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How to understand and teach adolescents effectively | OUP

Do you remember when you were a teenager, arguing with your parents, thinking that adults ‘just don’t get it’! It’s a typical behaviour, it’s a stage that we all go through (well, most of us anyway)!

Adolescence is the phase of life between late childhood and early adulthood. It is a time not only of physical maturation but also of mental and emotional development. The major developmental tasks of adolescence include the establishment and nurturing of intimate relationships and the development of identity, independence, self-confidence, self-control, and social skills.

The Psychology

The beginning of adolescence is loosely anchored to the onset of puberty, which brings alterations in hormone levels and a number of consequent physical changes. Puberty onset is also associated with profound changes in drives, motivations, psychology, and social life; these changes continue throughout adolescence. New findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveal that a fundamental reorganization of the brain takes place in adolescence. In postnatal brain development, the maximum density of grey matter is reached first in the primary sensorimotor cortex, and the prefrontal cortex matures last.

Subcortical brain areas, especially the limbic system and the reward system, develop earlier, so that there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. This may account for typical adolescent behaviour patterns, including risk-taking. Developmentally, adolescents also tend to be more impulsive and emotional—they are more inclined to make impulsive decisions, engage in impulsive behaviour, and act recklessly compared to adults.

Adolescence is a time of amazing creativity, intensive emotionality, social engagement but also a time of taking risky decisions and behaviour. How can we use this capacity as teachers?

Seize the opportunity

First of all, we need to see the potential of this period of life of our students and treat it as an opportunity, not a curse. As teachers, we can take advantage of teenagers’ risky mindset to help them perform better at school and achieve better results. Risk taking and selecting difficult tasks is associated with having a growth mindset. Teachers can guide this risky behaviour by encouraging pupils to take chances in a safe and secure environment, the students could face more challenges without a fear of failure. It is extremely important to provide an environment for teenagers where they feel safe to make mistakes and explore reality without being criticised.

Working with teenagers may also be difficult because many of them cannot cope with emotions and they experience teen depression or social anxiety syndrome. Sometimes it is difficult for a teacher to understand that irritable or apathetic adolescents might be experiencing depression. Teenagers easily develop feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, often they are oversensitive to their peers’ opinions and how they perceive to be perceived.

We all know that most teens may feel unhappy and withdrawn at times as their moods swing unpredictably, but if you notice that your student’s unhappiness lasts more than two weeks and he or she displays other symptoms, it is necessary to react and seek a professional help. Teens with depression will have a noticeable change in their thinking and behaviour. They may have no motivation to learn or do anything, difficulty with concentration and memory loss. You may also see such symptoms as apathy, difficulty with making decisions, irresponsible behaviour, sadness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and regular complaints of pains (headaches, stomach-aches), and compulsive overeating.

What can we do as teachers? Firstly be understanding, supportive, and patient. There is nothing more important for a teenager as having a supportive adult. Teachers play a vital role in this developmental period because often teenagers are more likely to listen to them than their parents who are perceived as enemies. Teachers should utilise their need for creative exploration and novelty by running interesting, engaging, and inclusive lessons; allowing students to explore and build their sense of autonomy and internal locus of control. Providing a psychological safety and inclusive climate in the classroom helps teenagers learn. Investing in positive relations with teenagers will improve learning outcomes. Remember that teenagers will not learn from teachers they dislike!  

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Alicja Gałązka is a psychologist, linguist, ICI Vice President for Coaching in Poland, trainer and international educator. Lecturer and researcher in the university setting, and in multiple private institutions. A graduate of the University of Silesia and the School of Education at the University of Exeter, UK. Alicja is also a speaker and trainer in the field of international communication, creative thinking and problem solving, the development of social and emotional intelligence and the optimization of each individual’s potential, drama etc. She is also a regular event speaker for Oxford University Press Poland!


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Your place or mine?

Teacher with students in schoolFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she talks about the impact the location of classes has on the teacher-student relationship.

Most teachers view the prospect of teaching a new class with a mixture of excitement (an opportunity to do things differently, a chance to learn new things) and a certain amount of anxiety: Will the students like me? Will they like each other? Will the class be a success?

Irrespective of whether the class is a one-off, a substitution or a class lasting a whole term or academic year, most of us worry about how the class will go. But, when preparing for the new class, how many teachers or managers reflect on how the class dynamics and the relationship between the students and the teacher are affected by where the class is actually held?

According to Charles Handy (1993, Changing Organisations, Penguin, London, p.170) the location of a meeting (or class in our case) gives out certain signals and these signals affect the way people behave and interact with each other. Take, as an example, a teacher who is called into the Director’s office. By choosing to hold a meeting with the teacher in the Director’s office, the Director is (consciously or not) reinforcing the power relationship which already exists between a director and employee.

Depending on the purpose of the meeting, this can be used to great effect. If the meeting is disciplinary, the choice of venue will effectively emphasise the authority of the director to discipline the teacher. If the meeting is for another purpose, for example to bounce ideas off a teacher, the choice of the Director’s office as the venue for the meeting will not be as conducive to an open and frank exchange of ideas or opinions as meeting in a classroom, teachers’ room or other more neutral place.

So, let’s take this theory and apply it to where classes are held. A language school territorially belongs more to the teacher than the students. So, in terms of the student – teacher relationship if a teacher gives a class in his/her language school, this naturally emphasises the teacher’s role and authority in the class in relation to the students. Consider how much easier it is for a long-established teacher to assert his/her role in a new class full of new students who do not know each other if the class is held in the teacher’s language school compared with starting a class in an unknown venue with a group of students who already know each other.

For newly-qualified teachers (NQTs) giving a class to an already established group of young learners on the students’ territory e.g. in a state school, is a tall order. More experienced teachers will be equipped with a series of strategies and the required confidence to help manage the class and compensate for this more threatening environment.  So, where possible, when dealing with classes of younger learners in which discipline can be problematic, managers would be advised to assign NQTs classes in the language school rather than sending these teachers out to off-site locations where the teachers are at more of a disadvantage.

The same is true, although different, with classes held in companies. Teachers giving classes in a company walk into an already established set of roles and power relationships between the students in a class. The teacher, as an outsider, cannot challenge these roles and much of what he or she will be able to do in the class and his/her relationship with the students will be conditioned by these pre-determined relationships.

As for online classes, although giving online classes requires a different set of teaching and management skills to face-to-face classes, if the student attends the class from his/her home and the teacher from his/her home or language school, the territorial factors which can influence the teacher-student relationship and establishment of roles are, on the whole, neutralised.

There are obviously many more factors which influence how the teacher – student relationship and roles develop. However, by being aware of these territorial issues, teachers can anticipate and try to adapt how they manage their classes according to where their classes are held. Managers in turn should take this issue into consideration when deciding which teacher to assign to each class and how the location of the class could affect the amount of support the teacher might need.

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