social skills is working through the drama, not avoiding it. We know that practicing a skill strengthens our brain's neural pathways associated with that skill, making it more readily accessible in the future. When we support our students to practice, mess up, reflect, and try again, we guide their brains through healthy development.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer/Edutopia Community Facilitator/Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Another great post Alex! This is an angle I've witness, and experienced as a teenager, but never thought twice that it relates to our connection and understanding of students' social and emotional well-being. Thanks for the great reminder and research!

Julie Sheridan's picture

"Finally, we can give students the gift of knowing how their own brains work. There are many teen-friendly resources for learning about the working of the adolescent brain, and learning about this opens the door for teens to better understand their own responses and impulses." - Do you have a list of those teen-friendly resources? Thanks!

Pamela Rowe's picture

I definitely see the value in helping students work through the personal impact that drama has on them and brainstorm ways to build their social skills. As a teacher and the adult responsible for the safety of my students, I also have to evaluate at what point I have to step in and stop whatever is going on as the acts of violence that come from the drama have increased in my school, and especially among girls. It is important to pay attention as it starts as then it can be de-escalated with conflict resolution skills. Sometimes though in my classroom, I do have to say, "no gossiping" as a standard for how we treat others.

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