George Lucas Educational Foundation

6 Rules for Being Transparent with Teens: Authentic Relationships Lead to Engagement

6 Rules for Being Transparent with Teens: Authentic Relationships Lead to Engagement

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Teen and adult laughing together

Adolescence is a notoriously difficult phase of life, and being authentic as a teenager is not an easy task. Think about how hard it is, even as adults, to stay authentic in our own lives. Authenticity is our expression of emotions, reactions, thoughts and ideas that are consistent with our internal experience. It’s what is real and true for us from our perspective and values.  Staying authentic requires self-awareness, confidence, and a willingness to tolerate and work through conflict. When we are authentic we instill confidence and solidify the relationship.

Helping adults and parents are in opportune roles to demonstrate, support, and reinforce the experience of authenticity for teens. Teens report that when their teachers, coaches, counselors, and parents are real and honest with them, they feel more connected in the relationship and know what to expect.  This in turn helps them find their own authentic selves.

One of the best ways to be authentic with teens is to practice transparency when we engage with them. Transparency is demonstrated when our motives and methods are obvious, clear, and out in the open. With teens, we can take it a step further by making a conscious effort to explain the process, our roles, and the reasons we do what we do.

1.Explaining Our Processes

Teenagers love to question authority, and that’s a natural, developmentally appropriate, and positive thing! It’s a critical thinking skill that we want to cultivate and help young people learn to use effectively. When teens are either uncooperative or question our approach or decisions, our willingness to be open and explain the process and our rationale goes a long way to keeping teens engaged. We are even more effective when we anticipate concerns and explain things proactively.

When teachers explain the rationale behind an assignment and the time that went into planning it rather than responding to pushback with demanding redirection, students are likely to be more open to it.  When a coach lays out the agenda for practice and athletes can envision their participation in advance and ask questions, they are more committed in their effort.  And when counselors explain the reason behind the need for a phone call to a parent and offer the teen a part in deciding how best to go about it, the teen is more likely to manage their emotional reaction.  By explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we likely boost cooperation, and increase teens’ willingness to participate.

2. Clarifying Our Roles

Between family members, teachers, counselors, coaches, and other helping adults, teenagers often have multiple adults in their lives. Teachers may also be coaches. Counselors may also be school administrators. Coaches may also be family friends. So it’s no surprise that they report frequent confusion about our roles and send mixed messages regarding expected behaviors.

If you anticipate situations in which roles may be blurred, be proactive in providing teens with a clear idea of what to expect from you and what you expect from them in such settings. Coaches who are also parents of an athlete on their team can speak to this conflict directly and welcome questions or feedback along the way if decisions seem unfair. A willingness to share your thinking behind a decision supports a transparent approach. Counselors should avoid dual relationships in their work when possible though especially in a school setting this is not always possible.  Speaking to the conflict openly and describing in advance your commitments to confidentiality and your collaborative role with other educators will address concerns, communicate transparency and set expectations in advance of problems. 

3. Fixing Mistakes

Teens need to know that mistakes are an inevitable, and in fact necessary part of life and personal development. This is a fundamental principle but, sadly, not always well modeled by adults.

For example, students often complain that at teacher graded them unfairly, and sometimes it’s true. Owning mistakes, in addition to what is taught in the curriculum, is an important lesson to drive home with youth. Be open to students’ feedback, willing to consider their point of view, and respond with self-correction when arguments compel reconsideration.

If you make a mistake or even contribute in part to a miscommunication, validate the teen’s perspective and own your part in the error. This is an opportunity to demonstrate how to navigate our mistakes as well as our successes. A simple mistake or even reasonable suggestion from a teen, handled openly and skillfully, can actually lead to increased respect and a better working relationship.

4. Admitting When You Don’t Know Something

If a teen asks you a question that stumps you, or something you’ve said in class turns out to be incorrect, it’s a perfect opportunity to model that there is no shame in not knowing something.

Take the example of a student who disagreed with his teacher about an author’s intentions in a book for English class. The teacher insisted the student was wrong.  When the student wrote to the author, he received a written response supporting his view.  He brought this to his teacher and STILL the teacher insisted she was right!  Why??  Adults can sometimes feel tempted to engage in a power struggle or need to be right over simply admitting they were wrong.  A simple, “I stand corrected and thank you for taking the time to look into the matter,” goes a long way.

Teens are experts at detecting phonies, and if they become aware that you’re making up an answer, your credibility goes out the window. Admitting that you don’t know something or that you were wrong shows you’re human, builds credibility (paradoxically!), and makes you relatable.

5. Solving Problems Collaboratively

Teens’ developing executive functioning skills can lead to poor judgment and ineffective decision making in the face of challenges. This is why it’s so important for adults to model the problem-solving process out loud whenever possible and appropriate.

The opportunity to observe an adult’s effective problem solving process when expressed transparently gives teens the opportunity to integrate aspects of your process into their own lives. This means articulating when we experience a dilemma, get stuck on an answer, or are torn on how to proceed.  It also give you yet another opportunity to be authentic. The time it may take to communicate your process and make it visible, may not always be possible, though when we do, it communicates authenticity and leads to closer, more genuine relationships.

6. Providing Honest Feedback

How many times do we tell our students that they must advocate for themselves? Self-advocacy involves giving honest feedback, and this is something we can model by ensuring that the feedback we offer is with diplomacy and a balance of both positive and negative input.

For example, telling an adolescent they are “stubborn” may shut down communication. But telling them they have “strong determination” that in this case is getting in their way can be more useful. We can also explain that this same determination can propel them to success. In doing so, we demonstrate that it is possible to give feedback about a particular behavior without judging the whole person.

Using these 6 skills to promote authenticity in our work with adolescents will strengthen the relationship and lead to greater engagement and commitment toward achieving goals.  It is also a powerful expression of respect, another proven contributor toward effective working relationships with teens.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Thank you for your article Julie! These are principles I discovered very early on in my career as an educator, but it is wonderful to see the words in a post. Like many, as a young new teacher, I was confronted with a choice between my idealism and the practical realities before me. I had kids in need, and their needs were quickly much more important than my ideals. We do not live in a perfect world. Every year, we have students who live in very challenging conditions, with broken families, abusive parents, alcoholism, drugs, gangs, and brokenness of every kind. How can we possibly hope to reach our students if we do not also know them personally?

I was one of those students myself. I grew up in an abusive home. My parents were alcoholics, and there were drug issues as well. I was beaten many times. But school was a safe place. And I had teachers who cared, in particular two of them. The impact of just those two teachers in my life was what caused me to decide to be a teacher as well. I wanted to pay it forward, so to speak.

I have been blessed among men to have the privilege to be present for many many students. To be sure, some did not like me very much. I wish that had not been the case, but I strive to reach each one. Every student matters. I care. It costs me something, but the investment is so worthwhile.

I may not teach every standard every year, but I can say with confidence that I have taught every student, and done my best to support them to become more knowledgeable, more accomplished, and more confident that they can do anything they really want to do in this life. I will be there to give a hand up on that journey. It is a wonderful profession!

Thank you for reminding me of the importance of being there for our kids.

Best regards,

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

I love this and practice these things every day. So transformative when students understand the "why." And transformative for me, too, when I realize that there actually is no "why" besides "because I said so" - and then recognizing the opportunity to make my practice more meaningful and authentic.

And Don, thanks for your sharing of your story in your comment. A good reminder of why we're all here.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

#1 is so important! There is so much going on for my middle schoolers, and I think their stress is increased when they don't know why certain things are asked of them or the schedule is different or they're wondering about a class assignment or what's going on at the rally today. Taking a little bit of class time to address these questions can go a long way in helping them settle in for work. #4 is harder... Both in school and out, no one likes to admit not knowing or making a mistake, right? Yet it's such a valuable opportunity to model sincere behavior for our students.

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

Don you are an inspiration and the kind of educator we strive to inspire others to be through relational intervention. I wish all my teen clients had teachers like you in their lives. We as helping adults need to reflect on the impact adults had on us in our teen years and strive to be those positive adults for others. Thank you for sharing so authentically and passing on this important message! Best to you- Julie

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

So glad to hear about others practicing these important skills. Thanks Alex!

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

Laura thank you for taking the time to comment. Yes some of these skills are harder than others. Your point about taking the time to be transparent making it easier to get students to engage in the tasks of learning is a motivator. Thanks for being such a thoughtful educator!

Jackie Oleszewski's picture

This is an excellent article. I thought #6 was especially helpful when you talk about framing feedback that demonstrates that "it is possible to give feedback about a particular behavior without judging the whole person." Many of my students are quick to shut down when they feel as though they are being criticized. This was a good reminder that positive framing is important in all things. Thanks!

KudosWall's picture
Your child’s proudest moments. Now in one place.

Very good and useful article indeed. As a parent of a teenage boy, I see great value in #2 - We need to respect their questions and should learn to explain why a decision or rule is there, for example why he cannot keep his cell phone with him during the night and why I need to
#4 - It is not only important to say that you do not know the answer, but a time needs to be set to work together to find the answer. Thanks a lot, Julie!
Jag @

Center for Supportive Relationships's picture
Center for Supportive Relationships
We help school district communities strengthen relationships between staff, students, and families, using evidence-based coaching and rigorous assessments

Julie, I love the emphasis on the importance of authenticity. Beautiful. Our Center recently put together a short list of quick ways to "open up" the possibility of a relationship that then allows for deeper conversations here: . ( Thank you again for a great article!

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