Challenging our beliefs – how we can learn from young people

Alan White New

Alan White

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are” – Stephen Covey.

Young people often challenge parents and teachers. Sometimes it feels as though young people are purposely trying to drive us over the edge, constantly doing and saying things that go against our values. At times, this can be frustrating and stressful, but I have recently learned that it can also become a point of growth, for both the adult and the young person.

Young people are trying to find their way in a world that is becoming more and more pressurised for them and as a consequence, self-esteem can be quickly eroded if they don’t live up to social and educational expectations.

We, as parents and teachers, need to become aware of this and realise that when we encounter challenging behaviour from a young person, it is an opportunity to step back, look at things from their perspective and support and encourage them. A teenager that feels listened to and supported will develop a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing.

I was recently challenged in an unexpected way by a student I have known since he was in first year. Now in sixth year and facing into the leaving cert, this student came to me and told me he was leaving school. Shocked at this news, I asked why and his response was that, he didn’t see the point of the leaving cert and he had made up his mind to quit.

My initial reaction was instinctive as I immediately pointed out how important the Leaving cert is and that he is already half way through his final year. Having heard all this on many occasions before, my advice did not go down well and the conversation ended there. I was left feeling anxious about his decision and quickly realised that I might have missed an opportunity.

When I thought about this, I realised that I was only seeing this student and their wish to leave school through my perspective. Our perspectives or how we see the world, is made up of all the experiences and learning we have accumulated over our lives. Therefore, as a teacher who values education so highly, I began to understand why I may not have been able to meet this student on their terms or view through their perspective. I decided to try to suspend my own judgements and try to have another conversation with this student.

The next time we had the opportunity to talk rather than advise, I asked the student why they wanted to leave school. The student couldn’t give me a clear answer but I could clearly see that school wasn’t a place where this student experience much success. We chatted for some time and to be honest I didn’t know what to say that could help. After a while, I asked, “What do you see yourself doing next year?” The student answered that he didn’t have any idea and it suddenly began to make sense as to why he wanted to quit.

By simply acknowledging the difficulties they were having in school, the student felt heard. By suspending my own negative judgements on the issue, the student felt that they could explore why they were so frustrated. By not having any idea as to what he wanted to do next, the student couldn’t see the point in working towards the leaving cert. From their perspective the decision to leave actually made some sense.

What I learned from this experience is that, if we want to challenge someone else’s perspective to help them make a positive change in their life, we have to first examine our own.

The good news is that the student has decided to stay in school. I met his parents and we agreed not to put much pressure on but to just support and encourage the student. The change in attitude towards learning has been amazing. It may not be the most enjoyable few months coming up, but we have agreed to keep chatting about options for the future and while he is figuring out what’s next. All that is expected of him from his parents and teachers is that he does his best, whatever that might be.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

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