I have had many influential teachers, but there are a few who stand out from the rest. The standouts were extremely supportive, took time to encourage and build on my strengths, and served as role model adults who treated people with kindness and respect. They not only taught me algebra and Shakespeare, then helped fuel a desire in me to learn, persevere, and not give up despite a few stumbles along the way.
Teens and preteens spend most of their waking hours at school, so it makes perfect sense that teachers can play a major role in influencing teen behavior. Research shows that other adults, specifically parents, who communicate with teens and have positive relationships with them are less likely to have teens who abuse drugs, have sex at a young age, or have poor self-esteem. We also know that positive adult mentors in a teen’s life have a positive influence on behavior. Dr. Carolyn McCarty from the Children’s Research Institute published a study recently that has provided evidence behind this great concept that supportive teachers yield positive students. Thankfully, it is getting media attention.
Dr. McCarty found that middle school students who felt more supported by their teachers were less likely to use alcohol or other illicit substances. This may seem obvious, but there is very little research on this topic up until now. Now the question I have is this: Is the opposite true? If a teen is struggling and feels unsupported in the classroom, does their self esteem suffer? Are they more likely to use drugs? My intuition (and experience from working with lots of teens), says this could indeed be the case, but more studies are needed to support both this idea.
So, what can parents take away from this new study? I can think of quite a few things…
Listen to your teen. Most teens will actively complain about staff or a teacher at school if they feel things are unfair. They will also describe classes that they thoroughly enjoy. When your teen is picking their course schedule, ask about putting them in classes with teachers they have liked in the past.
Ask you teens about school work and the support they receive at school. If your teen grade, ask what help is available in the classroom. This will give you an idea of how supportive the teacher is.
Go to parent teacher conferences. Get to know your teen’s teachers, their teaching style, and expectations.
Be an advocate at your child’s school. If your child seems to be having learning difficulties, go to the school administrators and ask for testings. Know what options are available that can help teachers give a little extra attention to you child (like a 504 plan or individualized education program).
If your teen is feeling unsupported, be aware of signs of depression and/or substance use including dropping grades, social withdrawal from friends, irritability, changes in sleep and appetite. If you are concerned, consult your teen’s doctor or primary care provider for an assessment.