The Development and Learning Needs of Adolescents

posted Mar 12, 2013, 9:06 PM by Dawn Gernhardt

As Daniel Pink stated in an interview about his book A Whole New Mind, I also, “believe that teaching to the whole child will result in higher test scores, learners better prepared for employment, and a country of happier people” to thrive in this vastly changing world that our children need to be prepared for. My goal is for students to “recognize that they are important and how they are connected to a broader society. To understand the array of diversity and responsibility, of opportunity and performance, of connectedness to others and to the planet, so that they can demonstrate their ability to succeed in this world.”
           This paper discusses the development and learning needs of adolescents in the classroom in relation to physical, social, and emotional factors that adolescents deal with, their learning environment, the expectations, classroom management techniques, and how to meet the needs of all students based on my experiences and education theory.

Physical, social, and emotional factors 


It’s essential for educators to understand teenage brain development—teenagers take more risks than children and adults. They’ll do almost anything to impress their friends and gain independence. Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, in her Ted Talk entitled “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain,” compares the prefrontal cortex in adolescents to that of adults, to show us how typical teenage behavior is caused by the growing and developing brain.

As scientists and educators try to understand adolescent behavior in terms of the underlying changes that are going on in their brains, they find that teen behavior is no accident. Grey matter in prefrontal cortex is still developing until people are in their early twenties. Therefore, “adolescent brain activity, the network of brain regions in the medial prefrontal cortex, causes teens to want to have more active social interactions.” However, “strong synapses are improving while weak synapses are pruned away” during this time of development. Teenagers’ brain and grey matter cause them to “feel self-conscious, make it hard for them to: control their impulses, make decisions, see other people’s perspectives, and prohibit them from saying something inappropriate—overall they are less self-aware.” All the while the “limbic system during this time is hypersensitive to the good feeling teens get from taking risks.”


It’s also important to understand the physical, social, and emotional factors students deal with directly from the students themselves. Survey results from students in my two English 10 Honors classes (periods 3 and 5) include the following.

All but 5% of the students (one was forbidden to) have an average of two hours per day of extracurricular activity (primarily athletics and the arts—none were job-related). The average amount of time students expected to spend doing homework per day was 30 minutes. However one student listed “unlimited,” while many others listed “none.” Many responses to survey questions included comments about students’ feeling they had too much homework. Students’ have busy lives, not to mention the five other courses with teachers who assign daily homework. I will look for ways to reduce what goes home, and try to maximize class time. As a student teacher, I understand the effects and demands of hours of homework every night. It’s important for teachers and students to have time to relax, be with family and friends, exercise, and rest. If nothing else, I can empathize and always seek to validate my reasoning for choosing homework.

Most students were concerned with “peer pressure,” “disinterest,” “self-esteem,” “bullying,” “bad choices,” the “future,” and “stress” from peers, fitting in, being LGBT, getting good grades (and having too much homework and activities), getting into college, and “becoming adults.” Students listed wanting to know more about leaders, other cultures, topics in English and literature, topics in art, music, entertainment, and the sciences. When asked where they wanted to travel, the countries were all over the world, including a wide array of reasons for choosing that form of travel. Many students were drawn to Europe, while others chose Africa and Asia. Students vacillated predominantly between understanding the culture of their predecessors and history or beauty of a location. 

It’s important to honor diverse cultures by providing multicultural examples, texts, examples, and topics. Students need help with navigating the invisible curriculum of school and society, at the same time they need help with the apparent curriculum included in my lessons, activities, and assessments.

 Learning environment


It’s my job and desire to build and maintain a positive and productive learning community. According to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, adolescents are the most “creative when their brains are malleable during their brain development.” Lesson designs and planning that incorporate the knowledge of the teenage brain help “connect learning to the developing brain and memory in the following ways: Repeat information, concepts, and themes in a variety of ways. Feed teen’s need for independence by giving them choice and autonomy. Help adolescents take safe risks with kinesthetic (physical) activities, active participation and experiences, in a positive community, authentic performance tasks that matter to them, are valued, and bring about change and awareness. Create social environments where teens thrive and are engaged by interacting well with peers in collaborative groups.”

From administrators and parents’ point-of-view of the learning environment as gathered by Project Tomorrow in the "Leveraging Intelligent Adaptive Learning to Personalize Education" report, “administrators (28%) are calling for an ‘individualized education plan’ for every student and “rank intelligent adaptive learning” as the opportunity for improving student achievement. Additionally, “administrators (67%) noted the use of digital content in the classroom increases student engagement in school and learning, and see (45%) digital content as a new pathway for personalized instruction.” It’s important that parents, students, and administrators agree. “Parents want technology solutions that provide individualized instruction—parents (57%) see online learning as a way for their child to work at his or her own pace.”

And from my surveys, students like the idea of adding more technology in the classroom; but they were not excited about having to use technology at home (as in a flipped classroom or to view something and respond as homework). Every student in both classes had regular access to at least one piece of technology. The most common was a computer with a close second being a cell phone.  I’ll use the information to inform my teaching by working with my district and school site to use Dream Box as part of our instruction. In addition, I’d like to have computers for all students in my classroom (or at least more access to the computer lab). I’ll have to work with Google, Apple, and other technology-granting agencies for help. Also, I’d like to use some type of digital games within instruction and include online and software games as part of my instructional toolkit. As I’m interested in including technology in my instruction, I’m happy to know that students all have technology at their fingertips. However, I need to strike a balance between how much technology-related instruction and activities I require of my students in and out of the classroom.

In addition to digital content, I'll use optimism, humor, and teach with multiple intelligences, include interesting anticipatory sets, make sure to include a purpose that is relevant to the students' lives, active working and long term memory, and informative and summative assessments. I'll make a connection to the social brain by having students use and practice the learning concepts together. My planning for learning is designed to access memory lanes and use what I know about how adolescents learn by teaching from a growth mindset--helping students become aware of their developing brains.


Regarding their interest in content, students listed a huge diversity of titles, mostly fiction. The books that were repeatedly mentioned the most frequently included both assigned and unassigned books, such as Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, the Bible, Hatchet, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Perks of Being a Wall Flower, Narnia, and 13 Reasons Why. Some more diverse selections include Lolita, The Picture of Dorian Gray, math books, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Crank. Of the 42 student responses in period 3, 13 students had a hard time choosing three books, and listed anywhere from zero to two books. Of the 38 responses in period 5, 15 students had a hard time choosing three books, and listed anywhere from zero to two books.

Regarding content-specific skills, about half of the students said they struggled with writing, while the other half said they struggled with reading. Interestingly, students tended to excel in either one or the other, not both. It’s important to remember that just because I love reading and writing, doesn’t mean that all of my students do. Students were excellent self-advocates mentioning that they need help with connection to the real world, differentiating instruction, having smaller class sizes, staying on topics longer, covering material thoroughly, and reducing homework. The most reoccurring requests and preferences had to do with writing and reading choice and autonomy. Most students preferred to write and read about what interested them more than sticking to the assigned topics and texts.

Students often responded concerning testing (of all kinds) and the pressure they feel from needing to succeed on the tests and exams in the classroom, for graduating (CAHSEE), and for getting into college (SAT, AP). These are very driven motivated students who mostly take their education to heart. I need to find a balance between helping students succeed on tests and exams and teaching to the test.

It’s helpful for me to remember and understand the pressure and stress involved with high-achieving students. Also, with the economic crisis and education cuts, the job market and education admissions are as competitive as ever. Students need as much advice and assistance as possible to help them understand and navigate life outside of high school. I can help them by being a model, providing relevant and authentic examples and sources, and including routines and structure that gives students autonomy, responsibility, and choice.

                Regarding student expectations, provided by Speak Up, students advocate for social justice and their own educations in a video directed at the newly elected President Obama and Congress in 2008 "what one thing they would do to improve schools to ensure that all students receive the education and skills they need to be successful in life."

What doesn’t surprise me is that students are articulate, intelligent, professional, logical, passionate, and creative about solutions like, "reduce teacher-student ratio, make education apply to the real-world, have more field trips and hands-on work, increase funding for tech advancements, purchase new textbooks each year, stop focusing on standardized testing, stop teaching to the test, provide each student a laptop, bring education outside of the school walls for a new, exploratory, and real-world perspective, have mandatory computer classes for student mastery, allow students to bring their own laptops if they have them, have teachers discuss industry and politics in the classroom, individualize instruction and test based on differences instead of similarities, make higher education more affordable, change school start time to later morning to work better with high school students’ natural rhythms, teach from a global and world perspective, hire passionate teachers, instead of no student left behind have no school or community left behind, teach real-world adult skills, give students autonomy and job-focused specialty courses, make school more like college, have students work in businesses during the school day, use technology to gain job skills in school, and treat school as job training.”

It’s my job to help lead the charge and to help students find a way to lead the charge, too. This information informs and supports my philosophy and practice of teaching by having students continue to consider their lives from a Postmodern viewpoint by discussing power systems (the government, school board, district, and voters) and oppression (students not building the skills they need to successfully compete in an evolving economy due to lack of technology and funding in old education models steeped the past) and use their creativity and knowledge to exert their own power of expression to get what they need in life. My postmodern philosophy supports Speak Up because I believe in the classroom being democratic, and offering a platform, such as this, for students’ to voice their different perspectives on issues that matter to them.
                Regarding expectations for myself, I have stereotypes and prejudices—even though I’d like to think I don’t. It’s impossible not to. In seeking to uncover my biases, I took the
Hidden Bias Test to “measure my unconscious or automatic biases.” It may not be possible to avoid the “automatic stereotype or prejudice,” but it is certainly possible to consciously try. I attempt to change my “hidden attitudes before they are expressed through behavior, such as language, body language, and to the stigmatization felt by target groups.” A change in my behavior can modify beliefs and attitudes. Over time, as I model appropriate behavior, I reduce the strength of my unconscious biases, as well as to notice and rectify the biases held by students, other teachers, and administrators in my schools. 

I work hard to subscribe to the Four Agreements in the classroom and life: to “do my best, don’t make assumptions, be a person of my word, and don’t take anything personal.”

I also have a dream for my students. I work to be encouraging and provide opportunities for students to take responsibility for their own learning and working responsibly with others. I yearn to have a literacy rich classroom, which includes meaningful debate where all students participate and connect the issues and stories to their lives. I see my students as being engaged in authentic, real-world projects that make a difference in their lives and their communities.  I want them to read their own writing published in real-world environments. My literacy rich classroom will have self-directed students reading, writing, speaking, listening and creating projects they care about seventy-five percent of the class time. I dream that my students are so engaged that they share their ideas and learning outside the classroom and with everyone they know. My students will choose how to present their knowledge in ways that reflect their learning styles, modalities, and interests. They are reading texts that provide them real-world and 21st century career and college knowledge, information, and ideas. They are writing materials that they have in their portfolios that help them get the jobs and college admissions they need to move into independence. They are discussing how they can take action in the classroom, outside of the classroom, in the school, in the community, and in the world that improves the social justice and equity for their generation and future generations. They are leaders.

Classroom Management

Theory and Practice
              A preventive, supportive, and corrective democratic classroom models our democratic country. The postmodern education philosophy informs my management and teaching style which is grounded in treating the learner as an independent thinker who deserves respect and autonomy. These approaches help the student bring out their inner motivation as they follow their path through education and into the world as thoughtful, community-based, and strong adults.

I establish clear expectations for academic and social behavior, setting classroom routines and procedures. The best prevention is an engaging, authentic lesson that applies to the real world and connects to students’ lives and their communities. Similar to the positive and balanced teaching strategies—such as Beyond Discipline, Discipline with Dignity, Inner Discipline, Synergetic Discipline, and Noncoercive Discipline—I seek a flexible, adaptable, and reflective process with the understanding that one method or strategy of classroom management rarely works for all of the students all of the time. When I involve students in the classroom management process, together we democratically examine and discuss power, creativity, aesthetics, and knowledge. Students offer their different perspectives on issues and I encourage them (and myself) to seek to understand different points of view.

Preventative measures help build community and keep the community together during times of conflict or change. “Classrooms with a sense of community are more likely to develop caring and responsible students” (Kohn, 1996). “At the first class meeting teacher and students must work out a class agreement for instruction, learning activities, and personal behavior” (Charles, 2000). This takes time, effort, choice, giving up power, and democracy. And, it’s far superior to the typical fear-based classroom procedure of pouring over pages of school and classroom rewards, consequences, escalating discipline, and polices that the students don’t necessarily buy into or care about.

Once a positive and student-centered environment is created in the classroom and between the students and teacher, moving to the corrective approach is only appropriate for extreme disciplinary measures. The way to engage students is to support them in solving their issues and challenges as a community and individually. “…students actively participate in decision making by expressing their opinions and working cooperatively toward solutions for the class.” (Glasser, 1985) When students think critically, weigh alternatives, and make choices about the issues important to their lives, they are empowered.

Even with the most involved community, sometimes the issue or problem is more serious and can involve concepts that need an adult input. Students need to be respected, but they are not adults. Sometimes they need protection and redirection. When a student disrupts the class say: “It looks like you have a problem. How can I help you solve it?” Tell the student that after the lesson you will sit down with him/her and help find a solution” (Glasser, 1985). It can be hard for people to see what the real issue is. On the surface a student may respond, “I need to stop talking,” but what is the real issue? Why are they talking? What is distracting them? Do they need to move somewhere else in the room to be more effective? Maybe they can’t see the projector. Or, maybe they are not an oral learner and they need notes and need corrective actions to bring about their success.

The postmodern education philosophy informs my management and teaching style which is grounded in treating the learner as an independent thinker who deserves respect and autonomy. I see the subject matter as the scaffold on which students build their knowledge and skills, set within the social and dynamic environment of the classroom where the learning process comes to life.


From Clinical Practice I, we built community at the beginning of the year and kept building throughout each lesson. Strong engaging curriculum is the best classroom management. We used seating charts to place students in appropriate places conducive to their learning and near others they partnered well with, in addition to taking special needs and English learning needs into consideration for proximity to the source of instruction. We fostered mutual respect and diversity of culture, values, goals, and ideas by having open, big idea discussions and addressing issues as they arose. We used a signal from the same place in the classroom, during discussion, to gain attention and bring students back to the discussion at transition points. When needed, we used progressive discipline plans of checking in with the student during class, discussing how we could help the student(s) just outside the classroom door during class, discussing what’s working and not working after class, contacting students’ parents, and we had to give one referral.

In Clinical Practice II, my co-teacher had already built community in the classroom from the first part of the year. I joined the classroom in January and work to build trust and relationships by greeting the students by name at the door every day, holding discussions regarding their perspectives, and providing a safe environment. We use seating charts to place students in appropriate places conducive to their learning and near others they partnered well with, in addition to taking special needs and English learning needs into consideration for proximity to the source of instruction. We use a signal of a bell from the front of the room, during discussion or before beginning an activity or lesson, to gain attention and bring students back to the discussion. When needed, we used progressive discipline plans of checking in with the student during class, having after-class and school discussions with the student(s), and contacting students’ parents. It helps create a calm atmosphere when what the students are expected to have on their desks and to be doing when the bell rings is projected on the board. It is also helps create a sense of organization and planning when the agendas and homework assignments for the week are posted on the board every day.

Meeting the Needs of all Students


As an educator, I’m committed to make academics accessible for all students: those with special needs, as well as students who are English learners, gifted students, and average and reluctant learners. My goal is to build the necessary relationships with every student, every parent, my fellow teachers, and the community to make positive changes in education, our community, and the world.

There should not be “one size fits all students or teachers" and to overcome that we’d need to “create a more individualized and flexible learning experience." If “education is more closely tailored to students’ individual interests, abilities, lifestyles, and learning styles” they’ll be more engaged (Budig, 2012).

One strategy for me to understand all students in my classes would be to listen to their story (and discuss with their parents) to find about their literacy experiences with language, development, and culture. I also work with my colleagues to understand the students’ history in education and our school. A strategy to help create an inclusive environment would be to have a shared school community and displaying all cultures, preferences, styles, cultures, abilities and disabilities within the school on the school campus, integrate multiculturalism, and talk about language development and literacy as part of the instruction and student activities.

Differentiation for a variety of students with a mix of preferences includes the following strategies. For students who prefer “extraversion, they are energized through action and interaction with others.” These students need to “talk and move to think;” too much “seatwork or listening to lectures drains their energy, and with it their ability to concentrate” (Kise, 2011). My teaching strategies for students include kinesthetic and performance-based activities, including role-play.

In contrast, people who prefer “introversion are energized by reflection and solitude.” “Too much activity or not enough wait time before they're expected to share their answers drains them of energy” (Kise, 2011). My teaching strategies for these types of students include individual, quiet, writing, and reading time and activities.

Another set of “Jungian preferences describes our starting point for gathering information.” People who prefer “sensing first pay attention to facts, reality, and past experiences.” These students rely on “instructions, examples, and hands-on tools or pictures to shape their understanding of mathematical concepts” (Kise, 2011). My strategies include modeling, rubrics, and examples.

In contrast, “intuitive students trust their hunches, making leaps to connect different ideas, and creating analogies.” They may need to learn strategies for testing their hunches or supporting their conclusions. They prefer “no repetition, the classroom and organization to be orderly, and for the scaffolding” to build from one thing to another (Kise, 2011). I can help them by letting them learn at their own pace with vocabulary and graphic organizers.


From my student survey, When asked to rate how they enjoy learning, the majority of 3rd period students rated working alone as their least enjoyable method, and small group work as their favorite method. While 5th period students rated working in pairs as their favorite, and lecture as their least favorite. When asked how they remember or learn material the best, 3rd period ranked themselves as visual learners while the least number of students used logic, reason, and math to learn. Fifth period identified themselves as predominately kinesthetic learners, and had the least amount of musical/rhythmic learners.

When I provide a variety of instructional styles it helps keep the class vibrant and alive. Not to mention, variety allows all students to succeed when they each have a chance to learn, think, and provide evidence that supports their preferences and showcases their strengths. As I’m multimodal with a tendency towards visual and verbal learning, I have to stretch outside of my comfort zone and include a variety of kinesthetic, math, logic, reason, musical, rhythmic, interpersonal and intrapersonal activities and methods of instruction to reach all of my students—not just the ones who have my same learning style.

Accurate assessment, in relation to English learners and special needs students, includes considering the level of teacher support and student responsibility with a gradual release of support by using SDAIE strategies along the way, leading towards student independence.


Through my understanding of the development and learning needs of adolescents in the classroom in relation to the physical, social, and emotional factors that adolescents deal with, their learning environment, the expectations, classroom management techniques, and how to meet the needs of all students based on my experiences and education theory, I’m one step closer to teaching the whole student and preparing them to excel in our vastly changing world.


Budig, G., and Heaps, A.  (2012) “Students and Teachers Talk about School Reform and Student Engagement.” College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.  Source:

Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne. (September 2012).“The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain” Ted Talk, source:

Charles, C.M. (2000). Synergetic Discipline. Pearson.

Glasser, W. (1985). Noncoercive Discipline. New York: Perennial Library.

Kise, J. (summer 2011)Let Me Learn it My Way!Educational Leadership (online edition). Source:

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond Discipline. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Pink, Daniel interview regarding A Whole New Mind. Source:

Project Tomorrow, "Leveraging Intelligent Adaptive Learning to Personalize Education.” Source:

Project Tomorrow, Speak Up videos source:

Ruiz, D.  (1997). The Four Agreement. Amber-Allen Publishing.

Teaching Tolerance, Hidden Bias Test source:

What I Know and What I Believe About the Development and Learning Needs of Adolescents


Have a peer rate a draft of your paper. After you have made revisions, rate yourself and provide an explanation for your ratings using the following rubric. Hand this in with your paper.




Minimal information, no or inadequate citations

Sufficient information, few or no examples

Sufficient information, examples and citations support the writer’s claims

Excellent information, examples and citations reinforce and strengthen the writer’s statements and opinions

Opening grabs the reader’s attention.





Physical, social, and emotional factors





Learning environment











Classroom Management





Meeting the Needs of all Students





 Peer Review Comments:  Dawn, nice job on your philosophy paper.  As usual, you were very thoughtful about your analysis and thorough in that you included all of the required elements.  I liked how you separated each section with theory and practice.  You connected a lot of the theory described in your essay with your experiences in the classroom.  I also liked how you linked each author cited to the original article.  You may still want to list the references APA style at the end of the essay because we will hand in a hard copy with the rubric.  In the classroom management section, the authors you cite are not linked.  I highlighted them in pink.  You may also want to add some classroom management experiences you had during CPI and CPII.  The Kise link in the “meeting the needs of all students” section, does not work.  You may also want to include some words about English learners and SDAIE strategies for differentiation.  Overall, very nice job.  - Martha

 Writer’s Comments: It was interesting and helpful for me to go back and reflect on all the work I’d done during both Clinical Practice I and II to create my philosophy paper. I feel as if I could say so much more. I found it challenging to cut the amount of work and information down to just ten pages. All of the theorists, coursework, direct experience, and reflection provide me with a rich background to draw from.  I appreciate having the theory to build towards, and the practice to build on. Martha’s comments and my own review and revision of my first draft helped me focus in on areas that needed a bit more clarity.