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Teenagers, adolescence, and secondary schools in a time of climate crisis: Pedagogy and psychology that helps

Adolescence is notorious for being a time of unpredictability and experimentation for teens, and a time of frustration for their parents and teachers. This is so widely accepted that even the NHS has advice for parents on how to cope with teenagers.

 

From a developmental perspective, we know that teenagers are undertaking the important task of individuation – experimenting with and working on their identities. The peer group becomes more important, while they also get a greater neurological reward for risky behaviours.

 

Their brains undergo another developmental leap (much like in toddlerhood), with the prefrontal cortex developing faster than their empathy systems. i.e. they might seem ‘adult’ in their understanding but also struggle to understand others’ perspectives (Bolton, 2018). The car rental companies ‘have it right’ by setting the minimum rental age at 25 – before this our brains are not yet fully developed.

 

Rather than understanding this as a natural phenomenon, teens get a bad press and are almost expected to rebel, resist, or generally give backchat to those attempting to tell them what to do. I wonder how far we feed into this schism with the derogatory and dismissive remarks about ‘typical’ teenagers?

 

What do teenagers need?

 

In today’s fast-moving world, there is an additional ‘relevance’ gap opening up between teenagers and the ‘adults’. Unless we keep abreast of current developments in climate change, A.I. and social media, we risk becoming obsolete and unable to support or relate to young people - we inhabit totally different worlds.

 

Moreover, it is now known that government (and school) inaction on climate change is inducing feelings of abandonment in young people (Hickman et al, 2021). We are failing to safeguard their futures, so why should they trust us?

 

Far from being the street-wise independent individuals they purport to be, adolescents actually need additional containment and emotion coaching as they navigate this time of upheaval.

 

Now, more than ever, in a time of climate and ecological crisis, we need to preserve the attachment with our teenagers and adolescents, both in school and in the home.

 

If we don’t, we risk young people attaching themselves to their peers for emotional support and to their phones and ‘the internet’ or influences for guidance and wisdom. I say risk, but it’s already happening and fueling the mental health crisis we see day in, day out in secondary schools. Just say ‘Andrew Tate’ to a secondary school teacher and watch their response to see what I mean.

 

Teens need containing, safe spaces

While peer relations are important in adolescence, they are no substitute for a nurturing, secure, intergenerational attachment relationship. Peer relations can tend to lack warmth and stability and may be overly focused on conformity and ‘fitting in’, rather than unconditional acceptance (Neufeld & Maté, 2004).

 

A secure, warm attachment is best found in a healthy home, but can also be replicated in the classroom. In fact, teachers, as authority figures, can often function as substitute attachment figures and help mitigate the effects of insecure home attachments between parents and children. Teachers, it turns out, make a significant difference to the emotional development and wellbeing of their pupils, even if they’re just teaching maths.

 

With most young people in the UK now feeling that ‘the future is frightening’(72%, Hickham et al., 2021), we clearly have an additional emotional need to attend to.  


 

First and foremost, adolescents need to see the people who prepare them for adulthood life also taking steps to safeguard their adult lives. Teens need to see schools taking realistic climate impact and mitigation measures (think flood protocols and solar panel projects). How can children feel secure enough to learn if they are not being kept safe and supported?

 

Teens need connections to others, themselves and to nature.

 

Opportunities to be in and appreciate the outdoors are also key. Not only are these experiences excellent for mental health, but we also need to reestablish the understanding of the ‘web of life’ that can be lost when young people spend their lives on phones, at the expense of time in nature. Nature is not something separate from us.


 

 

Next, adolescents need to be surrounded by emotionally awake and regulated adults. This does not mean that teachers need to feel fine about the climate and ecological crisis, but they do need to have done the difficult work of looking at their own cognitive biases and barriers to engagement.


Teachers need protected time and support to actively engage in processing their own feelings in relation to climate. Only then can they be sufficiently able to ‘contain’ a child’s anxieties about the topic, as and when it comes up in their classes. This is the oxygen mask principle – we need to be caring for the caregivers.


Currently, the situation we see most frequently in schools is that adults skim over the more hairy details of climate change, for fear of upsetting children further, inadvertently causing further distress and abandonment in the avoidance of the topic.

 

At the point of learning about climate change, across all subject areas, time and space needs to be given to hear teenagers' experiences, concerns, and feelings. Adults leading these discussions need to feel comfortable with modeling and sharing their own ability to move through emotions, creating a culture of emotional expression that is the foundation of good mental health.

 

Teens need relevant truths and agency

Perhaps what sets adolescence apart from early childhood, is the sense of agency, autonomy and personal respect that teenagers crave.

 

And why shouldn’t they? Starting with respect, we owe it to them to be truthful. Hiding the full implications of the climate crisis from teenagers isn’t ultimately going to help them to deal with it. We can only educate them to thrive in the world if we are truthful about the realities of the world.

 

Indeed, many educators who adopt this approach will find that their classes already know a great deal – almost every teenager now has ‘the world at their fingertips’ so are exposed to hard truths already. Hiding this from them will only engender mistrust and the sense that school (or parents) are out of touch.

 

Asking teenagers what they already know, think, and feel is a great place to start. Within a context of unconditional acceptance of all experiences and feelings, this simple act of listening to adolescents’ experiences is one which is often overlooked but can be hugely nurturing. Listening does not have to be verbal either, and this is where the creative expression of art, writing, music, theatre, and dance can really come into its own.



UNESCO’s Education for sustainable development framework can help teachers with lesson ideas that consider global systems and the UN’s sustainable development goals. It is here that the global perspectives and understanding of climate justice needs to be brought into the conversation. Many children have stories of relatives and friends suffering in other countries. Many adolescents feel the acute injustice at the state of income inequality, effects of colonial oppression and the disproportionate climate impacts on marginalised communities. It is important to give space to these experiences and the difficult feelings arising. Indeed, the climate and ecological crisis cannot be addressed without this global perspective.

 

In fact, the skills of listening to each other and cultivating empathy, is of huge value. It is a fundamental aspect of the human experience that will certainly become more prized as A.I. technologies proliferate. Moreover, empathy and caring for ‘the other’ will be a necessary feature of a resilient society as climate impacts worsen; we felt this first-hand during the Covid lockdowns.

 

Hearing the ‘pupil voice’ and encouraging the exchange of ideas will inevitably give airtime to some mis-informed views. Education must now focus more on how we know rather than what we know. As the online safety charity, Internet Matters will tell you, The internet is awash deep fakes, extremism, and greenwashing, while the algorithms serve us up a biased yet pleasing ‘echo-chamber’ of reality. Navigating this space and knowing the difference between trustworthy sources, opinion and fact is a crucial skill, made all the more complicated by A.I..


Rather than dismissing adolescent views, we need to model the art of a healthy debate, using Socratic questioning to gently guide children to broader and more nuanced perspectives than conspiracy theories they may come across online.



 

Finally, we need to empower our teens, without placing undue burden on them (messages like ‘the next generation will save us’ are not helpful!). The solutions to climate change need to be taught alongside the causes. Here, the possibilities for project learning and micro-activism projects are truly exciting. There are many inspiring activists who have shown that young people can affect change, representing different cultures and regions (e.g., Mikaela Loach, Mitzi Jonelle Tang). Celebrating and learning about these individuals shows young people that their actions can make a difference.

 

If possible, we can consult with organisations like Eco-schools and Students organizing for Sustainability (SOS-UK) to give pupils the freedom and responsibility of running their own projects to change their school or community (e.g. a campaign for electric school busses) or even to affect wider change (e.g. using social media to raise awareness of brands greenwashing practices). This enhances the sense of self-efficacy that is so powerful in countering the sense of powerlessness that can keep us stuck.

 

More to the point, student led project learning to affect change is going to teach them how to solve problems, network, research current affairs and work in a team. It's this focus on skills (not careers), adaptability (not specialism) and a sense of connectedness (not competition) that will actually enable them to live well in the future.

 

Dr Louise Edgington, March 2024

Louise is a chartered Educational Psychologist, working on bringing climate wellbeing into education via her independent practice ClimatEdPsych and the British Psychological Society’s Climate and Environment Action Coordinating Group.

Louise consults on national projects for climate wellbeing and eco-anxiety and offers workshops and training for professionals.

 

 

References

 

Bolton, J. (2018). Inventing ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain. Penguin

 

Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold onto your kids. Vermillion

 

Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the classroom: The links between children's early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. Worth Publishing

 

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., ... & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3

 

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