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Teenagers: why not step into their shoes?

Teenagers are oftentimes seen as a difficult crowd. They seem to find everything boring, are too concerned with the opinion of their peers, never turn their camera on, and their questions give the impression that they are always challenging teachers. Finding anecdotes to exemplify this reputation is easy, but is it fair to look at teenagers from such a negative perspective?

The answer is probably “no”. As Blakemore (2018: 193) points out, “adolescent typical behaviour isn’t mindless and destructive. It happens for a reason.” Therefore, maybe the best would be to try to understand why they behave like that. After all, every age group poses its challenges to teachers, and these are most likely a result of learners’ moment in life. This can be a child in the preoperational stage of development, who still cannot fully understand abstract concepts; or an adult who does not have much time left to dedicate to studying English and, as a consequence, needs to make the most out of the time they have in the classroom. In either case, if we disregard the moment students are going through, chances are the learning and teaching experience in class will not be that enjoyable. But what about teenagers? What can we tell about their moment in life and what are the implications in the classroom?

Teenagers’ development moment 

One important point to consider when talking about teenagers is that their brains are in development and are different from children’s and adults’ brains (Blakemore, 2018). A part of the brain that notably changes rapidly during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, impulse control and planning. Another part of the brain that is significantly active during teenage years is the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions and impulses. Puberty brings along hormonal changes, which also contribute to teenagers’ emotional outbursts (Conway, 2016). 

Although teenagers start to take up more responsibilities, and their schedules seem busier and busier as they get older, we should remember the amount of sleep most teenagers need is nine hours per day. Besides, because of their body clock, they tend to be more awake in the evening and more sleepy in the morning (Blakemore, 2018). This would explain why teenagers seem so tired at times. 

Empathy and good models 

When it comes to teenagers, we can never stress enough that we need to understand that several new neural pathways are being created all the time. Besides the developmental characteristics mentioned above, there is another ability they are still developing that deserves to be highlighted: empathy.

Empathy can be defined as the ability to observe experiences and feelings of someone else and to be able to find and connect with that feeling within ourselves. This allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to imagine ourselves in situations that we might never face. But how can we do that? Since the 90s, researchers have been investigating a special group of cells located all over the brain, including in the motor-cortex, called mirror neurons (Salvia et al., 2016). These neurons allow us to learn through imitation. So, for instance, during a conversation, when somebody yawns, the other people involved might find themselves doing the same thing; or when one is talking to someone, this person starts to copy some of the movements their interlocutor makes. 

The special thing about mirror neurons is that they are activated not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe someone else doing something. If one sees a person walking and tripping on a rock, they might flinch and even ‘feel’ the pain. This can also be noticed in the reactions on our faces (and body) when we see an accident for example. This is how the mirror neuron system works: to truly empathise with someone else’s pain, we create a physical and emotional response. According to Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti, “Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.” 

Thus, mirror neurons might be a way to understand the development of an empathetic attitude. This system functions since the early years of a child, and it goes on developing throughout their whole lives. It is then possible to create a connection between one’s emotional regulation skills, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour, and the models they are surrounded with. Surely it is not the only way for people to develop empathy, but it is a possibility. During teenage years, for all the reasons we have established so far, having positive models of behaviour is of paramount importance, since the development of neural pathways is constant and powerful at this age. Here is the moment to think about the behaviour we are showing and what kind of models we are offering teenagers. 

Classroom implications 

As explained above, teenagers are not children anymore and not adults yet, and this has implications for classroom practice. When we have a class of older teenagers, for example, it is very common to teach them as adults. After all, they often look like adults and seem to want to be treated as such. However, since they are not adults yet, we cannot expect them to have the same reactions as an adult. 

Thus, teenagers are more independent than children but, differently from adults, they will probably still need guidance and orientation to develop their long-term planning skills, or else they may have problems organising their studies and responsibilities and end up missing deadlines, for example. Similarly, they may also need some support when making decisions, especially to identify and weigh pros and cons. 

Because of hormonal changes and the hyper-active amygdala, it is not easy for teenagers to deal with their emotions. Besides, they are still inexperienced and are probably living lots of “firsts”. Therefore, we should not expect teenagers to know how to deal with their emotions or ask them to ignore what is happening outside the classroom during the time of the lesson, as they will probably not be able to focus. We, as adults, can help them process and understand their own emotions, and being a role model of behaviour is one of the ways of doing so. 

Knowing that teenagers’ body clocks are different from ours and that they do need more hours of sleep than adults helps us understand why they seem so tired all the time, especially when our lesson is in the morning. This is valuable information when planning the kind of activities we are going to have in class. Besides, as Roland (2018:23) highlights, “teenagers spend all day being told what to do by adults, with a very limited scope of freedom – often not being allowed to speak freely or to move from their places.” This is not very inviting for learners and may contribute to their response to teachers’ questions, suggestions and requests. In this sense, giving teenagers voice and more freedom tends to contribute to greater engagement. 

Social context 

It is worth mentioning that the concept of adolescence is a quite recent one. Understanding the adolescent as one with specific developmental characteristics and needs is a concept that just started to be built at the end of the 19th century. And since then, adolescents have been seen as the ones with deviant behaviour (Relvas, 2017: 47). Now that we understand the developmental processes going on in the teenage brain, it is also important to mention that social aspects also take a toll on their minds. In which social context do the youth live today? What are their expectations for their future?

Formal education was seen for many decades as essential for having a better financial life, a better job, a career. It is undeniable, though, that our society has been undergoing several changes, so many that one cannot even keep up. In a world full of uncertainties, with the school space being constantly devalued, what is the role of education? Do teenagers see the point in it?

In terms of classroom techniques, it has always been important to demonstrate empathy towards students; it helps teachers build rapport. Getting to know who learners are (and who they are becoming), as well as what makes them click has always been an invaluable part of the teaching/ learning process. Techniques such as building an empathy map with students’ interests and needs are really effective and can be adapted to the growing world of digital interaction – a handout becomes a collage or a TikTok video/ Insta reels. Nevertheless, are we aware of what it means to be a teenager today?

Reasons behind cameras off 

Several institutions and teachers around the world have been adapting to remote teaching at the same time students have been familiarising themselves with remote learning. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned a common complaint of our times – teenage students do not willingly turn their cameras on during synchronous online classes. Well, it turns out they have every reason not to do so. 

First, with cameras on, students are expected to look at the screen and, thus, maintain eye contact with everybody there. In offline conversations, people usually keep eye contact with their interlocutors, but they do not stare at them all the time – we tend to feel quite intimidated and even scared when somebody does that. When cameras are on, we might have the impression that people are staring at us, and this might trigger feelings of stress and anxiety, leading to a kind of ‘flight or fight’ response. Remember that the prefrontal cortex, which is related to impulse control, as well as the amygdala, are still going through changes in the teenage brain. 

The fact that people can see everyone’s faces all the time is quite specific to online classes (Matt Reed, 2020). Most physical classrooms are spaces with rows, or a semi-circle made with desks/ tables in which students usually face the front of the room – the place typically taken by the teacher. Therefore, teachers are used to facing everybody in the class, but not students. It can be quite intimidating to know that everybody can see you in a time when students are in their most self-conscious years (Dudley, 2018). It is especially upsetting to know that people can be looking at you but not to know when they are looking. Knowing that your face can become the next meme, or a messenger app sticker can be particularly stressful. 

Another reason that could lead to embarrassment is the concurrent obligations students might have. Depending on their family situation, they might also be responsible for taking care of younger siblings or other family members, as well as doing chores such as cooking, and might not feel comfortable with their whole class finding out about it. It is also a way to break into a teenager’s privacy, which is extremely valuable to them. They might not feel comfortable sharing their private lives with the outside world, i.e. the place where they live or the people they live with. Even though teenagers are constantly sharing information about themselves on social media, it is still an edited piece of their private lives – surely the most alluring one. 

As we can see, all this unwanted exposure is a factor which may contribute significantly to learners keeping their cameras off. But it is not the only one. We can’t forget that the prefrontal cortex is still under development during adolescence, which means that, for teenagers, it may be difficult to make decisions and weigh pros and cons. It is harder for them to see things from another persons’ perspective. Thus, they may simply not realise the importance of having their cameras on during their lessons. With this in mind, we, teachers, can discuss the pros and cons of keeping cameras on or off. This can help teenagers notice the importance of cameras and at the same time allow them to express their feelings about it. Another idea is to have all learners use a virtual background during lessons. By doing so learners’ privacy will be more protected and they can choose what they want to show in their background. 

As we highlighted throughout this article, adolescence is a moment of profound changes, when teenagers have to figure out their place in the world as individual beings. “There’s no such thing as an average adolescent, and brain development varies widely between people” (Blakemore, 2018: 202). We also discussed briefly the importance of this moment in the development of more empathetic individuals. However, we cannot deny that we, adults, also have to look at teenagers with more empathy. Instead of listing the difficulties of dealing with this age group, we should try to understand and support learners in their development process. 

All in all, as Roland (2018:22) points out, “stressful situations are by their very nature tricky, and there is often no quick-fix solution, but being able to recognize all the factors involved in an uncomfortable situation helps us identify where we can most effectively direct our action.” 


Akemi Iwasa, an academic consultant at Troika, has worked in ELT for 15 years mainly with materials writing and teacher education. She holds the Cambridge Delta 1, a BA in Languages (UFRJ), a postgraduate degree in Neuroscience (UFRJ) and currently undertakes postgraduate studies in Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (PUCRS).

Leticia Moraes has been involved in ELT for 20 years. She has experience with all ages and levels and, recently, she has been dealing especially with secondary learners and project work. She is also a teacher trainer and materials writer. She is a Delta and ICELT holder; has a BA in English Language and Literature from USP, and a postgraduate degree in Distance Learning from UNICSUL. She is currently a partner at Troika and Joint Events Coordinators of the IATEFL YLT SIG. 


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