Teaching Teenagers

Teenagers are a special sort of client. So special in fact, that my coaching book devotes a whole section about how to teach teenagers. Whilst I don’t envy secondary school teachers having to teach a whole classroom of hormonal adolescents, I do feel I have the advantage of teaching teenagers who want to be there. And want to learn to ride. That’s got to be better than trying to teach them maths! 

Recently my geek of a husband told me a fascinating fact in that during puberty the brain undergoes huge neurological changes, similar to that of a toddler. Without listening to the whole audio book by David Eagleman (look it up, it’s really interesting), basically during puberty the prefrontal cortex changes beyond recognition which means that teenagers are more affected by social situations and show exaggerated stress responses. There’s also something about them being more inclined to take risks and “live for the moment” but as I’m getting out of my depth I’ll leave it to you to do more reading on it.

For me, the important thing I took away from hearing this is that teenagers can’t physically help their erratic behaviour or highly charged responses, and actually need a very supportive environment in order to thrive. 

Which means we need to make sure teenagers aren’t embarrassed, or made to feel socially awkward or inferior. And we should be aware that adolescents should encompass ten year olds as well as twenty five year olds, because research has shown that the brain is changing rapidly between these ages. 

I teach a few teenagers, and like I said earlier, I have the advantage of being able to develop a rapport and strong mentoring relationship with my clients who want to be there, and want to learn, as opposed to being made to be there by law.

I’ve never been one to talk down to children anyway – I’d be one of those parents who has a serious conversation about the political conundrum with their toddler – but with teenagers I think it’s even more important to treat them as adults. After all, they’re developing their own opinions and views, so if we never teach them how to discuss and negotiate then they’ll never learn to rationalise or value others’ opinions.

So when I teach the teenagers, I speak to them like adults. I explain a concept, and ask them about their understanding or opinions, as equals. If they give a wrong answer, I just elaborate and subtly correct them, as opposed to shutting them down. If they have a different suggestion to me as to what exercise or approach will help their horse, and it’s safe to try it then I’ll let them. If it goes wrong then they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson. And I’d much rather they tried it under my supervision than on their own. They can then make the decision themselves to reject their idea as a good one, and to embrace my suggestion. I also like to give them bits of homework, so that they’re taking responsibility for their own development, and I’ll tell them directly what they need to work on. That also helps them feel valued and respected. 

Even when talking to their parents about future lessons, and their progress, I always try to include them so that they feel valued and involved in their own development. After all, you need them to be on your side and making them feel important is a good way of creating a rapport. I enjoy seeing them come out of their shells as I get to know them and they get to know me. One girl I’ve been teaching for a couple of years started off quiet and said very little, but now she gives more input to lessons, starts off conversation when I arrive, and is generally more comfortable with herself. She’s really coming out of her shell and becoming a young lady.

Because adolescents are still developing, they have that balance between maturity and immaturity. The ability to cope with every day stressors and the ability to rationally respond, varies enormously. So when planning lessons for teenagers I find I often have to have a couple of options up my sleeve: so I can adjust the lesson to today’s emotions. If they overreact to a silly thing while tacking up, I know they need a fairly simple, straightforward lesson. But if they come across as being very mature today as they warm up, I will challenge them more and perhaps give them a new concept or exercise to process. 

Also with teenagers, it’s important to take into account the rest of their lives. Is it exam week in school? Have they just been on a Duke of Edinburgh weekend? Are the likely to be physically or mentally tired? I usually ask them a couple of questions about their week, and I like parents to give me the heads up during exam period, so I can adjust my teaching to get the best out of my rider on that day. 

Teenagers have a lot of emotional baggage too; falling out with friends, body image worries, boy/girlfriends, the lot. They aren’t going to tell me all their worries. Occasionally I get let into secrets, but I try to create a lesson environment where they can forget about the rest of life. I don’t usually ask about personal things, unless they’re visibly upset; I just gauge their mood by their behaviour and start a light hearted conversation about their horse or dog or whatever they’re interested in to distract them from their worries. Once they let go of those then they are more relaxed and open to learning, so the lesson will go more smoothly.

Everyone knows that teenagers clash with their parents, which can create problems within the learning environment. One mother will go and busy herself on the yard if her son is a bit fraught at the beginning of the lesson, and then she’ll watch the lesson through a hole in the stable wall. We usually then have a far more successful lesson because my rider doesn’t feel that there is any interference and focuses better. So yes parents need to be supportive, but also to know when to remove themselves from the equation and let their teen feel more independent and responsible for their own riding, whether it’s in lessons or not. 

It can be tricky to plan ahead with teenagers; you have to be flexible and fluid with lesson plans so you can get the best work out of them on that day. Then they’ll appreciate their riding time, want to work hard at it, not resent having lessons, and generally become easier to teach. As well as hopefully learning to leave the bad moods at home!

Teaching teenagers can be really rewarding as they can be fun, and up for a challenge. But they can be testing; for example when they’re grumpy and give mono-syllabic answers. But then all of a sudden you get that feeling of satisfaction when you’ve got through to them and they’ve forgotten their woes, and have a smile on their face again. It definitely keeps me on my toes!

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