Child and Adolescent Development in the Classroom

While I have never formally studied psychology as a discipline, both of my parents were professional psychologists at one – or rather, many – points in their long careers. Dinner table conversations, then, were more often than not centered on the day’s feelings, conflict, and victories. My parents avoided assigning textbook diagnoses to what it was we discussed, but ensured that I would forever be familiar and comfortable with psychological concepts and its practice.

I still admittedly know far too little about the psychological research and theories out there in the academic literature. My understanding of child and adolescent development, therefore, is more conceptual than it is learned and empirical.

I know that child and adolescent development are often categorized into stages. Each stage has a unique quality that the stage before it didn’t have, and they all build upon each other. In one stage, for instance, a child may not understand that an object exists even when not looking at it. In the next they may realize that even when hidden or out of sight, that object still does in fact exist. In the next stage, the child may begin to associate objects, and their absence, with symbols, images, or words (see Piaget’s stages of development). The stages begin with complete human dependency and increase in levels of autonomy as they progress.

By the adolescent stages of development the child is fully autonomous and can think in more rational and abstract terms. By this point, adolescents engage in more sophisticated self-analysis and identity formation. This is often a very inward-focused time, but many begin to consider outward judgments in their self-development. This is why at this stage adolescents may become more egocentric, concerned with popularity, prone to bullying, etc…

Adolescence is also a time of profound physical changes. Bodies go through puberty and become aware of their sexual proclivities. This, understandably, adds to the stress of the age, but also is a product of the physical and mental development needed to form an unyielding sense of self. What is important to note about the intellectual, physical, and emotional changes in the adolescent stages – as with all stages of development – is that none are completely universal, and each person will go through them in different ways and at different times.

In my own high school classroom I will often have to consider these changes to better understand adolescent behavior in the classroom. In the high school classroom, after all, it is sometimes easy for a teacher to assume that his or her students are already fully-developed, and thus know themselves and their minds well enough to engage fully in the tasks at hand. While this may sometimes be true, adults need to be careful in acknowledging that while teenagers are fully capable, they may have more reservations or personal needs to be addressed within the classroom space. Without a well-formed sense of identity, students may struggle with how to interpret texts or be more self-conscious about how it is they talk about classroom topics. This is normal and part of learning, but an effective educator tries to predict these struggles and works with those that he or she could not foresee as they come.

It is also important to remember that this process of self-discovery does not end in adolescence; it simply begins there. Our students, then, will constantly be teaching us about ourselves and our own philosophies of instruction. We would be wise to listen to these intelligent rookies!

Characteristics of an Effective Educator

Describing the qualities of an effective educator is no easy task. You have to see such an educator in action to best understand the ineffable.

If you were in fact lucky enough to see this particularly fine educator, you’d see one who, while possessing great knowledge of his or her subject, viewed him or herlsef as among equals in the classroom. Effective teachers know they have just as much or more to learn from their students as they do to teach them.

The effective educator knows that he or she is an eternal learner and student as much as he or she is a teacher. Quality teachers aren’t always at the front of the classroom, then – sometimes you’ll find them seated among students, engaged in discussion, other times students are at the front of the classroom as these teachers sit at a desk attentively. The effective teacher may even change up the classroom composition all together so there is no more front, or back, to the classroom at all, just a group of eager learners thinking together.

The effective educator prizes not only knowledge of particular fields, but also – and in some ways, even more importantly – the learned gift of critical thought. While this teacher may present his or her students with information from a variety of texts and sources and facilitate discussion about them, he or she always asks students to dive into deeper inquiry. This teacher expects his or her students to investigate in order to form opinions, and once opinions are formed to forcefully express them and be willing to change them all at once

The effective educator forces students to think for themselves, even when such individual thought seems uncomfortable or daunting, for he or she is always there to help question and contextualize.

The effective educator knows that education spans far beyond the classroom walls. These teachers help arm their students with the skills needed for them to begin and engage fully in meaningful household conversations, community projects, and civic movements. The effective educator leads his or her students out of the classroom, bringing them to new places around the city – the country, the world – and asks students to discover their surroundings – and new places – through innovative projects of investigation.

The effective educator arrives before the school day begins and is present for his or her students long after the school day is through, for he or she knows the job, and learning, extend well beyond the school day. These teachers live and breathe their job, because teaching to them is as integral to their body and soul as breathe itself. This is not to say that the effective educator has no life of his or her own. No, quite the contrary! The teacher must constantly be doing, learning, and growing. Whether it is through a new, challenging social interaction or an eye-opening, educational trip, the effective educator is constantly learning and applying that fresh and gathered knowledge to all aspects of the school environment.

In sum, the most effective educators are committed and open to life-long learning as well as the lessons of their students and the world around them. Though all of that hardly does them justice!