Photo by Bevan Gold Swain/Thinkstock –

In his 2008 review of Middle Years literature, Dr David Smith identified five key principles to engage and motivate this 10-15 year age group:

  • Relationships
  • Relevance
  • Rigour
  • Resilience
  • Responsibility

…but what does this mean in real and practical terms?

This is an age group distinguished by massive change…physically, socially, cognitively, emotionally, and psychologically. These young people are not children, but not yet adults. They are a cocktail of emotions and mood swings, with a desire for increased independence, a need for peer approval and connection, and a tendency towards impulsive, risk-taking behaviour. How do we, as someone who lives, teaches or works with this age group possibly ‘connect’ and motivate them?

Relationships are central. Teachers who are firm, fair, consistent and have a genuine personal, yet professional, interest in their students are more likely to keep their students ‘switched on’ in class. It’s exactly the same for parents. Teens don’t need parents to be their best buddies. They need them to be parents – firm, fair, consistent and loving – but who can, and do, apply boundaries and impose consequences for the sometimes ‘dopey’ and irrational decisions common to this age group.

Relevant and real – that’s the key with this age group. If the information doesn’t connect to their real world, they probably won’t ‘get it’. Research (Krause et al, 2003) concluded that if an adolescent doesn’t connect with a message on some kind of emotional level within the first 30 seconds, then it’s gone. Forget about telling them that 20% of the Australian population will have experienced some form of skin cancer by the time they reach 60 years of age – to a 15 year old, 60 is ancient anyway! Relate this to the fact that in their class of 30 at school, that means that 6 of them are likely to experience skin cancer without proper preventative measures….then they’ll get it!

Provide challenge and rigour in tasks. This is critical for young adolescents. Teachers should have high expectations of themselves as well as high, yet realistic and clearly stated, expectations of their students. Let’s move on from the ‘gold star for everything’ approach. If we expect little from our young people, we get little – expect more and we will probably get it. Parents should encourage safe risk-taking. If fear of failure overrides a decision to have a go, our teens may never realise their potential. So, think about how much pressure we place on our teens in a quest for success. Is it their success we are encouraging…or feathers in our cap?

Resilience and a positive attitude to living and learning is determined by several factors; among them is having a range of friendship groups, a strong supportive family (or at least one family member they can connect with) and an influential, trusted mentor. Creating opportunities to set goals, taste success and monitor and acknowledge progress all contribute to developing resilience.  Enthusiasm and energy are contagious. Parents and important adults who lead by example, and who set goals for themselves in their everyday lives, are great role models for adolescents….they watch and learn!

Despite what we sometimes think about this age group, they do in fact crave responsibility, along with the chance to prove themselves and become independent. Scaffolding tasks or breaking them down into manageable and achievable chunks actually provides adolescents with the opportunity to take ownership of, and make good decisions about, their learning and life choices. Give them the opportunity to have some input and step up, and we may be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Yes, this is a challenging age group, but oh so interesting! If we work with them and want to understand and really motivate them, we need to think about how we communicate with them. Model behaviour rather than talk about it. Negotiate and compromise rather than enforce – negotiation is NOT the same as rolling over and giving in. Talk less and listen more, and gorgeous to grumpy will eventually return to gorgeous. Might take a while, but definitely worth the wait!

– Angie Wilcock

High Hopes Educational Services