Shaved Eyebrows & Short Skirts: An ALT’s guide to the psychology of adolescence

Good student, bad student. We’ve all seen this before…

By Laura Rog

One of my favorite stories as an ALT begins with stopping off for a quick ice cream before I headed home on the bus. While I was waiting for friends to finish in line, a very genki student from another school bounded over, frantically waving and exclaiming “Laura sensei!” and my high school’s name. She was wearing thick eye makeup and a short pleated skirt. Unsure who she was, I laughed and chatted with her for a few moments, figuring I’d met her when I judged a regional speech contest at my school a few months back. A couple days later as I was passing out papers in my new second-year class, I handed them to the first person in the row and did a complete double take. It was the girl I had seen in the store, only now in our high school uniform minus the short skirt and makeup. Instantly, I realized she got around our school’s strictly-enforced dress code by pretending to be from another school as she walked around the shopping area. I half laughed and half gaped as her face showed she saw me putting two and two together.

If you work as a junior or senior high ALT, you’ve probably experienced something like this. While many Japanese students are studying more seriously than we ever had to in school, at the end of the day they are still negotiating their identity in the world – developing crushes on other students, worrying about how their bodies look, working to stand out from the crowd but not be too different. It’s confusing for students, and challenging for us as their teachers, since we somehow have to encourage a focus on English speaking capability in the midst of all these changes. In JET a lot of emphasis is given to instruction in the classroom, but this doesn’t always give us a deeper look at the underpinnings behind student behaviors. As teachers, it helps if we remember that students are going through an eventful time in their life, and think about how we can encourage students as people in addition to helping them better speak English. How do we do that? I’d like to discuss some basic psychological theory that can help us to understand student behavior during adolescence, and offer ideas about classroom approaches based on this understanding.

Adolescence defined… or not

Adolescence is a widely researched and discussed topic for one main reason – we’ve all gone through it (or, as some might argue, are just getting out of it!) and often have definite opinions about how it should be handled. If you look for information on adolescence, it’s easy to go into information overload. Try typing “adolescence” into a search on Amazon.com: more than 16,000 results pop up, including plenty of titles with negative connotations such as being “trapped” in the teenage years, how it is a “turbulent” time, or the number of books to help look for disorders that explain a child’s “erratic” behavior. We see live examples of this in front of us everyday. How many of us have students with a crazy haircut? Who shave off their eyebrows and trace them back on with marker? How about the ones who like to yell out or sleep repeatedly during class, or the ones who are painfully shy? It’s easy to get confused by all the information out there when trying to understand this kind of behavior.

I think one good place to start exploring ideas about adolescence is with the theories of Erik Erikson, a psychologist who specialized in lifespan development. His theories are easy to understand and have been used extensively in work with adolescents, and as a result they are widely summarized on the Internet (Wikipedia is an easy place to start if you find this sort of stuff interesting!). Erikson’s theories center around the idea that individuals go through stages of development throughout their life from birth to death, and each stage is marked by a conflict they need to resolve. Conflict is seen as a good thing because it shows people are exploring and working through issues related to their current age. Erikson believed that social environments affect personal growth – in other words, people and social rules influence the way we see ourselves and develop our identity.

The parts of Erikson’s theories that could be helpful for ALTs to understand are the developmental stages relating to elementary and junior high school age children. In elementary school, children are in an environment where, for the first time, they are judged by how well they can complete tasks. The major conflict at this stage is whether children feel like they measure up to their peers. Are they competent compared to others and their abilities, or inferior? This is the time when they begin to develop a social identity outside their family. The next stage deals with adolescence, beginning usually around junior high. At this age, kids are becoming more independent and conscious of how they are seen in others’ eyes. Peer groups become incredibly important during this time, and heavily influence the decisions that students make and the activities they participate in.

Common sense based on what we’ve all experienced, right? The next part is where it gets interesting – in Erikson’s theory, solving the conflict isn’t just about discovering your personal identity, it’s about figuring out what you are competent in and making your identity valuable to the world (and at this stage, your world is your friends). You are funny? Tell jokes in class and make your friends laugh. You are strategic? Play a sport and become the captain. You draw manga well? Illustrate a class picture to give out to your homeroom the last day of school. Adolescence is not just about having your own identity; it’s about feeling others value your identity in the world.

Applying Erikson’s theories in Japan

Erikson’s ideas are pretty simple to relate to. And it’s easy to see how they have played out in our own upbringing and in the lives of our students. So how can his ideas affect what you do in a classroom in Japan? How can they help us be better teachers?

To get an idea how to relate to your students, pay attention to how they relate to you, your subject matter and their peers during a lesson, and how they handle attention. As Erikson points out, actions result from social growth and behaviors often stem from the need to be recognized by others. Attention is a funny thing – some students want tons, others none, and within both types of reactions there are different causes at root. A cocky comment or outright refusal to answer often has more to do with the reputation students are trying to uphold than their feelings towards you as a person. (My personal favorite was a girl who kept yelling out “Loose bowels!” during pauses in our health vocabulary lesson because the rest of the class laughed.) After a lesson, one of the most important things you can do is reflect about how it went – who answered a lot or was unruly, who wouldn’t talk, etc. – and try to figure out why. Figure out whether it is the lesson structure (i.e. a lot of students were off track) or the students’ personality (most were on task, but a few were exceptionally needy or quiet). You can do this informally if you have a good memory or even take quick notes when you get back to the office to remember from week to week. Additionally, if you are on good terms with your JTE, (s)he often knows the back story for a student; I’ve found this quite helpful in learning students’ home situations, academic records, and social circles, all of which influence the person they display in the classroom. Once you observe students for a class or two you can start to realize who is consistently behaving in ways conducive or disruptive to the class and begin planning how to deal with the disruptions. For example, the student who kept yelling out “loose bowels” became my assistant the next class, where I proactively had the class repeat the vocab words after her so she received the attention she wanted in class right off the bat and felt fulfilled, but it also allowed me to continue without having to stop. Keep in mind that change won’t happen in one class, and the situation might not ever get 100 percent better. But as you think about the students and plan ways to deal with their fixations on how they look to others, you’ll begin to develop tricks to make classes run more smoothly.

Erikson’s theory also helps to understand why many students resist the rules, which helps to deal with it everyday in our classrooms. Student resistance is by far one of the aspects of school culture I find most interesting, and something that happens even with the most academic of students; torn between wanting to find approval but also be their own person during adolescence, students find interesting ways to skirt the rules. They talk with their friends during class time, yell out inappropriate things, change uniforms to put on eye makeup, etc. What’s difficult is stepping back and realizing it’s all part of a larger developmental picture that happens all over the world. One of the hardest parts of teaching is to be insulted or ignored in class, only to know that you have to come back week after week and teach the same disruptive students again. Erikson’s theory helps us to recognize that the animosity in the classroom doesn’t always stem from our teaching abilities. How we react to it and deal with the students is absolutely our responsibility, but it helps to remember that root of the situation often has more to do with outside forces, rather than blaming the class conflict entirely upon ourselves and feeling bad all the time.

One of the most important things you can take away from Erikson’s theories is the idea that we are all growing, evolving beings, and that everyone walks into a classroom with something to contribute. In any classroom, we must remember to allow students space for growth, and take their temporary lapses in judgment in stride. Part of our role as teachers is to help students work through these contradictory points in life. By trying to relate better to the challenges our students face, we not only show respect to the students themselves, we also can take steps toward creating a more effective classroom space.

Photo by Danny Choo. Published under Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0.

11 thoughts on “Shaved Eyebrows & Short Skirts: An ALT’s guide to the psychology of adolescence

  1. Thanks for the comments Gail and Dan! Gail, I totally have to give myself my own advice constantly – last week I had a boy put another student in a headlock when I was helping another group. Sigh.

    Dan, I totally sympathize with your perspective on the teacher situation. I have a VERY hard time with how teachers manage students, or rather oftentimes don’t, here in Japan. One of the things I have noticed is that adults give much more autonomy to youth in Japan and expect them to manage it on their own – elementary students are riding buses and trains by themselves, senior high students work in after school clubs, rehearsals, festival planning, etc. without an adult around. It is very different than Western ideology, where parents and teachers are perceived to be the people who are supposed to guide the younger, less experienced members of society. Not that it really helps improve the situation, but in terms of just coping with it I would manage it very similarly to the suggestions for adolescents above – as something that is more helpful to try to understand culturally than control. Unfortunately, team teaching rarely involves two teachers perfectly in tune with each other and different cultural teaching styles!

    But, I also don’t want to pass it off as a, “Just deal with it.” That rarely helps when someone says it to me! If it were me, I would take stock of my different JTEs – look at the various teachers I teach with and closely observe the ones I think do a good job. How do they deal with disruptions? If there aren’t any disruptions, how do they set up their classroom activities/behavior guidelines so things run smoothly? Have a conversation with them if they are open to it (I find most good teachers are interested in helping others!) and ask what they do and what tips they have for you. If you are comfortable with the JTE who lacks classroom management skills, you could ask if you could incorporate some of the ideas into class, or if you aren’t comfortable talk with your supervisor or PA about your ideas and have them talk to the teacher with you. It may make it a little uncomfortable to go over the JTEs head, but you deserve a chance to make the classroom experience work.

    Hope that helps!

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