There are many benefits to teaching psychology in high school—so many that I daresay it should be a required subject.
As the Office of Adolescent Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports, mental health statistics related to teen anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation continue to worsen. Studying psychology could help promote many of the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills that are crucial to students’ academic achievement and mental health.
We can help students apply the research they study in the class to their own lives to develop a more complex, metacognitive approach to processing their own identity, development, relationships, and decisions.
The Structure of My Class
For years, I taught a psychology class to our high school students. I focused in one semester on individual psychology and in the next on social psychology. Students were hungry to understand themselves. They were tired of being perceived as “problems” and desperately wanted to engage in the study of the human mind and behavior so they could better understand how people—including themselves—think, make decisions, and behave the way they do.
The individual psychology semester started with child development. Studying the development of babies, toddlers, and children offered many teachable moments. The overarching theme of nature versus nurture encouraged students to look at the complexities of genetics and environment, and moved them from black-and-white, rigid forms of thinking to grayer, more flexible perspectives. It also empowered them to see the control they could have over their own development.
They implemented lessons about research methods to survey their family members about their childhood development so that they could analyze themselves according to the various theorists we were learning about—Freud, Erikson, Piaget, etc. The end result was an autobiography—in various creative formats—that incorporated their insights alongside their analyses of various approaches to psychology. Encouraging students to engage with their families in this way also promoted a unique opportunity for conversation, connection, and reminiscing at an age when many teens are shutting their parents out.
Next came a unit on adolescence. After covering hormones, individuation, and identity development, we dove into learning about the brain. Studying neuroscience is an effective way to discuss executive functioning development, substance abuse, and learning differences because it makes teaching less about preaching and more about empowering teens to apply science and research to their own preferences, actions, and decisions.
My students gained awareness about why they procrastinate, lose things, make impulsive decisions, and are often guided by their emotions. Despite their best attempts to justify substance use, they eventually admitted that it would be best to wait until after age 25, when their brains would be more fully formed, and they learned that there were ways to improve their executive functioning skills—these skills are not set in stone.
The social psychology unit was perhaps even more fascinating. Teens are socially driven and yet quite unaware of dynamics such as groupthink, the bystander effect, conformity, and mob mentality, as well as individual actions that have social outcomes, such as delay of gratification and attachment. My students were hooked by studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, and the Robbers Cave Experiment.
Social psychology topics invite rich discussion, application, and speculation. We studied verbal and nonverbal communication, gender constructions, oppression and power dynamics, and romantic relationships, as well as risk-taking and peer influence on decision making.
Students designed, conducted, and reported on a social experiment that adhered to ethical guidelines while limiting bias—an amazing experience for students to navigate these gray areas and apply objective scientific-method standards to highly subjective topics.
We concluded our studies with individual differences and abnormal psychology. Seeing how The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has changed over time enlightened many students about the subjective and culturally influenced nature of diagnoses and treatment approaches. Students explored what was normal or abnormal about themselves, and final projects framed their strengths and challenges in ways that encouraged creativity, innovation, and confidence in self-acceptance.
Benefits of Studying Psychology
Psychology is a complex area of study, so it’s imperative to highlight the evolving nature of human development research, to present multiple viewpoints, and to acknowledge moral and ethical gray areas. If students feel that you’re not imposing a viewpoint on them, they engage wholeheartedly in debates and gain valuable critical thinking skills.
It seems to me that this field of study is as important as math, science, English, and social studies.
The study of psychology can help our students become collaborative, empathetic citizens. Students want to understand themselves and others, and we, as educators, have an opportunity to help them gain self-awareness and insight, learn social and emotional skills like collaboration and communication, and master academic skills such as scientific research. We can help them develop flexible, creative ways of thinking based on multiple perspectives.