The age of 14 is apparently the riskiest time to be a teenager. “We calculated the age at which our group of participants made the greatest proportion of risk choices to be 14.38 years,” University College London neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore says in her latest book, Inventing Ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain.
It is also when, she says, teens are the most easily embarrassed. Those teenage years are the difficult ones, when we struggle with our identities, our beliefs and our morals and our sexual choices. This can be a confusing and traumatic time. And, in a perfect storm, it’s at this time when academic pressures build, as GCSEs, A levels and college and university entry loom.
And, let’s not forget, of course, that adolescence is the time in which serious mental health problems begin to become apparent – three-quarters of all cases of mental illness start before the age of 24.
Who, then, would think it a good idea to put hundreds, if not thousands, of teenagers together in a confined space? To take all this risk and propensity for bad decisions and overblown choices and bundle it all together?
But that’s exactly what we do in schools, with barely a thought to what happens next. It’s just the way it is, the way it’s always been, isn’t it? Some people believe the best thing is to leave young people to get on with it, or worse, see it as a good thing if they work things out for themselves because it’s “character building”.
Clare Erasmus takes a different approach. After being appointed as one of the first directors of wellbeing in a school (as far as she knows) she has, over some 20 or so years, built up systems to help teenagers not only get the support they need, but run and administer that support themselves, too. She builds pop-up “safe spaces” for young people. These are not the kinds that cause so much controversy in universities, but instead, they are literally spaces where teens can feel safe.
“A safe space in school is one where a young person has some control over what happens next; where, for a few moments they can press ‘pause’ and gather their emotions,” she writes in this week's Tes magazine.
She says such spaces have transformed the schools she has worked in. They may require huge commitment from young people, from teachers, from leadership, and from external agencies, but, she insists, they work.
In these spaces, children make more disclosures, they report being happier, they can control their emotions better and incidences of bullying and fighting have fallen. Think of all that behaviour management time that could be reclaimed by just the setting-up of a few clubs. (With behaviour, it’s worth noting another of Blakemore’s findings – that adolescents are less likely to learn from punishment than older people; she suggests that a reward-based approach would be more beneficial to learning for them.)
This is not a top-down fix. Every school will have its own problems that need to be addressed – and ever more schools are realising this, but many could do more. The solution cannot be taken from one setting and implemented elsewhere; you can’t lift and shift. Instead, it’s all about listening to pupils, asking them what issues they have and where they need support. On top of that is a good, hard look at the soft data – all those behaviour reports, safeguarding reports and letters from home. Only then can you build a series of bespoke safe spaces. It’s a simple idea but it needs commitment.
But what is most important is showing pupils that there is someone there for them at their most challenging times. If the teenage years are the danger years for young people, the least we can do is give them somewhere they can feel safe.
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