Monday, 14 January 2013

What do teenagers REALLY need to learn?


New and FANTASTIC blog post from:


We spent a week in a top independent school overseas just before Christmas training teenagers, staff and parents.  The teenagers had to roll up their sleeves and learn about themselves - their personality, what upsets (stresses) them, understand how they behave when upset/depressed, how they deal with typical downs, eg coping with anxiety, how to communicate/get on well with friends/adults, deal with fallouts, accept difference and take responsibility for their actions/choices as they become more independent.

The staff had a training session on managing teenage emotional ups and downs and understanding behaviour patterns in order to maximise their effectiveness through fine tuning the way they communicate with and respond to students and their issues.

We also spoke to the parents about teenage development, highlighting the positive influence parents can have during this very vulnerable period.  How could parents effectively tackle rebelliousness, disrespect, lethargy, moodiness, poor communication, depression?  What are these behaviours telling us?  Monitoring screen usage, alcohol, sex, smoking? To punish or not to punish.....?   All important issues which require parental reflection, understanding, decisions & planning.

We were asked for our input on the school's ethos and policy towards discipline in order that their approach, long-term, manages and improves teenage behaviour in an effective and positive way.
We could not help lamenting on how rare it would be to find many top fee paying UK schools prepared to contemplate let alone prioritise this sort of hands on training experience for their school community.   We wondered why?

Is it because the British have a natural tendency to brush their problems under the carpet, soldiering on with a stiff upper lip "we're FINE" attitude?  
Is it because our culture considers acknowledging difficulties, the emotional stuff or facing ones adversaries a risky business, potentially exposing us as weak, or worse, failures?

Or is it that schools are too pre-occupied by the drive to achieve better results - higher academic achievement & better university entrance statistics, and this requires them to focus their attention on a wider curriculum of additional support, learning & educational experiences to promote these ends?

A focus on the softer skills, a child’s personal development side, may therefore feel less immediately rewarding to schools because it is not measurable, it takes time, it requires evolutionary change, and is not mission critical.  Therefore the majority of independent schools offer little more than a cursory nod to social, emotional and moral learning, despite a typical school's vision, ethos or mission statement acknowledging the need for their students to "grow with emotional maturity, social awareness and respect for individuality and difference". 

And yet a UNICEF report in 2007 rated British children the POOREST, in terms of their wellbeing, in the developed world.  For any parent that is a shocking statistic.  The government swung into action at that time, addressing social reform with their Every Child Matters paper, focusing schools on pupil social & emotional learning via the SEAL programme and prioritizing PSHE (personal social health).

However parents should be asking their child’s school what their school is actually DOING with PSHE at the same time as finding out how their child is doing academically.    Time spent understanding and building the skills to manage problems, setbacks or decisions help a child to achieve their goals and if this can be done whilst the teenage brain is growing and developing this means that these strategies become learned behaviours and eventually habits for the future.  None of us want to wait until things HAVE gone wrong for our children once they are older, when they might end up with ending up beset with anxiety, depression or worse.  Early prevention is better and a lot easier to tackle than cure. The James Wentworth-Stanley Memorial Fund has some frightening statistics from the WHO:  


·      Depression affects around 121 million people worldwide.
·      An estimated 7-14% of adolescents self-harm at some point
·      20-45% say they have experienced suicidal thoughts
·      Suicide is three times more common in males than females.
·      An average 1 million people a year die by suicide
·      for every suicide, there are 20 more attempts.


Few Heads of schools could dispute, from an intellectual standpoint, that developing students “softer skills” makes sense.   But how do they ACTUALLY implement the practical application of these skills in their schools?  How are staff ACTUALLY ensuring that their pupils leave their school armed with life skills like being resilient, intrinsically motivated, emotionally contained, an independent thinker, problem solver, confident on all levels, able to show empathy, and able to cope with anxiety/depression? Schools offer lectures on eg. the dangers of drugs, alcohol, cults or inadequate contraception but do lectures of this kind represent an adequate and effective PSHE programme?


We both know, with our own teenagers, that these x factor qualities do not arrive with good luck or like magic out of a hat.  However they can be nurtured during adolescence by a whole school culture (and home life) where there is an awareness and understanding of the emotional development of each child alongside nurturing the practical skills, which should underpin every aspect of their education and school (and home) experience. 

Prep schools will get feedback on how well prepared their students were for their next stage and how well they managed the transition. However, Public schools are not accountable for their pupils once they have left and few schools have a system in place to know where their pupils end up or whether they were successful or not.   But we see too many young people who have worked their socks off at school, achieved some very high grades, only to come unstuck because they don’t have the wherewithal to manage life after the safe confines of school.


Never have young people needed the tools to withstand the challenges, choices, disappointments & obstacles they are liable to face in the “real” world more than in the present climate. 

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