Building Self-Awareness in Teens

Last month, I started an action research project in the classroom to help my 14-15 year-olds manage impulsive behavior and develop persistence during challenges.

When I started teaching, I remember being extremely sad that kids had so little emotional and “growing up” support in a school. I would observe vicious peer conflicts, inability to “fit in,” depression, anxiety, lack of interest in life, and a general feeling of “Why are we here just to suffer?” in those who are more self-aware. There were few to no adults these kids could come to for guidance and basic life-sanity.

My course load primarily includes 9th grade physics. These 9th graders must develop enough discipline to master the subject for a statewide test and prepare for future science courses.

They start the year strutting into the classroom, talking out of turn, interrupting others, not listening, not respecting others, and having no academic skills to speak of.

The transition for these students from middle school to high school is incredibly difficult and stressful. In addition, they have all kinds of personal drama that changes daily and ranges from homelessness, living in a foster home, parental abuse, too much responsibility for younger siblings, and relationships with peers.

To structure my vision for how to help them, I researched Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind and decided to explicitly introduce these in the classroom. Specifically, we have been working on Managing Impulsivity and Persistence. I wanted to see if simply building guided reflection time into the classroom routine would help these students be more self-reflective in their words and actions.

When I first inteduced the Habits, the more abnoxious students were dead-quiet. I could see their gears turning: Do we think before we speak? Do we say or do hurtful things to others and then regret it? Do we think that the world is mysterious and interesting? Do we feel proud of the academic work we produce? I asked students to reflect on the Habits with the entire class and was amazed at how much they shared, despite feeling psychologically unsafe around their peers – they wanted to talk about themselves reflectively so badly!

My intervention did not end up being simply reflection time. The Habits gave us a common vocabulary to talk about their benefits and implications for life. Each day, I projected a set of sample reflection quotes, which I constructed in a student voice based on my observations of students:

“I need to get attention to feel like I am real.

When no one pays attention to me, I feel like I don’t exist.

I do crazy stuff to get attention and that is impulsive. I can’t control it. I want to matter.”

“I think school is hard and I am not very good at it. But I want good grades.

When people don’t pay attention, I want to literally tear them to pieces. They act like they are the center of the universe.

When I see someone acting dumb, I tell them that they’re Dumb without thinking about it. It’s usually not a good move.”

I would ask students “What do you think about these?” and “How do you feel about these?” I remember that one student said “hash tag relatable,” referring to the Twitter tag for “I can relate.”

We spent this brief time at the beginning to hear any out-loud reflections and students filled out a reflection of their own at the end, ranking their application of Managing Impulsivity (for example) on a scale of 1-10, and writing a paragraph to give an example and to set a personal goal.

During the class, I continued to refer back to the Habit we were studying, and asked students to consider their behavior in light of the Habit. I also did my “Russian mother” yelling routine for particularly abnoxious actions, while naming behaviors as they occurred.

I have to act a great deal around kids – pretending to be angry or disciplinary, when – in fact – all I feel is love for these kids. I think they know it because my after-school help session is always full – for physics (which nearly everyone hates), and I have many students coming to talk to me, in general. I no longer feel emotions, such as anger, so the act is necessary because people are conditioned to interpret that display to pay attention.

It may sound like a lot of planning went into this, but it was post facto. I “planned” all of this in a flash instant of seeing the configuration I hoped to achieve on the other planes, and then translated what I saw to the language of this plane using the mind. Most of my confrontations, feedback, and support are in-the-moment and without any mental activity.

Yesterday someone called a student a “faggot.” I beamed them an intense look and asked if they heard of a poet, called Rumi. The student had not.

I quoted Rumi: “Before you speak, ask yourself – is it true… is it necessary… is it kind…” I had paused after each to give all students time to reflect. Then I asked, would they speak more or less if they considered these things before speaking? Many whispered “less.” I said “That’s what I thought…” and moved on with the lesson. Later, of course, I had to pull aside the two students to ask them what went on to warrant such language.

How did the project go? I saw a visible change in students during the month, as they were given descriptive language to consider their behaviors. Overall, the students were more attentive to their actions and caught themselves regarding the words they used. Their written reflections were quite deep. The classroom felt more together, rather than a bunch of bickering cliques. Even my paraprofessional said she felt more at ease and liked the humor.

I ponder my kids a lot throughout the day – their lives, their sense of self, and their crises. I also see them as being healed of their dramas and traumas. I am no different at home with my own kids. We have “life lesson” conversations frequently, and I carefully observe how they feel before, during, and after.

Kids do need to learn how to talk about what they feel, and in a way that helps them release and reflect. Schools are moving in the direction of being more open to building social emotional intelligence (SEL), and I am happy the climate is more accepting of this kind of work.

One thought on “Building Self-Awareness in Teens”

  1. Keep up the good work, InEx, and keep loving your students. Opening their minds to self-examination and self-reflection could go a long way to healing our society. Not doing this can make our society worse.

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