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Attention Educators!

20 Apr

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We have a national epidemic on our hands!″ title=”Teacher-Student Relationships: Crossing Into the Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Realms” target=”_blank”>

Teenage Maturation

8 Feb

Mention teenagers and maturity in the same phrase, in the midst of a room full of adults, and watch the reactions of these same adults.  The result will be everything from snickers to smiles to outright laughter.

Have you ever asked a teenager why he did “something,” or why she said that “those certain shocking words”?  Remember their responses?

Mom:  Why did you do that?

Son:  “I don’t know.”

Dad:  What were you thinking when you said that?

Daughter:  “I don’t know.”

Part of you thinks, “This kid knows exactly what he or she did.”  Another part wonders whether or not that hopeless look is genuine, or not.  Whatever the case, we have to stand back and greet these wonderments with reality:  Welcome to teenage maturation!

The emerging field of neuroscience is providing answers to explain many typical teenagers’ behaviors.  It turns out that teenage impulsivity has its roots in brain development.  Yes, teenagers have brains, despite rumors to the contrary.  If they didn’t where would we have found that we had ours?  Gotcha on that!

The frontal lobes of our brains are those areas where impulses are controlled.  Scientists are telling us that the frontal lobes are not fully developed until well past the age of 20—and up to 25—according to some studies.  Ever wonder why some teenage females seem to have their impulses under control earlier than some males?  There are different degrees of biological development for females and males, all which have interesting implications for educators and parents.  This kind of puts into perspective why some males in their early twenties are not mature enough for females of their same age group.

Researchers at Radford University (William Hudspeth) and Harvard Graduate School of Education (Kurt Fischer) have discovered that the teenage brain is still “wiring up” and that there are certain growth spurts that mark this wiring.  The three general periods of brain growth spurts occur (1) between the ages of ten and twelve, (2) fourteen and sixteen, and (3) eighteen and twenty—the latter may extend into the mid-20s..

As an educator, I now know a little more about those moments when the light bulb goes on in a student’s head.  What is actually happening is that there is a connection being made cognitively.  What this connection is and where it is going to be manifested are separate events.  What is true, however, is that the teenagers have made emotional connection in their brains, which is naturally the way most teenagers contextualize their world.  Music places them somewhere.  An event categorizes a period in time, etc.  Think about it.  When you hear a song, or have an emotional reaction as an adult, there is a context to this event.  Without context, here is no emotion.  This leads to my next point.

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on “emotional intelligence.”  The research has caused educators to sit up and take notice of some things, like never before.  The major factors involved in emotional intelligence are intrinsic motivation, impulse control, empathy, and social competence.  There are many things educators and parents can do to facilitate teenage brain development, resulting in emotional intelligence.

Intrinsic motivation “emerges out of an environment that encourages the discovery and exploration of personal interests and abilities” (Sylwester 2003).  So what can teachers and parents do to encourage and stimulate growth of their student’s internal motivation?  First, we must find ways to produce relevance to what we are teaching.  Students must see how their learning fits their world.

Second, we all have experienced the teenage challenge questions: “Why do we have to learn this stuff,” and “When are we ever going to use this in the real world?”  The answers to these two questions have been simplified.  In the first instance, the reply is “brain research shows that you need this in order to continue onto cognitive and emotional maturity.”  They will stare at us, providing the very rationale needed.  In the second instance, the answer to when it will be used in the real world is NOW.  The fact that students even ask the question is proof enough.  What I am saying in “their” language is, “You are being graded on this stuff.”  Grades make things relevant to their worlds in a hurry, both cognitively and emotionally and immediately.  Grades contextualize learning.

Impulse control is something very few teens have a handle on.  In fact, I could point to a few of us adults that need some extra attention here, as well.  Isn’t this what we mean when we look at our friends who have never really “grown up?”  Teenagers often act without giving themselves any time to think through, or reflect on their actions ahead of time.  Adults are more choice-oriented before acting.  Teenagers simply act a lot before thinking.  This is the way they are wired, reiterating the “I don’t know” response addressed earlier.

As neuroscientist Jay Giedd puts it, teenagers “have the passion and strength but no brakes” (Stranch 2003).  Teachers can help students to learn to control impulses by providing opportunities such as discussion, journaling, and places to vent.  Students will learn over time.  So those long-term projects, and things student do not yet see as relevant for their lives, delay gratification and cause necessary reflection.

Empathy is an important aspect of emotional intelligence, again found in the developing frontal lobes.  Empathy allows students to act in ethical ways, and demonstrate altruism.  High schools and even junior highs are requiring many hours of community service, in order to assist in the development of empathy.  Teachers can help by allowing students to share their thoughts, and allow their expressions to connect with those of others.  These expressions must be tempered with proper classroom, decorum at all times.  Writing is a way for a student to express even the more bizarre of thoughts that come to him or her.

Social competence is that which allows students to “read” social contexts and respond adequately.  Many teenagers seem socially awkward, particularly when singled out, or in relationships with the opposite sex.  This is why they find such identity by looking the same as their friends look in attire, hair style, taste in music, youthful language, etc.  When it comes to respect, consideration of others, and development of manners, adults can play a large positive and negative role.    According to Robert Sylwester (2003), “Manners do not come naturally but must be taught.”  Teachers can assist in the development of manners by allowing students to work in groups and debriefing afterwards.  The same works around the dinner table at home, as we set aside time in our busy lives.

In closing, if we want students to learn to make good decisions and become the leaders of tomorrow, let us allow them the opportunities to fall short, learn from their shortcomings, and work with their brains—right where they are at, while anticipating where they are going.

Celebrate each phase of their development and be thankful one leads to another.  Learning to use their brains more deeply is what maturation is all about.  My dad used to think that my teenage my brain was connected to my backside.  After repeated attempts to “kick-start” it, I finally figured out a few things.  But I guess science has a great distance to go to prove this empirically.

Mind Your Manners

7 Feb

Assemble a large group of people together in one location and watch the displays of manners.  At times when my awareness is heightened, I ask myself, are things really this bad? Are people, young and old, really this rude — and must we tolerate these behaviors in our schools? 

Could it be that I am alone in thinking that manners, those cultural and behavioral norms of the past, are irrelevant for today? Has neo-American culture replaced politeness, neatness, wholesome language in public and even chivalry? Have we encouraged our next generation to practice boorishness and crudeness?

I am curious as to when things changed enough to tolerate the wearing of baseball-type caps inside of buildings, in restaurants and in school classrooms?  Also, would someone tell me why T-shirts and bare feet are allowed on golf courses? I have seen my share of each of these. 

Where are manners, these days?  When people burp, others think it’s funny. Children scream in stores and are allowed to roam freely.  Are we teaching our young people to think of anyone but themselves?  Are families so stressed out that precious little time is spent actually drawing contrasts in culture for children? 

Has anyone else noticed fewer and fewer people actually hold doors open for others?  What about the phrases, “Excuse me,” “Thank you” and, “You are welcome?” Apparently, these phrases are becoming parliamentary dinosaurs.  Also, few people return lost items to those whom they know, let alone to strangers. If they do return an item at all, most people feel entitled to lift anything of value, because of their “good deed” as some jaded “finders-keepers, losers-weepers” notion.

Do parents really want their young people filling their minds with abusive talk about women, especially preached by today’s rappers? When was the last time we looked into the music downloaded on our child’s computer, on his or her iPod or CDs? I am sad to report that any manners and respect we might be teaching are probably being undone by other forces. Are these neo-American cultural norms?

Thomas D’Urfrey, reasoned: “He that hath more manners than he ought, is more a fool than he thought.” 

I don’t agree.  All stuffiness aside, can we have a little couth please? And while we are at it, might we add a little more of the Golden Rule? 

“Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” seems to have changed meanings today. The current meaning reads more like “Do unto others before they do unto you.” I could be wrong, but the general sense among today’s students is that self is held in higher esteem than the feelings of others. How about a little common good?

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted: “Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.” I think Emerson was onto something. What is sacrificed by not burping loudly in a restaurant?  Who is a loser by allowing someone to select a food item first, or check out first at a store? The incivility of some adults at sporting events, fundraisers and various competitions indicate that lack of manners is not endemic only to young people.  Add alcohol to the mix and things get worse.  If parents, teachers, coaches and other adults do not model acceptable, positive manners, where can we expect the younger generation to learn them? Seriously, what is lost by wearing a belt, pulling up one’s sagging pants, or speaking without profanity?

Now where do we place the blame for what many see as a breach of manners in our culture today?  We would all like to pin it on one group or another, and maybe some of that might be justified. However, there is no discounting the reality that there just seems to be a spirit of rudeness that stretches across our culture. 

So here’s the challenge: How do we correct ill-mannered behaviors? Specifically in schools, do we simply overlook the profanity? Do we allow students to be on their cell phones or listen to their iPods in class — both of which are in violation of school rules?

Should schools teach manners directly and positively, or indirectly as a corrective measure when a young person gets out of line? Manners, like character and morality, are best discussed at times when openness and peace exist. There is a greater acceptance in times of peace. These are what educators call “teachable moments” and they exist for us all. Teachable moments must begin at early ages and be practiced consistently and from within the fabric of the family. But difficulty exists there, too, when standards of behavior on weekends differ from weekday standards.

In closing, where can we look for help? Is it the media? Schools? The entertainment industry? 

Certainly, we can continue to blame the traditional whipping posts. There are no easy pinpoints on this one. But we can begin to shape the world one person at a time.  Answers do lie in the possibilities of all of our cultural agencies working together. But we must ask:  Is it possible that the cultural wealth of America’s past can once again become valuable over the present culture of selfishness and material wealth?

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