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Volume 23, Number 1
January/February 2007

Educators as “Applied Developmentalists”

An interview with Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis


The authors of Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators (Harvard Education Press, 2006) discuss the roles educators can play in fostering young people’s growth and development.

What does it mean to understand youth developmentally?

We often talk about adolescents as having “raging hormones” or emphasize their rebelliousness. Assumptions like these reduce adolescents to a stereotype. To understand youth developmentally, it is important for educators to resist the pathologizing “Teens these days!” rhetoric, and instead look and listen for opportunities to participate in their growth. By becoming familiar with underlying patterns of adolescent development, we can deepen our ability to read youth’s actions and expressions and respond to their needs.

In our book we use case studies to show how teachers and counselors can use their understanding of adolescent development to ask generative questions about identity and meaning, and to give specific assignments that help youth negotiate their relationships with peers and adults. The beauty of this is that it’s a two-way street: As we help students in their development, they help us develop as educators. Developmental understanding is really as much about our own development as it is about youth’s.

You describe educators as “applied developmentalists.” How is this different from the way most of us usually see ourselves? What does it require of us?

By “educators,” we mean not only teachers but counselors, social workers, psychologists, administrators, mentors, and parents. All of these roles focus on teaching and learning. For teachers, seeing ourselves as applied developmentalists means promoting development beyond the prescribed curriculum. Over the years, we’ve heard students talk about teachers who treat them like “real people,” who care about more than just grades and homework. This can have a powerful effect on motivation. In one of the cases described in our book, a student named Antwon announces that he is not going to do “the teacher’s work” because he feels disrespected by her. Even when students know that they, and not the teacher, will pay the price in the long run, they still hold their ground. It’s often a matter of dignity and authenticity for them. Personal success is not worth “selling out” to a teacher they perceive as being disrespectful.

As applied developmentalists, it’s our job to understand the value of the teacher-student bond and find ways to strengthen it. This doesn’t mean compromising academic goals in order to nurture kids. It’s the opposite: this is the best way to push our students to the edge of their capacities, particularly the students who struggle most to find school meaningful. In another case, a counselor goes to bat for a student, Lorena, who is bored and getting into fights after school. Believing in the student’s untapped leadership and athletic skills, the counselor negotiates a compromise in which the school drops an expulsion threat in exchange for Lorena’s promise to participate in an after-school rowing program. Lorena’s grades get better as her self-concept grows from mastering skills in rowing—and from being around college students who inspire her to work harder in preparation for college.

There are many ways educators can work with students to build on their strengths, even with all the pressures to focus solely on content and tests. In fact, these pressures only argue for more emphasis on this kind of relationship building.

Many of the issues young people are exploring are very personal—family relationships, sexuality, racial identity, questions about values and faith. These are awfully sensitive issues for both adults and young people. Isn't it safer to leave them at the classroom door?

The truth is, students never leave those things at the classroom door, nor do educators. They are sensitive issues precisely because they are so critical to who we are. As we say in the book, “Our work in schools is identity work.” Our family upbringing, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, and faith perspectives are so fundamental to who we are and how we represent ourselves to others—for youth just as much as for adults. What better way to make schools relevant and engaging than to incorporate these kinds of issues into the way we teach, counsel, and administer? If we only pick “neutral” or “safe” issues to teach in our schools, are we really preparing youth for adulthood?

Excising crucial developmental issues from education is a sure-fire way to make things boring for students and routine for educators. Our students know what they want to talk about and it can be frustrating and demoralizing not to have a safe space for these important conversations. In our experience, adolescents are quick to name the favorite educators with whom they can “get real” about the meanings they are discovering in their lives, as contentious and complicated as they may be. Youth are drawn to such people not because they avoid sensitive issues but because they are sensitive enough to address them, thereby providing opportunities for growth. These are usually educators who take risks along with their students, like being honest when things aren’t going well in the hope of clearing up misunderstandings, or by honestly assessing a student’s strengths and weaknesses in order to provoke a positive change.

How can a developmental perspective change the way we deal with adolescent risk taking?

When we talk about risk taking, let’s be careful to distinguish it from being “at risk.” Risk taking is a means of exploration; it’s a means of pushing ourselves beyond our comfort levels. Unfortunately, risk taking can place adolescents at risk for devastating experiences—addiction, car accidents, violence. Risk-taking and experimentation are part of what makes adolescents tick. Developmentally, it is the way they find out who they are in relation to their peers and the world and organize themselves for future pursuits.

As educators, we have a unique opportunity to channel adolescents’ urge to challenge themselves. We can create classroom environments that support creative expression and provide spaces for students to create, to experience intensely, to perform. Showing our passion for the subject we teach is one way to model and connect. Role-playing activities, debates, problem-posing assignments and performance-based assessments are other ways to provide outlets for a teen’s natural desire to experiment and “try on” different selves. The fewer such options our students have in school, the more likely it is that they will indulge their risk-taking proclivities elsewhere. Students need adults to be allies in this critical time of identity-building. Educators can be what’s being called “natural mentors” in this process.

What are some of the most common mistakes teachers and administrators make in dealing with young people?

Working with teenagers can sometimes be disconcerting, to put it mildly. When they challenge us or resist our attempts to educate them, we can feel vulnerable. Sometimes we compensate for this vulnerability by trying too hard to control them. But adolescents rarely respond well to excessive control. In schools where bell schedules, standardized tests, and detentions loom larger in students’ lives than connection, inquiry, dialogue, and challenge, developmental opportunities are being lost. Sure, structure and order provide safety and predictability in schools, but if educators make them the ends instead of the means, youth invariably learn to seek growth opportunities outside of and frequently contrary to school.

Just like adults who complain that we don’t have enough freedom or creativity in our jobs, adolescents want negotiable relationships and spaces in which they are encouraged to experiment and recognized as capable. They want to work with people who can respond to their cultural distinctiveness, push them to the edge of their capacities, and provide options. As some of our case studies show, when someone breaks a rule or gets in trouble, educators can play a critical role by trying to get to the root of the problem, be it a peer issue or test anxiety, instead of focusing on the infraction only.

By listening developmentally instead of judgmentally, educators can help facilitate a process for students to get back on track—and earn the students’ respect along the way. If there is a common mistake educators make in working with adolescents, it is that we forget that the meaning they are making of their lives is theirs, and the best way to participate in developing it may look less like control and more like getting out of the way.

If you could make one change in the way high school teachers and staff relate to their students, what would it be?

More listening, less talking, with an emphasis on possibilities rather than problems.

Michael J. Nakkula is a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he has taught courses on counseling, urban education, and adolescent development over the past fourteen years. Eric Toshalis is an instructor in education and an advanced doctoral candidate in Learning and Teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.