Go With The Flow: 10 Ways to Easily Engage Teenagers

Understanding Teenagers – November 30, 2017

One of my axioms about working with teenagers is: “Adolescence is like gravity,  It is much easier to work with it than against it.”

A lot of the talk about dealing with teenagers focuses on how to combat or overcome the forces of adolescence.  As adults it can be easy to think of the teenager years as a period to endure or confront. This type of thinking  becomes counter productive after a while.

Adolescence is a normal part of life. It is also one of the most closely observed and studied stages of life, so we know a lot about it. (The fact that every adult has been through it also adds a fair bit to the knowledge bank.) When adolescence is considered as a process rather than a threat we are free to consider how to work with it rather than against it.

In this post I will suggest 10 basic ways adults can work with the modern adolescents rather than against it.  Be it in the classroom, a youth group, or even in the home, there are numerous ways we can work with and use the processes of adolescence to help us engage teenagers.

Ask How They are Going

Finding out about how a teenager’s week is going before you begin a class or group is one way to give your students a chance to let you know just how receptive they may or may not be on that particular day. Knowing what a teenager is bringing with  them helps you fine tune your plans and expectations.

Don’t underestimate either the power of connecting with a teenager on a relational level as a means of improving levels of engagement.  If a teen feels you are interested in them, respect them, and have heard what is happening for them they will be much more willing to hear from you.  For teenagers relationship is everything.

Make it About Them

Teenagers are learning new ways of thinking and relating.  An outcome of this developmental process is that they are very focused on themselves. This means their thinking can be described as being ego-eccentric – centered on themselves. They are constantly evaluating and making sense of the world with themselves at the very center of it.

Inviting teens to think about ideas, concepts, or people will always work better if you can connect the subject to how it will affect or impact them.  Asking for their opinion or framing a conversation in such a way as to personally involve the teenager is an easy way to get them involved.

Let Teens Teach You

Adults often feel threatened because of the information gap that can exist between the generations. Teenagers seem to know a lot about topics that adults have very little knowledge or interest in.

Rather than be intimidated by this, adults should embrace and flaunt the difference.  The only thing teenagers like more than being able to show off they know something, is being able to show off they know something adults don’t. Giving teens permission to be the expert on subject matter is an excellent and affirming way to engage their interest and getting them participating.

Use Culture

Pop culture is a pervasive force in the lives of most teenagers. It is through their identification with various music, fashion styles, celebrities, and other cultural icons that adolescents explore and express their identity, their sense of who they are.  Culture is also like relational currency for teenage peer groups.  Cultural symbols and events provide the main source of conversation and means of identifying with a particular group.

Teens love to talk about the latest movie, music, celebrity scandal etc.  Adults can easily get teens focused and talking by beginning with a statement or question about something from the current pop culture landscape. You don’t need to have an opinion, or even appreciate whomever or whatever it is you are discussing, the teenagers will have enough of an opinion to share.

Do Something Active

No one likes to sit around doing tedious boring work.  Teenagers are no exception.  However because of the developmental processes of adolescence, and particularly the way the teenage brain develops, involving teens in something active offers greater chance of achieving higher levels of engagement.

This is particularly true of teenage boys. Rather than just trying to have a conversation, do something physical with them as well. Even just walking will enable a teenager to converse more freely. By active I don’t necessarily mean just running around outside. Anything that involves them being able to move about, using their hands, or engages more than one of the senses will result in a increased levels of participation. Action-reflection is an often under-utilized technique when working with teens.

Get Them To Perform

Part of teenagers having a world that is centered around them is the belief that every one is watching them.  They assume the rest of the world is as fascinated with them as they are with themselves. Why not work with this belief that everyone is watching and actually get everyone to watch and listen.

Rather than merely talking about or writing something down invite teens to create and perform an expression or explanation of whatever the topic might be, even if it is just getting them to engage with a story. Asking them to perform the story will engage them with the content much more than just reading or listening. Similarly watching their peers perform is always an enjoyable activity for teens – particularly if it involves laughter. Some teens will be happy to perform solo, but it is generally safer if possible to get teens to perform in groups.

Give Them a Choice

One of the tasks of adolescence is to develop a sense of individuality. To learn to understand oneself as an independent person able to make ones own decisions.  Hence teenagers are known from time to time to be less than compliant with adult instruction.  It goes against an adolescent’s nature to willingly comply with an older person’s instruction to them.  Teens want to be able to make their own decisions, have control over their choices.

Of course this in not always possible or advisable, but it can be used to your advantage.

Rather than asking, or telling teens to complete a certain task in a certain way, give them a range of options.  Allow teens to choose one task or method from amongst a selection of suitable options.  This way they are deciding for themselves rather than having their independence challenged by an adult. Being empowered to choose will mean a teen is much more committed to and involved in the task at hand.

Set Them A Challenge

Give teens a challenge.  Even better, give them the chance to realistically compete against an adult with a chance of winning and they will become very, very focused on whatever the task might be. Note that the challenge needs to be realistic, and teens need to believe they have a chance of succeeding in order for them to be motivated.

Prizes or rewards never go astray for any age group as a motivational tool. However be aware of making too much of a prize that has limited value  – this can have the reverse effect resulting in teens mocking and disrespecting the task and/or your efforts to get them involved.

Technology Is Not a Subject

To the many of you who are already established digital immigrants, this one will seem like a no brainer. But to those of you who still think using technology is a separate subject or area of interest for teens please take note – Technology is not a subject, it is an ingrained part of life for 21st century teenagers.

Today’s teenagers have grown up surrounded by this stuff we think is newly complicated.  Technology is an everyday part of life that needs to be used to accomplish everyday tasks. This means that merely talking about technology itself is rarely engaging for teenagers. Technology needs to be integrated into teaching and exploring other topics. In fact getting teens to use technology in order to achieve other tasks is one of the best ways of creating high levels of engagement, and multiple learning outcomes.

Be Yourself

The long established myth that adults need to be cool and hip in order to connect with teenagers has been around forever, and despite copious amounts of evidence to the contrary it never seems to go away.  Special note to all adults – teenagers don’t need you to be trendy, they want you to be genuine.

Teenagers know adults are adults.  They are also highly sensitive to people trying to pull the wool over their eyes.  Adults who try too hard to get teens to like them will achieve the exact opposite.  Engaging with teenagers is about being yourself. Being genuine and sincere, while not taking yourself too seriously will go a long way towards developing meaningful rapport with teenagers.

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