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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

3 Things Parents and Teachers Can Do Better to Help Teens Succeed

 3 Things Parents and Teachers Can Do Better to Help Teens Succeed
Conscious parenting is not about being perfect, it’s about being aware. Aware of what your kids need from you to reach more of their full potential.
— Alex Urbina

Parents look to teachers to help their kids make sense of the world and use information in beneficial ways. But a parent's role is similar. We don't just take care of our kids - we want them to be happy and we want them to succeed in school, work, and life.

I often think about the things I want for my 4-and-a-half-year-old son. Most of all, I hope he lives a fulfilling life - a life in which he seeks the opportunities and has the skills and drive to pursue the dreams he dreams up. I want him to develop concern and care for our planet. I want him to be mindful and compassionate. And just as every parent, I want him to be happy.

And though I am happy with his preschool, for a version of the future I envision for Adam to take place, my wife and I have to take on a more active role in his education and try to fill in the gaps of the present day school system. Those gaps are mainly a result of how the Made in the Industrial Era schools teach and what they don't teach.

And while I'll continue to push the educational system I am a part of to change to fit the times we live in, I realize that the change is not happening fast enough. It is up to me then, to help my son learn the skills he needs to live a good life - skills that are common sense but not common practice in school.

Adam spends 8-9 hours a day at his preschool and I trust his teachers to help him figure things out and give him plentiful opportunities to learn. They are good people and care for Adam. He's happy there and my wife and I are happy he's there.

But guess what, Adam messes up sometimes. He'll play with his food or spill his "monkey yogurt" on purpose sometimes. Then he'll get a time-out. And time-outs don't work - they're punitive measures that isolate children after they misbehave but rarely work to modify future behavior. We struggle with similar behaviors at home too. This kid has boundless energy - the Energizer bunny runs out of juice long before Adam is ready for a break! So, my wife and I had to find a different way.

I'll tell you what the imperfect-but-good solution we're seeing progress with is at the end but now let's focus on how we can apply the business world ideas Charles Duhigg describes in his book Smarter, Faster, Better in helping our kids do better at school.

Increasing Motivation

One of the best ways to increase an employee's level of motivation is to empower him with a sense of responsibility and control. In a neuropsychology study Duhigg mentions in his book, brain centers associated with motivation consistently "lit up" during brain scans when subject were given choice rather than just told what to do.

In schools, teachers complain of students lacking motivation. If choice helps motivation it seems plausible to give students more choice in school. Too often high school teachers rule with an iron fist and feel like they're doing something special when they relinquish some of this control and let kids make choices. We over-control and predetermine our teens lives and then wonder where it all went wrong.

Consider the "normal." Normally, teachers, and often parents tell students what to do and how to do it. Then we say they need to be responsible and make the right choices. But the truth is we've already made most choices for them and we expect blind compliance.

Years of school conditioning have desensitized some kids from school and it may be a tough road back to motivation but we must start somewhere. While we might not see immediate results, we are sending a message to our teen students that they are responsible for making their own decisions now. Sure they will screw up but if we raise good people they'll eventually get it right. And, they will learn more in the process.

So here's the deal: To be motivated, kids need to think for themselves and feel their life is made of the choices they, not someone else made. It is up to us, the adults in their lives, to teach them right from wrong and then trust that our teens will make the best choices. These choices cannot be isolated, "benevolent" events bestowed on teens by elders either. Rather, teens especially must be empowered to make and live with their choices daily - the more the better. The days of helicoptering must end.

Personal Empowerment

In Smarter Faster Better, Duhigg discusses how company culture affects it's workers well-being and performance. One people management model, Commitment culture stands above the rest. It focuses on building a culture that puts people first. This might slow the company's initial growth, but leads to long-term benefits. In the commitment culture model, employees become committed to the company - they tend to stay on because they're trusted to make important decisions, they feel valued and respected, they have more paid leave, and they are given other generous growth opportunities.

A study by Baron and Hannan of Stanford found companies that valued their employees (and customers) above profit were the fastest to go public, were most efficient and profitable in the long run, and had the ability to predict and respond to market shifts. The commitment model outperformed all other management styles in almost every meaningful category (Duhigg 149). 

Turns out empowering people with trust and choice and investing in their well-being not only motivates them but leads to their and the organization's success as well. There is no reason each household or each classroom cannot become such a place. 

This again calls for parents and teachers giving up (at least some) control and giving teens the tools needed to make their own decisions. We're not talking anarchy but the type of education that empowers our soon-to-be-adults to think for themselves; perhaps the type we often shy away from.

Honesty is a good approach. Let's talk about our own biggest and baddest and most embarrassing teen screw ups so someone else can learn from them. Rather than fearing our children will do as we did, let's paint a complete picture of what we were thinking then and the painful consequences our thinking and actions led to. Let's trust and see and believe because prevention and prohibition and other fear-based measures don't work at work and even less at school or home. Forbidden fruit always tastes better.

Generosity - the right type of it - can make all the difference. Sharing power is generous but often hard. We fear they will take it the wrong way and make the wrong decisions. And sometimes they will but that's how they learn best. But it can be done with subtlety too. We can be more flexible and thoughtful in how we communicate and approach our teens. Just because we do things a certain way doesn't mean it's the right way. Maybe there's another right way or multiple ways to get to the same place or result we're not seeing? Let's ask and really listen. 

Parents and teachers can ask for and apply the suggestions our teens give us. We might get anxious as they push us out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. But the kids won't be the only ones who grow from this. Sure, we're investing in them, but we also see at work the universal law of the more you give the more you receive and we grow ourselves. 

Being Part of the Team

It's funny how you can write hundreds of words about one thing without realizing or even naming it. Feeling safe, valued, respected, and cared about are the necessary ingredients to effective teamwork.

Writing about effective teams, Duhigg names "willingly giving a measure of control to their teammates (p. 70)" as the ultimate team norm. But the author also recognizes that strategy only works when people trust and feel safe with each other.

I often catch myself pushing my 4-and-a-half-year-old toward a decision to expedite it but that's wrong. Of course he's too young to think rationally all the time! And I'm too old not to and yet doing the above - pressuring, trying to speed up Adam's thinking - is irrational. I've gotten better at it, but just last morning, in the morning rush out of the door I let my anxiety-induced impatience take over and I put my son's feelings second to things that matter less.

How often do we get annoyed and lack patience with our kids? It's part of the parent condition, so let's not beat ourselves up. We do the best we can in the moment and we can choose to reflect and learn and do better next time. We can continue making the home team better. 

Same goes for the classroom team. We can evolve together by teaching collaboration and communication explicitly rather than leaving it up to chance. Rather than hide from conflicts pretending nothing happened, we can normalize dealing with them in the open. We can give our students voice and genuinely listen and respond and ask questions and react with care. We can help everyone belong. It takes time - yes, time away from english, math, or science - but if we build it they will come, right?

The Path

Today, Adam earned tally marks 9 and 10. My wife and I started a simple behavior chart - an idea borrowed from neighbors who have 2 boys - a chart that focuses on positive behavior only. Each time Adam does something pretty great (and he's pretty great all the time) like resolve a conflict with words instead of hitting or kicking or plays well with friends or listens to his preschool teachers, he can draw a tally mark on the big sheet of paper we taped to out fridge. Once he has 10 tally marks he gets to pick something special he can do with mom or dad such as ice cream.

Today, he picked ice cream. Chocolate. His favorite. I'm taking him after school. He can't wait. Me neither.

I'm sure there are experts out there who would disagree with our approach but we're just a work in progress. We do our best. If we say "because we say so" when we get annoyed, we find the capacity to try something else and learn to do it better the next time. When we need to, we apologize and look for a new path. 

I think it's important to keep reminding ourselves that there are many paths - maybe an infinite number of them, many yet to be discovered - and to keep looking for them.

Perhaps Duhigg did not intend this, but a path can be drawn from Empowerment (Choice and Trust) to Motivation to Commitment to Effective Collaboration, Communication, and Success. And those are skills anyone can use anywhere.

Duhigg did not intend to write Smarter Faster Better for teens or compare teens to 4-and-a-half-year-olds. That's all me. But it doesn't matter if the human being is 4, 14, or 40 because anyone can choose to walk a different path tomorrow. A new path. Perhaps a smarter one but hopefully one a little better than today. We just have to draw it in our mind.

Draw the path. Then show it to your kids. But don't make them walk it. That won't work. Show them how you walked it first. Then, help the walk their own.

You have the power to change lives. Use it often so they can change the world.


Last week, I wrote this post on using lateral thinking to grow people and organizations inspires by Shane Snow's book Smartcuts. I also told you a story to which the lateral thinking answer is: You give the car keys to the friend who's helped you out in the past and brave the rain with the woman (or man) of you dreams.