A while back, I wrote a blog post about the transitions that middle school students face (not just in terms of their learning environments, but their actual brain chemistry), and I promised two follow-up pieces on high school and college students. Well, that time has come! Let’s dive into the mystery that is the high school brain! I want to stress that what I’m about to present here is not universal; there will certainly be exceptions. Some youth just don’t mature as quickly, while some are light-years ahead (and yeah, let’s just get this one out of the way: girls mature more quickly, but that topic could get its own blog post). Again, this doesn’t say much about individuals; it identifies larger trends. Let’s continue on into the changes high school students face…
1) Empathy becomes more normal
Going beyond simply feeling sorry for someone, empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s situation and imagine how they must feel. I don’t want to imply that middle school youth are incapable of feeling empathy, but for them, it is a learned behavior and not quite the norm yet. For the majority of people, high school is really the time that this transition occurs and people start learning to see themselves in others’ shoes on a regular basis. With high school youth, we don’t have to spend as much time telling them to consider the opinions of others because, by this point in their development, that is usually part of their thought process already.
The tricky part of this is that, while the overarching trend is to cultivate empathy around this age, there are still many youth who will struggle with this all the way through high school and into their adult lives. I believe that this empathy gap is at the root of most social conflict, but it’s also closely tied to…
I often tell our volunteers that, regardless of their political views, every high school student is a conservative. I’m using the word “conservative” in the broader sense of someone who sees the advantages of his or her current or past environment and resists changing it. Around this age, students have just enough experience under their belts that they can start romanticizing the past. Stop for a minute and think back to every graduation ceremony you’ve ever attended: have you ever been to an 8th grade graduation that featured photo slideshows and students crying to Green Day’s “Time of Your Life”? Probably not. That’s really more of a high school thing. Why? Because middle school students haven’t developed that ability to remember the past as better than it really was; high school students have, and technology has intensified this.
As a meeting ground for people with common interests, the internet has contributed to this sense of nostalgia immensely. Many of my guys at the LOFT have a fixation on old video games and cartoons that they didn’t actually grow up with. Why? They learned about them on the internet, and that sense of nostalgia is incredibly popular online. Most social media networks even observe a phenomenon called “Throwback Thursday” (abbreviated “#tbt”) in which it’s customary to post old photos of yourself or friends, and high school students are just at the age where those old photos are readily accessible. In general, the trend we see online is that everything was better “back in my day”, and high school students are just starting to formulate what “their day” was.
While this nostalgia can be endearing, it can also be problematic when trying to introduce change into a high school student’s life. Because they have just started to develop an idealized view of the past, they are often hesitant to accept changes to it. Of course, given that most of these youth will be graduating high school and heading off to completely different social and academic venues in their immediate futures, can you really blame them for a little hesitancy toward change?
Ask a group of typical middle school students to select between two events –let’s say a concert and a football game–, and they will panic a little or dodge the question or have a parent make the decision for them. Ask a high school student, and they will quickly weigh the benefits of each and give an answer (possibly adding in an apology for their choice since they’ve learned empathy). This is because high school students are acquiring a new skill: prioritizing. High school students face an endless buffet of academic and extracurricular opportunities, and the added mobility of a driver’s license increases their options that much more. This is the time in life when youth start to learn how to choose between activities or face burnout, and the added independence of this age makes prioritizing that much more their responsibility rather than a parent’s. Our high school students at the LOFT are some of the busiest I’ve ever interacted with, but they are still learning how to judge and prioritize their many activities in a way that middle school students simply can’t yet.
Not to play the “back in my day” card addressed in the previous point, but I can’t help noticing how this transition now takes place earlier in life. I distinctly remember one of my college professors revealing to me that he intentionally assigned more work than we could handle; his goal was to teach us how to prioritize, and this was a revolutionary approach to me. For many of our students at the LOFT (particularly those in AP and IB programs), this style of teaching is already in effect. With this in mind, you learn to show a little grace when youth have a harder time committing to church functions– they have to choose between a lot of other activities, some of which will affect their grades or even college acceptance.
4) Extreme physical awareness
If middle school students are just discovering their bodies, then high school students are all too aware of them. For many students, awareness and insecurity about the body may start in middle school, but they are amplified in high school. With the possible exception of college, at no other point in life will our youth be so surrounded with people their own age, and the inevitable result is increased competition and comparison. With such a high concentration of teens in one space, it becomes difficult for a youth to process what the “average” teenager should look like. Mix in the photoshop-laden magazines marketed at teens –not to mention the adult-geared magazines that they’re really reading– along with the fact that these youth are still in the pimply throes of puberty, and you’re looking at a full-scale crisis of physical insecurity.
It’s for this reason that we try to have regular conversations about body image, self-esteem, and value at the LOFT. Our youth are bombarded with false images of “perfection” day in and day out while their confidence in their physicality hasn’t completely taken hold yet, so part of our duty as Christian adults is just to reassure them: the images on TV and magazine covers and the internet are not the norm, and you should never forget that you are God’s workmanship. It may sound a little cheesy, but this is a reminder our youth need.
I could go on for quite a while about all the changes that take place in high school, but this is a fairly good jumping off point into a much deeper conversation. Over all, let me encourage anyone reading this to treat teens in high school with an extra measure of patience. Approach this group ready to listen because, with the stresses they are facing and overcoming on a daily basis, they have some stories to tell. Currently, we have some awesome volunteers in place who have committed to working alongside and nurturing this age group, but we can always use more. If you’re interested in getting to know our high school youth and working with them in a volunteer capacity, let’s talk more!
Grace and Peace,