Working with Teenagers to Build Success – Part 1

For many adults, the idea of working with teenagers can be quite daunting. Some adults wonder if they will be able to relate to youth. Others are afraid they will be asked questions they don’t know the answers to. Still others imagine their students are versions of the monsters that they were when they were teens. 

What if we open our hearts and minds, work hard to break the barriers and open the road to effective learning? 

This post aims to demonstrate that working with teenagers does not have to be a difficult experience. It also aims to help us teachers to develop a positive relationship with teenagers.

As teachers we play an important role in a teen’s life. Studies have shown that we teachers can significantly improve students’ levels of academic success.  We help students to set goals, become more motivated and realize the importance of education.

According to studies, good teachers enable students to:

• Develop positive relationships with adults
• Increase their level of school engagement
• Become more comfortable around others
• Enhance their self-esteem
• Develop a positive view of the future

But we have some questions in mind:

  1. How could we motivate and encourage teens to learn?
  2. How could we teachers help them build their self-esteem by being a good mentor and learning coach?
  3. How to deal with the challenges that we may encounter when working with teens?
  4. Are teenagers really different nowadays from what they were 20 years ago? If so, HOW different and WHY are they different? Are they really that different? 
It seems to me I was a teenager  not a long time ago, although I am reaching my 50th birthday soon. I remember having similar doubts, concerns and wishes as those teens I teach and live with daily. 

In the 90's, I used to be an avid watcher of the TV series "THE WONDER YEARS", and I see that, although there are generations separating those teenagers from the actual ones, they are pretty much the same inside: "Nothing is mine, except my heart, my fears and my growing knowledge ", says Kevin Arnold at the end of this episode. 

 Apart from the similarities, nowadays teenagers are:

      More technologically-oriented.
      Quicker thinkers.
      More informed about general subjects.
      Less capable of spending much time concentrated on a single thing
      More willing to consume.
      More restless, more energetic.
      Often perceived as ´disrespectful´ by elders or/and authorities.
      More individualistic.
      More capable of multi-tasking.
      Less sensitive to people’s needs.
      Bored quickly.
      Eager for challenges.



        The internet is easily accessible and teens are frequent users of all sorts of social networks as well as a huge  amount  of apps and online games.

      Smarthphones and mobile devices  such as tablets are at hand and have a great deal of resources.
    “Age of consumerism”-further enhanced by technology.   
 ´Information age´ has led teenagers to sometimes neglect other dimensions of their lives.
     Parents are usually absent from home due to professional reasons or divorce.
   Authority figures often send ´mixed signals´ when conveying their values and their morals.

What are the implications of these “How” and “Why” for the teaching?

      Usually, it is not easy to teach teenagers.
      Adolescents usually don’t want to be in class.
      They are not often concerned about others.
      They love disagreeing with the teacher.
      They are strongly opinionated (they know better).
      They are lively, enthusiastic, energetic, fun.
      When they like the subject they can be really cooperative and creative.
      By confronting the teacher they might change some behaviour patterns which were hampering the learning in class and the development of students and teachers as human beings.
      The problem of mixed ability has become more pronounced.

How could we help learners?

1     Active listen to them:

Being a teacher of a group where the SS are 
either teenagers or very young adults who 
have just entered the university, I have experienced that the less I speak the better. Surprisingly, I have not only reached good results but have been asked to express my 
opinion about things I would never imagine 
they would care whether I speak or not. Following this idea, I concluded that active listening is crucial to good communication with teenagers (and others!).

To be an active listener:

  • You must be open-minded and focussed on the person with whom you are speaking.
  • You must keep in mind that you should talk very little: Reserve judgement and refrain from giving advice.
  • The focus of the discussion should be on encouraging the student to talk. (Brackenbury, 1995, p. 45)
  • As an active listener, you must want to help and listen. Rather than judging, you need to trust the other person’s ability to cope with problems.
  • Most importantly, you have to accept that the other person is unique (Harp, 2000, p. 9).
  • Your job is not to offer suggestions but to encourage the speaker to find their own solutions.
Wise Commandments for Good Listening (Adapted from Harp, 2000, p. 9)

  • Stop talking! You cannot listen if you are talking.
  • Respond to feelings. First, identify the emotion that the other person is
  • When you are working with teens, do not ask too many questions. Once you can do this, you are well on your way to having a good relationship with teenagers.

Active listening includes:  

·         Facing the person who is speaking
·         Making frequent eye contact (but not staring)
·         Using an open posture: leaning forward slightly (but don’t invade the other person’s “comfort zone”)
·         Being relaxed
·         Encouraging the other person through verbal cues (“tell me more”, “give me an example”) and non-verbal cues (nodding your head) (Brackenbury, 1995, p. 37-38)


Pay attention to non-verbal cues. A lot of what 
we understand in a conversation comes from non-verbal cues. Through experience, we learn to interpret non-verbal cues and use them to determine how another person is feeling. Paying attention to what students are subtext (“reading between the lines”) and the non-verbal cues can help you figure out areas they need to work on. It helps to develop a trusting relationship. Additionally,  it makes students feel important and thus encourages them to continue attending classes and feel motivated to do so.

Ask open questions. These are questions that encourage others to talk about themselves. Unlike “yes-no” questions (“Do you like school?”), open questions  (“What do you like most about school?”) allow a longer responses. Using open questions helps you to focus the discussion or discover more information.

Be patient! The fact that you are willing to demonstrate your affection and patience in many ways does not mean you should become a doormat. If and when necessary, a teacher should be firm. Whenever in doubt (for instance, on day one of the semester) I usually advise teachers to start with a “strong hand” and relax the grip later. This is particularly important, for instance, when it comes to classroom management issues

No threats, please! Don’t threaten to take action against a student unless you deem it absolutely necessary and really intend to do so.
Clarify. Ask questions such as “So, you worked on past tenses in class last
week. What did you work on this week?”. This helps you – and other speakers to determine the main points of what is being said. It also demonstrates that you are paying attention.

Summarize. Review what was said, including both events and feelings. This ensures that all participants have understood the main points of the discussion.

Go easy on criticism! Avoid responses like “If I were you …” “I think you should…” These statements put people down and do not allow effective problem solving.

Use the five-step approach. Asking these five questions will help students resolve problems:
    1. What is the problem?
    2. What have you tried?
    3. What else could you try?
    4. What is your plan?
    5. (After students have tried to solve the problem) How did it go?

“I Messages” (modified from Brackenbury, 1995, p. 26-27) “I messages” are a way of speaking which acknowledge people’s feelings. They assertively describe what is going on inside the speaker by using positive statements instead of put-downs or blame. Modelling these messages and teaching students to use them will help students communicate effectively and resolve conflicts more easily. “I messages” consist of three parts.

• A statement of feelings that usually begins with “I feel …”
• A statement of fact beginning with “when you …”
• The observed result of the behaviour using “because …”Instead of: “You make me mad when you yell at me.” Use: “I feel angry when you talk to me with that tone of voice.” _ an “I message”, giving the same information, but in a much less confrontational tone)

To sum up:

• Focus on students’ interests and concerns, not your own. Talk about activities
teens can  do, like doing and feel they are progressing by producing language.

• Don’t get too personal: Pay attention to the cultural differences and to your SS /group profile.

• Don’t assume understanding. Ask students to summarize what you have said.
This will confirm that they have understood.

• Encourage and praise students.

• Be patient when waiting for a response. Allow students ample time to respond.

• Be aware of differences in non-verbal communication (gestures, degree of eye contact, personal space, etc.).

We'll be back to the same subject soon. 

Enjoy your teaching! 

 Suggested reading: 

1.      BRACKENBURY,  Paul – Educating Teenagers  For Real Life , London 1995
2.      HARP,  Richard -  The Effective Rapport  Edimburg 2000
3.      HARMMER, Jeremy – How to Teach English –  Chapters 1. 2 & 3 Longman   2004


chieka wibowo said...

Roseli Sera..Itis very wonderful posting dear. Honestly, teaching teenagers is very hard for me. It's the age of 'curiosity' of trying new things. I've been teaching teens for about 7 years and still having hard things with my teaching way. I'll try to implement your tips above into my real life^^ Hope I can be a better teens' teacher..
Wish you luck,Roseli..Thank you


robertarighetto said...

Roseli Serra....I have to admit that I've become addicted to your posts. They are so well written and meaningful. I've already shared them with other teachers.

Ann said...

Hi Roseli,

Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ve written a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish facebook page, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.


Azadeh Mohammadi said...

Dear Roseli Sera...I enjoyed your post, but how should we deal with teenagers' disrespect for the teacher.
best regards,

Roseli Serra said...

Hi Ann, I`ve just known I was shortlisted ! I had no idea. I am away in Montreal and haven't been blogging for some time, Thank you so so much! I do appreciate being shortlisted! It's pure motivation to keep blogging :)

Roseli Serra said...

Thank you so much Chieka, Roberta and Ann. Thank you Azadeh. IN my opinion disrespectful teenagers should be treated with serious conversations and some punishment. When I say punishment, I mean discipline. I am not suggesting any sort of violence but assertiveness. Threats do not work unless you are prepared to carry it out. I think te best approach is to try , as much as possible, make teens reflect upon te purpose of their disrespectful behaviour. Try to approach them as if they were real mature people and have them closer to you as much as possible. If conversations and reflections don`t work, ask for help. If it still doesn't work, explode yourself and act accordingly! Well.... it has worked for me so far... Hope I've helped you!

Business broadband in Australia said...

With technology present, teenagers will be able to become key players in the advancement of the society where they belong

Roseli Serra said...

Hi, Business broadband in Australia ,

Yes, I do agree! There's no way back, is there?

Thank you for reading and for your comment.
All the best

Roseli Serra said...

Hi, Business broadband in Australia ,

Yes, I do agree! There's no way back, is there?

Thank you for reading and for your comment.
All the best

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