What comes to mind when you hear the term “adolescence”? For many, it sparks images of risky behaviors or a memory of an encounter with a defiant teen. However, by design biologically, adolescence has the opportunity to be an extremely fruitful period of learning and exploration.

But how can we best harness adolescence as a time for positive development? Research has shown that traditional programs developed to change adolescents’ behaviors by explicitly teaching students skills tend to be less effective for teenagers than younger students. Oftentimes, these programs are simply “aged up” versions of those aimed at young students, and don’t adequately relate to older students. Simply put, they’re a “mismatch” developmentally for adolescents.

In a recent publication of The Future of Children, Mindset Scholar David Yeager discusses the complexities of designing programs for adolescents. Research has shown that some programs have been effective in reaching this demographic. In his piece, David explains how approaches that draw on mindset science are more likely to succeed because they offer a better match for the unique developmental assets of teens.

Harnessing adolescents’ desire to make a difference
Research has shown that adolescents are highly motivated to positively contribute to the world, thinking beyond their own individual needs. Mindset programs that help students develop a pro-social “purpose-for-learning”, have improved both academic and life outcomes. In one study, ninth-graders who completed a brief online exercise reflected on social issues that matter to them personally improved their grade point averages (GPAs) by 0.10 grade points.

Fostering school environments that feel respectful to adolescents
Physiological changes, including the surge of testosterone, during adolescence leads students to more readily notice and respond to unfairness. Therefore, fostering learning spaces where students feel valued and respected is especially important during this time.

Recently, multiple studies have suggested that teacher-training programs are an important lever for creating these respectful classroom environments. For example, one study found that a mentoring program designed to help teachers develop intellectually challenging and respectful classrooms increased students’ feelings of respect from their teacher, improved classroom behavior, and reduced racial disparities in teachers’ discipline referrals. In a separate study, teachers completed a brief activity about the benefits of “empathic” discipline. The activity helped teachers tap into a broader array of explanations for why they might see their adolescent students acting the way they were during class. Students whose teachers completed this exercise reported fewer instances of disrespect from their teachers and received half as many suspensions as their peers whose teachers did not complete the exercise.

Showing adolescents that personality can change
One of adolescents’ primary needs is to fit in and gain acceptance from peers. However, adolescence can be a time with fraught relationships with others and increased attentiveness to social status. Recent research has found that students who foster an incremental theory of personality, or the belief that personality can change over time, are more resilient after social setbacks, show improved physiological responses to social stress, and decreased desire for revenge. Importantly, programs tested with ninth- and tenth-graders have been found to shift students’ beliefs about personality and decrease aggression towards their peers.

A way forward
David Yeager’s piece outlines the importance of acknowledging the developmental needs and assets of students when designing programs to help them navigate learning and life. Approaches that draw on insights from mindset science offer one way to improve adolescents’ outcomes, and research should continue to explore how to create learning environments and experiences that adequately respond to students’ developmental needs.

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