MindMatters Panel: Module 2.1 Adolescent development

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia, welcome to the MindMatters panel. Author Quentin Crisp wrote “The young always have the same problem: How to rebel and conform at the same time. They’ve now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.” Here to discuss adolescent development is clinical psychologist and family therapist, Andrew Fuller. 

Andrew Fuller:
Hi Julia.

Julia Zemiro:
Teacher Nerissa Rodriguez; assistant principal George Massouris; and teacher Martin De Clercq. But before we get started, let’s get some inspiration from the staff at Eagleton High.

Eagleton High clip:

PHILLIP
Research has shown that the adolescent brain is very different from the adult brain. And we can find it difficult to know how to respond to the adolescent experience. So, I’ve come up with is a tool that allows us to compensate for the effects of adolescence. I call it the SuperVisor.

It’s got some wonderful features. You know how adolescents love socialising: chatting, flirting, showing off...

Well these blinders block out peripheral vision and helps the students to focus. These earphones play a combination of whale sounds and my favourite Michael Buble ballads — really takes the edge off the kids. This in-built mobile phone allows us to send text messages and reminders. Partly because the kids are so bad at planning, but also because they can’t see or hear anything the teacher’s doing while they’re wearing the hat.

Anyway, here it is in action. Isn’t it great?

How are you feeling, Lachlan? Lachlan!! 

Works a treat doesn’t it. We’re thinking of doing a Kickstarter.

Julia Zemiro:
Actually, who decided whale songs were relaxing? Or even songs? There’s not even a guitar solo. It’s hardly music. This is a fascinating topic to me because we assume that adolescents are just adolescents because that’s how it is but adolescence is different to any other time in life. How is it different to other stages of life - Andrew?
Andrew Fuller:
Well teenagers receive pretty bad press a lot of the time, which is mostly undeserved, in fact it’s one of the peak times of neuroplasticity of brain development and restructuring in our lives, and so it’s a massive time where brain power builds enormous potential over a very short period of time and so we need to think about how we capitalise on that and how we give kids that sense of success. A couple of the main changes that are happening, the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning and forethought and impulsive control basically gets re structured. There’s a re fit mode going on so it means that some of their decision making gets a bit wonky while that’s going on ok so that’s important. 

Julia Zemiro:
What are the typical biological challenges adolescents face?

Andrew Fuller:
Well, partly you become unrecognisable to yourself, it’s almost like the Incredible Hulk grows out of you, suddenly you’re erupting in all sorts of ways and hairs spurting in places you didn’t expect and all that kind of stuff, weird stuff’s happening in your body, which is why most adults have had the experience of saying, “You know, do you remember Martin when you were 10?” and Martin goes “No idea” because when you’re 13 it’s almost like you’re just a different person, you know, you’re unrecognisable to yourself so biologically you’re incredibly different. Young women are especially vulnerable to stress because we know oestrogen amplifies the stress response and that has major implications for their vulnerability. We know that for example boys are less resilient in childhood and girls are less resilient in their teenage years and partly oestrogen is the culprit here that’s making them more vulnerable to stress so we need to make sure that our girls basically learn how to calm down a bit.

Julia Zemiro:
Is this a reflection of most adolescents - you know sleeping, thrill seeking, being emotional? Martin, is that your experience?

Martin De Clercq:
Yeah it is. Yeah. You can see the change across the year levels too, so as a teacher you’re kind of familiar with which year levels are acting in those certain ways, which ones, sort of, are lacking the motivation and yeah – you can see that development.

Julia Zemiro:
And these changes sound so extreme. You sort of forget as an adult that they’re not just being annoying to annoy you it’s actually really hard to remember that ‘It’s not their fault, it’s not their fault but you are driving me nuts.’

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Oh yeah definitely with boys. They have their own agenda, especially around about year 8 and 9. They certainly change a lot, and you see, people will say ‘I don’t want to teach year 8’ because that’s when they’re absolutely out of control.

Julia Zemiro:
But it’s normal behaviour? 

Andrew Fuller:
Yep.

Julia Zemiro:
It is normal behaviour, yes. If things like risk taking and intense emotional experiences are normal though, how do you leverage that in the classroom?

Nerissa Rodriguez:
You’ve got to keep them busy, you’ve got to keep them engaged; you’ve got to give them something that they’re interested in doing. You’ve got to make it fun.

Martin De Clercq:
I think it’s also, there can be a big fear of failure too. It’s easier to come to the classroom and have that excuse ‘Oh I just didn’t study’ rather than fail in front of their peers so I think that schools can be very outcome focused and not processed focused so focussing on the effort and it’s funny you know at primary schools the kids are not scared to try and to fail and then suddenly something happens with the changes of adolescence, they’re very, very self-conscious and to fail in front of their peers. If we learnt to walk and talk in our adolescence we’d never do it because you see little kids sort of falling over all the time and they’re quite happy to experiment with their language and stuff and adolescence just yeah, so that’s sort of another, another sort of yeah.

George Massouris:
I think some of the risk taking can be channelled in a way that you can you can actually bring about something that is good, bring them out in a way that they hadn’t seen themselves before and they sort of continue along that path, after they’ve had a go, taken a risk. 
Julia Zemiro:
What kind of an example?
George Massouris:
Just, even if it’s just speaking their mind about a particular topic. I know that some kids don’t often like to be the spotlight but if something sparks their attention and they sort of think ‘Oh jeez that felt good, they listened to me’ they try it again and then you see the potential of that and as a teacher, if you exploit that you get that kid to really open up and be, you know, contribute to that group a lot more than they normally would have so.

Julia Zemiro:
They normally would yeah.

Martin De Clercq:
And giving them autonomy too. Giving them a bit more responsibility, allowing them to lead.

George Massouris:
We often force our kids, say year 9, to be parts of groups that have to take risks, it might be like putting on a play where they all have to assume a role – something they are not always comfortable with but – 

Julia Zemiro:
It’s so funny you say risk – I assume you’re making them bungee jump or something, but risk in this sense is –

George Massouris:
Pick up a guitar that you haven’t really played and go out and perform as part as a band or a xylophone or whatever it’s going to be, be part of the play or do the backstage stuff. All those things in many ways are small steps for these guys and risks – just as much as bungee jumping would be for me – I think actually they don’t see them as risks, that’s just fun. Risks would be being in front of your class and doing a talk.

Julia Zemiro:
Andrew, is this a good idea? That kind of risk taking?

Andrew Fuller:
Oh yeah, I think one of the biggest risks really is imagining who you can be, really. 

Julia Zemiro:
Beautiful. I love that.

Andrew Fuller:
Adolescents are idealists. They really, I mean, they’ve got no brakes really. When I work with groups of kids in schools, which I do a lot of, I’ll say ‘You’re all geniuses you just don’t know you are’. In fact all around Australia I’ve had parents coming up to me at railway stations and airports going ‘You told my kid he’s a genius, I haven’t seen much of it lately?’ but anyway I say ‘It’s coming, it’s coming’ but it is because –

Julia Zemiro:
But how do you define genius? How do you mean?

Andrew Fuller:
Well genius broadly, because of course there are many forms of genius. Genius isn’t just the school marks, there are genius plumbers, there are genius, you know, car mechanics, there are genius farmers, genius – all sorts of people and so finding your own inner genius is something we’ve lost sight of, we’ve sort of seen it as an elite kind of capacity rather than being this innate kind of creative force that’s within almost everybody. And once you capitalise on that, which in some ways is a task of adolescence isn’t it, you want to experiment, you want to kind of do weird and wacky kind of things, sometimes, you know, rile a few people up, have a few arguments with your parents, but at the end of the day the purpose of all of that stuff is to grow up. So if you don’t do all of that stuff, you don’t grow up. So, you know, lots of parents for example say ‘Well I wish my child was like they were when they were 8’ but if they remain as they were when they were 8, they’ll be with you until they’re 58 because they’re not going to grow up and move away. Which is a task of their teenage years.

Julia Zemiro:
It is yep. At school, how do you help a student find their own identity?

Martin De Clercq:
You have to have that relationship, you have to have the knowledge of the student. I know like, from my experience as a student, I was encouraged to pursue music and I wasn’t going to choose the subject and a teacher told me to choose it so they saw that. The school needs to have those opportunities, to provide the different kinds of opportunities for them to explore and to try a bit of this, try a bit of that and see what they like.

Andrew Fuller:
I reckon teenagers form their identity from the outside in. So, what I mean by that, is by doing stuff rather than hearing stuff, so if I was to say ‘George, you’re a kind generous kind of guy’ George may or may not believe me, you know, George might kind of go ‘Oh yeah.’

Julia Zemiro:
I believe that you are George.

George Massouris:
I think I am.

Andrew Fuller:
I don’t’ know about that but anyway, we’ll come back to that – we can debate that later. But, if I get George acting in a way where he’s kind and generous and compassionate, if I give him some sort of thing to do, then he defines himself that way. So it’s actually by doing stuff rather than just hearing stuff or thinking that. That makes the big difference in terms of adolescence.

George Massouris:
I always start my conversations with students in class about what they like to do and that then led to ‘well ok, how would you like to explore that?’ so then say a media class, often my kids will explore a theme that they were interested in and say, make a film about it. That was the goal but it made them feel good and yeah, like you said earlier, I would encourage and say ‘You are a genius, you’ve just completed this project –  You’ve made that statement with that product’ so just talking to them about where they’re coming from is the first step I think.

Julia Zemiro:
Do you have to interact differently with adolescents? Like than you do with an adult, are you doing something different?

Martin De Clercq:
It can be easy for teachers to fall into a role and you can see some teachers that can be a bit patronising when they’re talking to students and it can be hard to have that conversation about footy or whatever or what you’re doing on the weekend and then you get an email or a conversation with a staff member about a student that’s done something and then you have to have a disciplinary conversation but I think you’re doing a student a disservice if you don’t do that, they do respect that and I don’t think it wrecks that relationship at all.

Julia Zemiro:
And it’s about having conversations with the world isn’t it? Your teacher is an adult in the world and that’s what you’re going to face when you go out there in the world.

Andrew Fuller:
I reckon every great teacher is a great actor really, and their stage is their classroom and so how they move, how they interact, how they’re clear about their boundaries. That allows kids to feel that the agenda’s clear.

Julia Zemiro:
What can a school do to provide opportunities for students to develop their skills for meeting life challenges?

George Massouris:
I think if you provide an avenue for them to express something that other kids in a broader context can hear, so if you’ve got leadership opportunities, I think that’s something that you should encourage at every level, just so that their messages are being channelled through so that we’re listening and saying ‘ok, you’re not happy about certain things’ or ‘you want this sort of direction to occur’ at least there’s an avenue. I know when I was at school there was very few opportunities to be heard.

Martin De Clercq:
You’re reminded how stale some sort of committees can be until there’s a student on there because they’re the ones that come up with the great ideas that straight away one of the staff will say – are negative – and say ‘well that can’t work’ but they don’t see those blockages they see, yeah, they have that vision and that drive and a lot of the time they are the most successful ideas.

Julia Zemiro:
And you have to work together. At the end of the day, in a school, there’s got to be a partnership between teachers and students. If you’re in doubt about how much life has changed from when we were teenagers I’ll leave you with this tweet from Megan Fox; ‘We live in a world where losing your phone is more dramatic than losing your virginity. ’