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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Whiteboard jungle: how can we help teenagers navigate adolescence?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 February 2020

IOE Events.

The debates are back for 2020 and this time we took a look at the teenage years, asking What if… the world really did revolve around teenagers?

As far back as Socrates, adolescents were marked out and criticized by their elders for having bad manners, and ever since ‘the teenager’ rose to prominence in the 1950s the difficulty of adolescence has been a common trope, not to mention a source of amusement in popular culture.

That’s not the whole story, of course, and Greta Thunberg provides just one prominent, contemporary example of teens as a force for social awareness and change (we celebrated some others here).

Nevertheless, adolescence is a distinctive time that brings its own challenges. We wanted to examine what lies behind that and what could/should be done to ameliorate it.

To discuss this we gathered an impressive panel bringing expertise on education, neuroscience, psychology and mental health: Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, Birkbeck; clinical psychologist Bettina Hohnen; Mark Lehain, until recently Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence; and psychiatrist, Mike Shooter. Read more about our panelists here. By the end of the debate, we’d flipped the narrative on teenagers, not once, but twice.

It turns out that all those stereotypical teenage behaviours we all complain about – moodiness, self-absorption, impulsiveness, risk-taking, caving into peer pressure – serve a positive function and are vital to the transition to adulthood. Without them, we can’t work out who we are, we can’t build resilience, we can’t grow, and we can’t learn to negotiate our peer groups. The growing body of neuroscientific evidence on the teenage brain is showing many consistencies across countries in these respects, as well as cultural and social influences.

It also turns out that, contrary to popular perception, teens are in fact a pretty conservative (with a small c) bunch, if social attitude surveys are anything to go by. The EU referendum (where would we be without a mention of Brexit) reinvigorated the cause of lowering the voting age. Our debate raised the scenario of what would happen if only 12-19 year olds had the vote. Judging by national surveys, as well as a later start to the school day (and no change to the end time), we’d likely see more traditional models of schooling and more police.

But what does all this tell us about how we can best support teenagers to navigate adolescence?

On a big issue of the moment – the effects of social media – the jury is still out. While there are indications that increased engagement with social media reduces quality of life and increases behavioural issues, it’s difficult to disentangle this from other factors or ascertain the direction of causality. So simply putting the smartphone away may or may not help. Prioritising a good night’s sleep and exercise is important for teens, but phones are not the only culprits getting in the way of that.

Improving awareness of the changing teenage brain, among teens but also parents, carers and teachers, could do most to improve relations. Teenagers would understand themselves better, while the adults around them would be equipped to adjust the way they interact with the teens in their life. 

The need for opportunities to take risks, to grow by pushing ourselves and confronting uncertainty and possible failure, came through strongly. Opinion differed on whether this was the responsibility of schools. Opinion differed less on the fact that where education becomes too high stakes there’s less and less opportunity for risk taking and the growth it offers.

Harnessing peer pressure for the good provides another way forward. As teenagers listen more to their peers than to their parents, carers and teachers, schools can harness social networks to change school cultures (influencers aren’t just on YouTube).

And for teenagers who are really struggling, we need to remember that it takes just one positive relationship with an adult in the teenager’s life to turn it around. 

Perhaps we’re not so different from our teenage selves after all. Certainly, many adults who identify as ‘owls’ would like a later start to the working day, too (with no change to the clocking-off time).

You can listen or watch the debate in full here

Our next debate is What if… we wanted more effective school improvement?, 18th March 2020, 17:45-19:00. Hope to see you there.

Photo by Palliativo via Creative Commons

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