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Teen Engagement in Learning Starts With Respect

Julie Baron

Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author
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We know that adolescents are acutely aware of when adults are treating them with respect and when they aren't. We also know that engagement leads to successful academic outcomes and a greater sense of well-being for both the student and educator. If teens are more likely to engage with adults who respect them, it's safe to say that respect is essential to student learning.

When adolescents describe the ways in which they experience respect, they report that they want to feel challenged by being pushed beyond their comfort zone. They want adults to hold the bar high for them. They feel respected when adults listen and respond to them without judgment, and accept their beliefs and values, however different from their own. And when adults are responsive to their intellectual, physical, social, and emotional needs, adolescents feel this as genuine concern for their welfare, which in turn makes them feel valued.

But adolescents can be uniquely frustrating to many adults. The challenging developmental tasks of separating from adults and seeking their own identity often lead them to push adults away, refute adult guidance, and disagree even when it betrays all rationality. It is important for us not to overlook the developmental necessity of these behaviors and to understand them. In doing so, we express our respect for each teen.

We can demonstrate at least six specific skills to help create a respectful relationship with teens. While the value of respect in our work may seem a no-brainer, its consistent execution is a constant challenge.

1. Understand and respect the function of the behavior.

All behaviors have a function. When we put our detective hats on alongside adolescents, together we can figure out what's driving their behavior. Using curiosity in your tone will engage the teen and facilitate a move toward learning goals. Curiosity will make her feel valued and understood, and it provides an opportunity to model thoughtful problem solving.

2. Assess whether there may be a skills or performance deficit.

There are times when we may expect an adolescent to demonstrate a skill or behavior that he is still acquiring, and we may mistakenly assume that the ability exists and that he is just choosing not to use it. Similarly, if the teen has a skill, he may not be able to exhibit that skill consistently. This may be a performance deficit and also requires work toward the goal of more consistent demonstration. Using appropriate assessment tools or consulting with other professional disciplines to figure out various skill levels will help adults effectively and respectfully engage.

3. Assess motivation: know if your goals match their goals.

The perception that a teen is unmotivated is one of the top frustrations reported by adults who are trying to help. An important consideration here is whether the adolescent is motivated to do what we want her to do. All teens are motivated. Sometimes we just need to look a little deeper to find out what motivates them. When adults demonstrate interest in finding out what is important to the teen, they are more likely to link it in some way to the skills that they are trying to teach.

4. Find something positive about the adolescent.

In the midst of our anger and frustration, it is crucial to find something (anything!) that we can value about each adolescent. Remember that all qualities are akin to a two-sided coin -- the student who can't stay focused will also not likely harbor grudges and hold onto negative thinking. The diligent hyper-focused student may also perseverate on their mistakes and get stuck on details while losing site of the bigger picture. There is always an upside and a downside. When we can reflect back to teens something of value that we see in them, they will absorb it and feel respected.

5. Know your own triggers.

Without self-awareness, we cannot be effective, helpful adults. We need to know which types of kids we mesh with most easily, and which tend to push our buttons. Only then we can strive to treat them all fairly and consistently. The best way to maintain this balance is to take care of ourselves, seek support and guidance from supervisors and peers when we struggle, and use techniques like mindfulness and relaxation to remain balanced in thought and emotion.

6. Seek feedback.

Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from the teens that you serve. To effectively meet the needs of so many different adolescents, we should always seek and accept their feedback to make adjustments that will lead to productive outcomes. Whenever possible, be open to unsolicited feedback from teens. Keep in mind that their communication skills are still developing, and they may not always be as diplomatic or sensitive as we'd like. Consider their words an opportunity to understand their concerns in order to better meet their needs. Guide them on how best to communicate their concerns using respect toward us. When expressed in the spirit of respect, it will effectively engage both teen and adult in achieving learning and growth goals.

How do you show your students respect? How do they show you respect? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments section below.

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Julie Baron

Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author

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Julie Baron's picture
Julie Baron
Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author

Thanks for the retweets! Glad this is useful. Would love any feedback on how educators implement these skills in real time. So many terrific professionals out there!

Subash's picture

Great read and I can relate the points to my students too. As an educator, I respect my students' answers, thoughts etc. They accept me as a teacher despite the fact that I am not from their cultural background. However, some of my colleagues or friends elsewhere face a discrimination problem among their students where the students make fun of their accent and their mannerisms. They are extremely patient yet they have not yet managed to gather the respect from the students. What should they do in return?

Julie Baron's picture
Julie Baron
Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author

Thank you for your feedback Subash. I am sure it can feel frustrating and uncomfortable to feel disrespected by students based on cultural or language differences. Perhaps examining the function of the disrespectful behavior by students can help (are students frustrated that they have trouble processing the information being taught in what may be a difficult accent to understand? are they not feeling competent in that subject matter and deflecting their negative feelings, etc?). Without this being an excuse for bad behavior it may help guide a response that can allow for some mutual feedback and open dialogue between teacher and student.

Tracy Schiffmann's picture
Tracy Schiffmann
Using brain science to equip teachers of trauma-impacted adult learners to touch hearts, change minds and transform behavior

Great post, thank you. I design curriculum for and teach adult learners but all of these strategies apply to them as well Re: #3 tapping into student motivation, sometimes students can't see the value of a session to them so I start with a topic-related attention gainer and buy-in activity. I'll then share the intended outcome for the lesson. Next I invite them to write a personal learning goal around the intended outcome. This shows students respect and gives them some time to reflect on the potential value of the session on their own lives. Admittedly, it is like pulling teeth the first few times but when I do this consistently students are eager to say what they want out of something. Because I generally work with vulnerable adult learners who are trauma-impacted and involved in multiple systems, learning to be pro-active and make life about their goals and dreams rather than about simply reacting to the next challenge they face is a great way to build needed executive functions. I ask students to keep track of these and complete reflection papers on the accomplishment of each learning goal and what they still need in order to achieve it. Personal goal setting based on the lesson outcome delivers a big bang for the time you give it in class - respect, buy-in, and the development of executive functions.

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