Almost four million American teenagers have just started their freshman year of high school. Can they learn better ways to deal with all of their stress and insecurity?
New research suggests that they can. Even though social pressures continue to pile on in high school, teenagers can be taught coping skills that work to help avoid anxiety and depression: something we all want for our teenagers.
David S. Yeager, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and leading voice in the effort to help college students stay in school, has been turning his attention to younger teenagers to help build up their ability to "bounce back" at an earlier age.
His latest study, found a surprisingly effective technique. At the beginning of the of the school year, students participated in a reading and writing exercise designed to give them a simple message to help them manage tension: People can change.
The students who did the exercise later had lower levels of stress, felt more confident in coping, and got slightly higher grades at the end of the school year! They measured these successes with online diaries and measuring cardiovascular and hormonal signs of stress.
Adults actually played no significant part in these exercises. Students essentially taught themselves this mental buffer, and when they were rattled by social stress, they had a reassuring attitude to frame the situation.
John R. Weisz, a psychology professor at Hardvard who wasn't involved in the research, found this approach efficient and powerful. "If you're an adolescent and you experience social harm, you won't always be the target. You can change," he said. "And over time, others can change, too. They may mellow out and not be so cruel. That's an interesting thing for kids to learn, and a good one."
First, students read a short, engaging article about brain science, describing how personality can change. Then they read anecdotes written by seniors about high school conflicts, reflecting how they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on. Finally, the students themselves were asked to write encouraging advice to younger students.
Dr. Yeager and his team have so far tried these exercises in five schools. In one study, nine months after the exercises, the rates of depression students reported was 40% less than the students who didn't do the exercises.
If the results remain so positive after the 2017 trials, Dr. Yeager plans to release the intervention material for free through a Stanford University project that provides learning support for students.
This intervention suggests that if teenagers can hold onto "the big picture," they can soldier through immediate mortification at the cafeteria lunch table. The takeaway: You are not doomed to be excluded forever. Neither your personality nor your tormentor's personality are frozen.
Below is a sample of the kinds of advice the seniors give the participants:
"When I was a freshman," one wrote, "I felt left out when everyone got invited to one of my friend's house and I didn't. It's like...they forgot about me. Or even worse that they thought about me, but didn't think I was cool enough to get invited."
But, the writer continued, "No matter how much it hurt, it wasn't going to last forever. ...They might even realize how much pain they were causing other and decide to change."
The student made friends outside of school, became involved in clubs and sports and, in time, "thing definitely improved."
Dr. Yeager believes it helps that the teenagers learned coping skills in a lecture-free zone. "The more adults tell kids how to deal with their social life, the less kids want to do it that way," he said.
"We're asking kids to persuade other kids," he added. "The feels respectful to them, and motivating. It's a chance to matter. As these freshmen reflect on how they coped in middle school, the exercise forces them to put things in perspective."
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of adolescent psychology at Temple University, said there has been a lot of discussion about what schools can do to help students' social and emotional skills.
Research has shown, he said, the "if kids believed intelligence was fixed, they would believe nothing could be done. But if you could change their belief to think that it can be molded and changed, their academic performance would improve."
"This intervention is not a selt-esteem enhancer, which is a failed model," Dr. Steinberg said. "But is does boost kids' self-confidence by changing their belief in their own ability to change."