• Michelle


I hereby posit that teenage rebelliousness in school is nothing more than a group of people acknowledging the obvious uselessness of a system that fails them. Okay so their style is messy; they have less executive function than some adults, so there's that. Yet, henceforth I will type the term "rebel" or "rebellious" with finger quotes when referring to teenagers.

Let's assume for the sake of my argument that the teenagers who've figured it out are generally miffed that the adults in charge either can't see that the system has failed or won't try to find solutions. I'm a big fan of Self Determination Theory (SDT), a theory of motivation in Psychology which sets forth that humans need autonomy and healthy relationships in order to be motivated. In fact, intrinsic motivation occurs in proportion to the levels of agency and support we experience. This holds true at work, in marriage, at school, in any system. My philosophy is that teenagers are "rebellious" when they aren't getting enough of either autonomy or sense of belonging. Much like when we get grumpy because we're tired.

In fact, a high school should saturate students in autonomy and belonging. There are piles of research showing that academic achievement actually improves when these two needs are met. For a quick example, consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow explained that our needs must be met in a certain order; we are unable to march up this pyramid if the foundational needs aren't met. This graphic shows that we need a sense of connection and freedom before we can self-actualize and learn. If a high school student goes through her entire day and every interaction is driven by choice and supportive relationships, she feels completely in control. Even though adults still create the parameters and general goals, she'll see school employees as there to help her and appreciate their efforts.

Saturation is key in this situation. And most of us educators weren't trained this way. So it works best when structures of student co-leadership and relational expectations come from the administration OR when a critical mass of teachers in a school organize and decide to adopt SDT. And even after we've committed to carrying the Self Determination flag, we need to hold each other accountable because it won't come naturally. You'll find that out the moment that a teenager is flagrantly "rebellious" to your face. Healthy and effective teaching is not about flaunting power over our students, and it's sometimes hard for us to let go of that. Students know when we're being authentic, and relationships require authenticity. We're the adults in the room; we need to show them our selves first. A Self Determination teacher vows to himself to have no favorite students, and to remove his anger from the moment so he can honor his student's voice, even if it's "rebellious."

Want to read more? Learn more about the research? An excellent book on Self Determination Theory in schools is Breaking into the Heart of Character by David Streight.

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