"As adolescents move through middle school and high school, some adults expect them to automatically make mature decisions, as if these external events [puberty] magically grant adolescents adult-like thinking skills.  This is a recipe for future conflict; adults become disappointed and teenagers feel misunderstood..."  To read more on the article by Terence & Eileen Houlihan, please click here

Terence Houlihan speaking to high school teachers in Akron, OH, 2013.


The S-I-M-P-L-E Classroom

by Terence J. Houlihan

Teaching isn't easy.  If it was, more people would do it. And now that spring is here, keeping a classroom of 12 year-olds interested might be even more challenging.

If you find yourself in need of a change in the classroom or if you're struggling with managing a particular class, keeping it SIMPLE might be the way to go.

Teaching adolescents is very different than teaching elementary-aged children, or even adults for that matter.  Adolescents require a specific type of engagement that is unique to them.  Using the components of the SIMPLE classroom will help keep you connected to your students and your students connected to you and your lesson.

S is for safe and supportive.  The neuroscientist-turned-educator, Judy Willis, identifies the limbic system as a sort of gate keeper to the prefrontal cortex.  What she means by this is that the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for the synthesis of information, and because the limbic system is the emotional center of the brain, it sort of permits information to pass through to the higher-order area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.  When students feel safe by walking into a classroom where they know what to expect and that it’s okay to make mistakes and offer guesses, the chances for the material being processed in the more advanced area of the brain increases.

I is for intellectually stimulating.  In 2013, a Gallup poll of 500,000 US students between 5th and 12th grade revealed that 80% of 5th graders felt engaged in school.  By 9th grade, that dropped in half to 40% and by 11th grade, only 30% felt engaged.  What’s even more interesting is that the brain scans of “bored” teenagers look a lot like teenagers who are “stressed.”  Because teenagers are coming into a time of more autonomy, they enjoy debating topics relevant to them.  A colleague of mine - while reading "Catcher in the Rye" - assigns her students to interview school counselors and administrators about the supports that are available to students like Holden Caulfield, while also researching community supports such as hospitals and therapists.

M is for metacognitive skills.  While researchers might argue about the age during childhood at which these develop, the consensus is that adolescence is the time when these skills are growing and being fine-tuned. In addition to the content of the lesson, if teachers can incorporate metacognitive skills, students are more likely to retain the material.   There are a number of metacognitive strategies to employ like peer-to-peer teaching, self-assessments, formative quizzes, rough drafts, exam corrections, student-generated concept maps and identifying the intention behind assignments. 

P is for personal connection.  This is twofold in that students need to feel connected to the material and by whom the material is being taught.  John Maxwell says it well, “Students don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we should follow our students on Instagram and like their posts.  If we take the time to get to know them and their world, they will feel like we care, and we can also then figure out ways to connect the material to their lives.

L is for lose the lecture.  With all the group work, project-based learning, experiential activities and nontraditional assessments teachers offer, the lecture can feel, at times, safe and familiar.  Let’s face it – our most recent experiences in school were graduate class lectures and we may draw on that experience.  But we were at least in our mid-twenties and were motivated to be there because we needed the degree for our license or a bump in pay. Teenagers are a bit different.  Glenda Crawford sums it up well: “The traditional classroom where adolescents sit (and listen) passively and memorize discrete, minimally relevant information is not an environment that primes cognitive development.”

E is for emotional engagement.  If you know anything about addiction, you’ve probably heard about dopamine’s role.  In the same vein, dopamine plays a role in learning and motivation.  So, it would make sense that teachers would want to create an environment where dopamine levels are high.  There's a variety of ways to naturally increase dopamine and here are just a few: humor/laughter, music, movement, guessing, games and offering choices.

You don’t need to reinvent your classroom or become a stand-up comic. Just employing different tactics might yield a different, more desirable result.  So, why not try to fist-bump your students tomorrow morning as they make their way into your classroom.


"When teens feel like you "get" them, you've "got" them" -Terence Houlihan

-By Terence J. Houlihan

In my conversations with parents of teenagers over the years, I've heard a common (and real) concern: "I feel like I'm losing my daughter/son."  I could do a quick piece on cognitive restructuring and inform parents that they are not losing their child; the relationship is changing and they are no longer parenting a small child.  That is very true, and accepting that reality takes time, but there are some practices adults and parents can put into place immediately if they want to improve their relationships with teens or at least, understand more about them.

One of the greatest sources of frustration in any relationship is the belief that the person to whom we are talking doesn't understand our perspective.  We can explain our position this way or thay way...we may even have another person explain it for us.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.  Often times, this is exactly how teens perceive their parents and other adults when it comes to understanding them: they just don't "get" them.  And this may not simply be because the adult lacks empathy; sometimes it is because the teen fails to explain themselves, for fear that they will be judged.  But there may be another underlying reason.

Research shows that most of our communication takes place in the context of tone and body language: it is not so much what we say but how we say it.  Our facial expressions can speak volumes.  When it comes to trying to communicate with teens, things become even more complex. Neuroscientists like Dr. Yurgelun-Todd of the University of Utah found that teens use a different part of their brain when reading facial expressions.  While conducting research at Harvard in 2006, Yurgelun-Todd discovered that teens identified facial expressions quite differently than adults.  So, while adults may read a facial expression as fear, teens may see anger.  In the context of a conversation, while a parent or teacher is trying to communicate disappointment to an adolescent, that teenager may react quite defensively.  Add in the fact that teens experience emotions 2-3 times greater than adults...you can see where I'm going with this.

Whenever I work with parents, counselors and teachers, I stress the importance of trying to remove judgement from any conversation with adolescents. Although we may not judge them with our words, our faces may say something else; so it is crucial to be mindful of whether our eyebrow is up or we shake our head in disapproval. Even with all of this, they may be misreading us, so I invite adults to following up their comments with, "do you understand what I'm saying?" or it may be more beneficial to ask that 14 year-old if they could sum up what you just said to them.  

This is no easy task, especially when what you're hearing might be very upsetting, but if we want to hear more from our teens, learn more from them and understand more about them, we have to let them know we are interested.  And this learning is rarely on our terms: teens will open up when they are ready...maybe at 11:30 pm on a Monday night after an exhausting day.

When teens feel heard and are understood, free of judgement, they will feel like you get them...and then you've got them.  I now begin most of my presentations with this simple quote.



'Twas the Night Before They Returned to School

-by Terence J. Houlihan


"'Twas the night before school after Christmas, and all through the house

No one was sleeping, not me, neither the kids, nor my spouse                  

We told the kids to finish all their homework, get ready for school and be early to bed       

But during the break, they stayed up too late, so tonight they're awake & filled with dread."


If you have school-aged children, I'm sure you've realized that the night before returning to school after a long break can be filled with dread for them.  Actually, most parents dread that night as well.  It's filled with last-minute projects, assignments, disappointment, resentment, etc.  It creates anxiety.  Over the years, I've come to realize (through hundreds of conversations with parents and teens) that one of the most difficult aspects to this dreaded night is the sleeping, or lack thereof.  And this inability to sleep can also add to the anxiety.

If normal bedtime for kids is 10:30 pm on a school night, on this particular night, not only are they not ready to go bed (because it means that it's back to school) they're just not tired...and they probably won't be tired for a long time.

Part of the sleep issue on these nights is definitely connected to the anxiety associated with returning to school, but much of it has to do with an out-of-whack sleep schedule.  For a week and a half, if children are staying up until 1 or 2 am and not waking up until 10:30 or 11 am, they're certainly not going to be ready for sleep at 10:30 pm. Research shows that it can take anywhere from 3-5 days to reset your sleep clock, so consider having your kids go to bed and wake up earlier 3 days in advance.  You can adjust it one hour or so each night so that by the time you arrive at Sunday evening, they just might be tired enough to head off to bed at their regular school night sleep time.

This certainly is not a cure all for the dread associated with returning to school, but not having to toss and turn the night before can certainly make the transition a lot easier.  For more information about the importance of sleep please visit the National Sleep Foundation's website here.


School Connectedness

-by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

In my role as a school counselor, one of the most common expressions I heard from adolescents and children was, “The teacher hates me.”  Initially, my instinct was to de-escalate the emotional response and attempt to have the student logically analyze how they came to that belief.

Sometimes, they would see that they misinterpreted something from the teacher, other times, they were probably just projecting their own dislike for the teacher, and others, they just couldn’t get past a “look” they saw on the teacher’s face.

In 2004, the CDC reported that “students who feel connected to their school are … more likely to have better academic achievement…”  One of the influencing factors on whether or not a student feels connected to their school lies in their relationships with the adults in the school building.  Students typically report that the way they are greeted when the first enter a classroom is indicative of a positive relationship with a teacher.  In fact, children and adolescents will claim that they perform better in a class if they think a teacher likes them.

If you’re raising an eyebrow to this, think about your own experiences in working for a supervisor: chances are the more you felt they liked you, the better you performed.

What is crucial for educators to understand is that children and adolescents do not use the same part of their brain (as adults do) to read facial expressions.  Without going into a long discussion on the nature of adolescent brain development, scientists were able to identify that while reading facial expressions, adults use the more mature, logical part of the brain referred to as the pre-frontal cortex, but adolescents and children use their unrefined, emotionally responsive limbic system.  Research shows that time after time, children and teenagers interpret a facial expression of anger on the faces of the adults who were intending to show disappointment or shock.  This could help to explain why situations in the classroom can quickly escalate without the teacher saying a word.

So, when focusing on classroom management or building school connectedness, the adults in a school need to be conscious of what they’re saying with their bodies and faces, or better yet, they could probably put words into their expressions.  Rather than looking “disappointed,” it is better to verbally tell the student just that. 

Then again, why not smile at them when they enter the building or the classroom?


Reflections on Skill Building


Early evening is my favorite time at the beach.  This summer, I spent quite a few evenings on the beach while vacationing on LBI.  While doing so, I was entertained by a group of teenage boys who showed up at 5 PM every day with their skimmer boards in hand.

There were four or five who came to perfect their “wave riding” skills.  Each in turn would position himself in a spot with his board anchored in the sand, lean on the board and intently focus on the breaking waves.  At any given moment, one would grab their board and sprint toward the ocean.  What became immediately evident was the differences in skill level that each boy displayed.  The more skilled boy could catch the wave, turn the board and ride it in to shore.  And he could do it consistently.  I identified him as the “expert” in the group.  The others could, maybe, catch the wave, but were sure to fall into the ocean while trying the turn or the riding the wave back to shore.

As I watched these boys repeat the process of running into the ocean with varying degrees of success and running back to their starting point to watch and wait for the next opportunity to do it again, I was fascinated.  I wondered how long they had been practicing.  Did the “expert” start at a younger age than the others?  How many skills did they have to master before even getting to this point: patience, focus, timing, balance, discernment, the ability to think critically?  Were they aware that they had developed these skills in their desire to "catch a wave"?

I thought of the students we work with as educators and the skills they are trying to master in their classes.   Do we allow our students enough opportunities to practice the skills we want them to acquire?  Do we think about the preliminary skills they will need before they can become experts?  Do we take into account that although they may all be of the same age, they may have started skill development earlier or later than their peers and therefore, will need different entry points? Do we spend enough time acknowledging the skills they possess?  Do we make it a point to create awareness of these skills in them and motivate them to use them as building blocks?