Early Adolescence and the Risks of Learning

The "joy of learning" can become the "threat of learning" for the adolescent.

Posted May 28, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

The onset of adolescence (ages 9-13) can take the eagerness out of classroom learning. 

For example, consider what happens when, after giving an explanation, the teacher asks the class an instructional question: “Who knows the answer?”

In first grade, hands start waving all over the room: “I do! I do! Call on me!” They’re excited to share what they’ve figured out. Now, move the same scenario into a 7th-grade classroom, the teacher asking the same question. At first, no hands are raised, then very slowly a cautious few. What’s going on? What’s happened to the excited classroom response? 

I believe part of this decline in enthusiastic participation is that at the two different ages, students can treat experiences of formal learning very differently. To the eager 6-year-olds, the teacher question is treated as an expressive opportunity to show what they know; while to the more reticent 13-year-olds, the teacher’s invitation is treated as fraught with risks for young people with a growing sense of vulnerability.

Why vulnerable? On a number of counts, the young adolescent can now be feeling more developmentally insecure. 

  • Separating from childhood creates loss: One is leaving the simpler, sheltered, more stable world of childhood behind, to which she or he can never go back home to again. 
  • No longer content to be defined and treated as just a little child anymore, the young person wants to become different, but is uncertain what this re-definition will be. 
  • Moving out from family to form a supportive companionship of friends, now pressures of peer belonging, conforming, and standing all come into serious social play.
  • As puberty unpredictably reshapes their body, self-critical self-consciousness can rule, also provoking scary questions about social exposure of how one is physically turning out. 

With this early adolescent insecurity in mind, consider five possible fears that public classroom participation might pose. There can be:

Fear of Ignorance: “I didn’t know.”  

Fear of Mistakes: “I messed up.” 

Fear of Incapacity: “I can’t get it.” 

Fear of Humiliation: “I look foolish.” 

Fear of Failure: “I got it wrong.” 

Faced with these unhappy possibilities or occurrences, it can feel scary to learn something new in a public forum, like a classroom of peers or among a group of more experienced friends: “The last time I spoke up, they laughed at what I said and teased me afterwards! I felt really dumb! Now I have to live it down!”

Parents who had a child who was irrepressibly participatory in the early grades may wonder how the sixth-grade teacher describes this daughter or son as a student who barely volunteers a word in class. These parents are firm believers in how learning builds self-esteem, and it does. So, why wouldn’t their child speak up? 

What they are forgetting is how, during early adolescence and even beyond, it takes self-esteem to learn, because one always has to run the normal risks of learning. At this age, a young person who suffers from low self-esteem (defining their "self" very narrowly and evaluating their "self" very harshly) can foreclose on learning something new, because “I don’t like trying what I can’t do well.”      

So how can parents helpfully respond to this reluctance to learn? As the primary teachers in the young person’s life, they can make sure that they don’t make learning unsafe at home, they can talk about the risks of learning in positive terms, and they can even discuss learning in the Great School of Life. 

Beware Making Learning Unsafe at Home 

Many parents suffer from instructional amnesia.They have forgotten how once upon a younger time, it was very difficult to learn what, with years of practice, seems very easy, even automatic, now. Thus, tired after a long day, they can become impatient with a young adolescent who is struggling with some homework which the parent is supervising to see that it is adequately done. So, as adult impatience with a "simple" problem grows, the parent unwittingly increases the basic fears of learning with criticism.   

Increasing the fear of ignorance, the parent says: “You should know this by now!” 

Increasing the fear of mistakes, the parents says: “You’ve got it wrong again!”

Increasing the fear of incapacity, the parent says: “You're not even trying!"

Increasing the fear of humiliation, the parent says: “A child could do better!”

Increasing the fear of failure, the parent could say: “You’ll never learn!”

This is an extreme illustration, hopefully very unlikely to occur, except that parents are the primary teachers in the young person’s life in all kinds of ways and, feeling frustrated, they can impulsively make learning something old to them, but new to the teenager, feel unsafe. 

Parents need to treat learning as a sacred activity, keeping a tease-free home where no one, sibling or adult, makes fun of anyone's efforts to master a new understanding or skill. Or consider an older example: the passenger-parent teaching their 16-year-old how to practice drive a car. Some relaxed parents can make this educational experience emotionally safe, but nervous/anxious others can absolutely not: “Watch out! You’re not watching out!” (If you are one of these adults, find someone else to do the job.)

Explaining the Risks of Learning in Positive Terms 

With a young adolescent who is daunted or discouraged by the risks of learning, it can be helpful to cast them in a positive light. 

Appreciating the fear of ignorance, the parent could say: “All learning starts with admitting we don’t know.” 

Appreciating the fear of mistakes, the parent could say: “Getting it wrong is how you learn to get it right.”

Appreciating the fear of incapacity, the parent could say: “You’re not being slow; you’re learning at your own rate.”

Appreciating the fear of humiliation, the parent could say: “Letting others see you struggle to learn is acting brave.”

Appreciating the fear of failure, the parent could say: “Failure from trying is evidence of making effort.” 

Learning in the Great School of Life 

In closing, parents might consider explaining to their adolescent how learning in life works — when you’re growing up, when you’re grown up, and when you’re growing older. They could talk to the young person about "The Great School of Life," perhaps like this:

“In 'The Great School of Life,' you and I will always be students. 

  • We’ll never experience it all.
  • We’ll never know it all.
  • We’ll never master it all.
  • We’ll never pay enough attention.
  • We’ll never get it all right.
  • We’ll all do some foolish things.
  • And neither one of us will get all A’s.

The best we can do is to make our choices, take of our chances, face our consequences, and keep on trying when the going gets hard. We can credit ourselves for doing our part in what works out well, and learn from the errors of our ways, because mistake-based education often teaches lessons worth the pain of remembering. And just so you know, while I may not have made your mistakes growing up, I sure made plenty of my own. In fact, I still do.” 

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Power of Empathy