Being a teenager is hard.
Not only are you figuring out how to live your day-to-day life, but you are also defining who you are as a person.
What you do, who you hang out with, how you dress; all these define you, not only to yourself, but more importantly to your peers.
Naturally, striking a balance between self-discovery and the daily expectations of a teenager can be a challenge and school can sometimes be on the back burner.
However, educators should be aware of the challenges of adolescence and use that knowledge to help their struggling students succeed.
What do I mean?
Here are three different (yet related) ideas for reaching struggling students:
1. Be Real
The first characteristic teachers ought to pursue to reach students is authenticity, in both words and actions.
The reason being real is so important? Well it starts with the fact that most kids want to skip right from kid to adult, to miss out on the middle growing-up period (more commonly known as adolescence).
Why, you ask? Well, a big part of it is that kids rapidly gain a sense of freedom. Adolescence is the first time you can really see adulthood and the freedom that comes along with it.
Wait, if I’m an adult I can make money and decide how to spend it? AND I don’t have a bedtime? AND I can eat candy for dinner?
Yes, sure, and I guess?
Once they see the freedoms of adulthood, teenagers naturally want to skip over adolescence and move straight into eating M&Ms for dinner and staying up until 3 am.
So how do teachers deal with their mini-adults? The answer is to be real.
Kids want to be on the same level as you? Treat them that way.
That means: no tricks to get them to do their homework. No talking to them as though they’re children. By respecting who they are trying to become, it makes it valid.
At the end, if you do this well, you will have a real relationship with all of your students. And that is the key first step to helping those students who are struggling.
2. Be Online
Thanks to the internet (social media specifically), there are more ways than ever for kids to spend time (or waste it, depending on who you ask) and teachers need to be proactive to reach kids where they’re already spending huge portions of the day.
While I dream of being clever and original, I’m not the first person to point this out; Googling “children and the internet” brings back 372 million results.
Rather than trying to swim upstream, against the raging river that is technology, teachers need to try to harness it; to ride the proverbial wave that is the internet.
Understanding the internet and social media’s effect on attention span is a good starting point.
Varying lesson plans with multiple activities is vital as students can lose interest fast–perhaps this is a deeper issue but for the time being, we ought to play with the situation we have and try to engage with shorter activities and mini-lectures.
As a byproduct of smaller activities, often three or four per class period, teachers can try new things with a lower investment of time and resources. Throw out a mini-activity of kids composing tweets to explain a recent concept–this give kids parameters (140 characters) while also working on an important skill (summary).
If it fails and kids find it lame, so what? It’s short 10-15 minute block of time–you have plenty more opportunities.
This can also encourage students to develop a more thoughtful relationship with social media, by providing them with a new way to approach the online world.
Most importantly, it shouldn’t come across as tricking students into learning; rather it’s simply being creative with an eye towards online to engage students.
3. Be Responsive
Last, a crazy idea.
As a teacher, you can get immediate feedback on a lesson or test; you just have to ask!
Now I realize that might be a little tricky–aren’t students going to naturally say “NO MORE HOMEWORK!!!” or “I get an A+” when asked their opinion on something school-related?
Well sure, because you asked the wrong question.
A simple question like, “What worked well today for you?” on the way out of class can go a long way to improve student performance.
It also encourages metacognition and that is an important skill not only for school but for life.
Students might not be great at feedback right away–no one is.
But to reach students who are struggling, you should consider, oh I don’t know, ASKING the student what they’d like to learn about or how they enjoy learning.
You don’t have to change your curriculum to match the whims of teenagers. But it certainly could help to have a sense of what material and skills they find most interesting and adjust as you can.
In the end there is no silver bullet to any problem and each kid should be treated as a unique individual. But having these Three Be’s in the back of your mind is a great place to start!