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!