Helping Adolescents Know What They Want and How to Get It

Ann Larson Ericson

by Ann Larson Ericson

For Middle Level

When my children were very young and were going through particularly challenging phases, my mom would say to me, “When they act the least lovable is when they need your love the most.” These were words of wisdom from a wise woman who helps me navigate parenting challenges—and how true those words are for teaching adolescents, as well!

I was reminded of Mom’s words after a particularly trying week with a ninth grader. Nothing was going right for Tony in class. He argued with me about everything. He complained that things were too easy, too hard, or too boring. He rolled his eyes and started side conversations. I did sweat the small stuff with Tony every day, as Developmental Designs philosophy advocates, but he needed something more to bring about a change in his attitude and behavior. 

As I reflected on Tony’s behavior, I thought about my reaction to him. He wasn’t acting very lovable, and I was finding it hard to connect with him. I thought about my mom’s words and realized his actions were telling me he wasn’t getting what he needed in my classroom.

A toddler may throw a tantrum because she doesn’t have the words to say what she wants; adolescents may act out for the same reason. They know they aren’t getting what they want, but they may lack the ability to identify and verbalize the need. 

The Developmental Designs approach identifies four primary needs of all adolescents: relationship, autonomy, competence, and fun. I suspected Tony wasn’t having his needs met and was acting out in frustration because of that.

Did he have friends in class?

Did he feel like he had autonomy?

Was he feeling overwhelmed by the curriculum?

Was he having any fun?

I thought about times when he was most negative and argumentative, and I started to notice some patterns. Tony did better when he had choices about what to do and whom to work with—autonomy and relationships. If I could build in more choice for him, maybe I would see some positive changes. 

It’s working. Gradually, Tony’s attitude and behavior are improving. Things aren’t perfect, and there are days when he slips into his old ways, but things are better. I’ve made a point of having conversations with Tony about his need for autonomy and relationships, and that has been empowering for him. Naming his behaviors and his needs, we’re able to address them openly and positively.

Most adolescents won’t say, “Perhaps if my need for autonomy were met more often, I’d be more engaged in your class,” but their behavior gives the message.

It’s our job to decode the messages and to work with them to meet their needs appropriately. It takes work and reflection to help adolescents name their needs, but it helps them grow into successful adults.

Develop your own habit of reflection.

Ann Larson Ericson has been using the Developmental Designs approach in her classroom for more than eight years. She teaches high school chemistry and physical science at Community of Peace Academy, a public charter school on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Posted April 2014

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