George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

The Challenges of Adolescence (and How Parents and Educators Can Help)

Three recent studies show why we need to divert middle and high school students from values and behaviors that may harm them in adulthood.

October 16, 2014

Over the last few months, three major studies have reported data that sends a strong message to educators, parents, and educational policy makers. These studies challenge our values as educators and parents, and also challenge cultural values that go beyond education. We need to listen to the messages and effectively respond.

Too Cool

The first is a study published in June in the journal Child Development and reported in the New York Times. The study followed the paths of 13-year-olds who were seen by peers as being the "most cool" kids. These kids were viewed with envy and admiration. The girls often wore makeup, had boyfriends, and went to the parties of older students. The boys boasted about sneaking beers and swiping condoms. They all also tended to be good looking.

The research team, headed by Joseph Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, followed these socially precocious kids for a decade.

When these children reached high school, their social status tended to drop significantly, and they began to struggle in other ways. Their peers had begun to mature, and the cool kids' popularity faded. Their pseudo-mature behavior appears to have helped create trouble for them. By the time they reached their early twenties many of them had problems with intimate relationships, drugs and alcohol (a 40 percent higher use of alcohol and marijuana), and even criminal activity. They were now being viewed by peers as socially incompetent and "still living in a middle school world." Their early attempts to act older seemed to have left them socially stunted.

Dr. Allen has suggested that while these kids were chasing popularity, they were missing an important developmental period. Other young teenagers were learning about strengthening same-gender friendships while spending time in less dramatic activities like watching movies at home and going out for ice cream.

While Allen points out that pseudo-maturity is not a firm predictor of later behavior, the evidence clearly indicates a predilection.

This has implications for both parents and middle school educators. Parents should not be concerned over their young adolescents not being "popular." They should watch out for their kids hanging out with older kids who are not good role models, kids who are more deviant and more likely to be using drugs and alcohol.

But schools also have a responsibility to respond to this data. Students spend most of their time in school, and peer interactions are often formed in schools. Schools should build in programs that help increase student awareness of the dangers involved in pseudo-mature, so-called "cool" behavior. Schools should make sure that kids learn about this study and discuss it in terms of their own lives. Challenging peer-group norms isn't easy, but kids are capable of having their consciousness about this raised.

A Distinct Lack of Empathy

The second study, from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, is at least as important. The Harvard project surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what was more important to them, "achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others." Almost 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Only 20 percent of students identified caring for others as their top priority!

If you share my values about what is important for our kids and for our society, you may also share my deep concerns about these results. This is a study that should be read by every teacher and educational leader. Then schools need to take a hard look at their priorities and follow up with an examination of the multiple programs and curricula designed to increase student empathy. Among the many available: Developing Empathy: High School from the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms with Emotional Learning, published in Yes magazine; Roots of Empathy, both a major project and a book; and finally, closer to home, please read Homa Tavangar's Edutopia post Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.

But there's a caveat. All of these approaches suggest ways that we can effectively promote empathy among students. Yet (a) early-childhood parenting is probably a much more powerful variable, and (b) it's an uphill battle in a society in which achievement, primarily the achievement of wealth and status, is more highly valued than empathy.

Counting Sheep

Which leads to the final study, described in the best selling book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale University. It focuses on the most successful students at the most elite colleges, and the results emerge as an attack on the colleges for placing the emphasis on the wrong qualities and skills. He writes:

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it.

High schools and many parents are complicit in this. While the implications for schools and parents are obvious, the main culprit is the value that many communities place on achievement over caring for others.

Despite this obstacle, we can at least raise awareness and foster learning of more altruistic values. If we fail to respond to these three studies, we share the responsibility for the price that will be paid by many of our students.

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  • Character Education
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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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