Difficult Teenagers: How to Motivate & Understand Them

September 30th, 2011

Guest Article by Dee Mason

‘I don’t know what to do with this kid. He’s got to go!’ This was my introduction to Matthew, a difficult teenager who was driving his teachers mad. No one could cope with him and almost all of his teacher/pupil relationships had broken down. When he wasn’t chatting he was distracted. His lies were works of art. He was likeable, with blonde spiky hair and vivid blue eyes, full of intelligence and guile. He seemed more mature than the other seventeen year olds. He didn’t have an agenda; he just tried to get through every day by lying, ducking and diving, doing the minimum to stay on the course and the maximum to fuel his enjoyment of life.

My Job
My job at that time was to take on the most difficult teenagers in the college, befriend them, and help them be successful. I knew it would be a challenge, and I was up for it. I came to see that these students were Mavericks and they respond well to slightly maverick solutions!

My Room, My Rules
I had very, very few rules.
Rule One: No Sniffing
I provided tissues. “Arrrrgh….I can’t stand it!” I’d say, handing them the box. This was a) true but b) I came to understand that it was also an act of ‘mothering’ that the teens didn’t mind at all. I realized that teenagers are still very much living with one foot in their childhood. The ones that were failing just needed a little more time to move on. I brought in bags of sweets often. They loved to feel they were special and a little bit spoiled. After all, everyone else in the school was shouting at them. These small acts of mothering seemed to give them a feeling of security and helped build trust.

Rule Two: Right! Work now!
I always let my growing band of outlaws chat away about their issues for a while. We talked about boyfriends, and parent’s divorces, and peer bullying. But there was always a moment in their hour and a half session time when I would say ‘Ok, time for work! Half an hour. Go!’ Because they had been able to talk and relax they never seemed to mind. After half and hour (or longer if they were happy to continue) we broke and chatted again. It worked well, and slowly their grades crept up.

Rule Three: Working In Silence

This was really important. Kids seem to be bombarded with noise all the time. I failed to see how it could help easily distracted teenagers in this crucial period of their education. I did not allow iPods. I wanted concentration. Peace. Silence. It worked like a charm. It was such a novelty to these children to spend half an hour with their own thoughts. “I got more done in the last hour than I did in the whole of last week!” Often they came from chaotic homes where they were forced to do homework in the corner of a living room surrounded by piles of baby clothes and magazines, with TV and younger siblings all vying for their attention. I truly believe that experiencing silence and focused concentration showed them something they did not know they were capable of, thinking.

Rule Four: Organization

When a student was referred to me I would always ask them ‘What do you want to do? What is it you really want to happen?” Often it was a simple wish to be able to finish their studies and get a job, or go to University. It was a sincere wish. Kids don’t turn up to school day after day to experience failure and feel anxious. Why would they? They keep coming back because they want to succeed. We looked at their messy notes and put them in order. We got a list of targets to work towards. We made lists and ticked thing off. I stuck a long sheet of paper on my wall, showing the weeks till exam time, with a movable Monty Python-style ‘Finger Of Doom’ which crept along the line, week by week, as a visual reminder.

Why Did It Work?

It worked because it was theirs. They felt part of a gang, one that defied everyone’s expectations. The gang that had their own place in the school. They were respected by me, and respected me in turn. They trusted me, because they knew I cared. One of the greatest tensions when working with children is the extent to which you show them, and admit how much you genuinely care for them. I was never afraid to own those feelings. They knew it. And because they knew I’d go the extra mile for them, they went the extra mile for me.
And Matt, the boy they were about to exclude from college? I asked him “What’s it like being you?”, and it all tumbled out. I decided that he needed an immediate assessment for ADHD. He was off the scale. No-one had picked it up in 17 years. Listening to what children say is the very first step in helping them. Not many people really listen to children, even ones whose job it is.
We worked with it, and around it. With a huge amount of patience and a lot of laughs we made it. He got his exams and went to University. No expulsion. His last email to me said, “If I could share it with you I would”. That last smile he gave me was reward enough.

Dee Mason is a freelance writer and proud parent of two. She specializes in the arts and travel, and writes on behalf of Adams Kids in the U.K

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply