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Friday, January 11, 2019

Teenagers: How to Keep Them Motivated?

[The following article is excerpted from a presentation given at the 2018 IMTEX conference in
Remscheid, Germany. If you would like to listen to the podcast episode, click here.]

Motivating young children can seem simple. Sometimes it is just a matter of smiling a lot, showing enthusiasm, having fun, and turning most activities into a "game." To motivate the older student is different, because the older student looks for other kinds of things than the younger child.

Teenagers have needs like all of us, but what young people once received from their parents when they were young children, teens now need from others, such as: love, support, encouragement, nurturing, acceptance, and attention. Teens no longer need their parents to direct them as much. Instead, teens need helpful attention; they want to work alongside others.

Teachers can play an important role at this stage because teachers are more removed from the teenager's personal life and are more objective. A teacher's success depends on:
  • giving encouragement
  • guiding the process
  • acknowledging and respecting the teen's choices
  • allowing the teen to learn from his or her mistakes
  • asking questions
  • entering into discussions
  • experimenting together
The key word in this process is together. The teen has a strong need to work alongside and together with others.

I believe it is possible to begin this process from the very start of lessons. A teacher can create a learning environment to allow opportunities for the teacher and the teen to learn together. Once the teacher establishes this "together" environment, the process can grow and expand as the teen matures.

Situations change as the teen grows older. The teacher will need to engage the teen and encourage him or her to consider more choices. The teacher can offer more in the way of guiding principles, as long as the teacher is receptive to the teen's own discoveries or suggestions of different approaches or execution. Sometimes my teen students come up with ideas of alternate ways to practice, perform, or solve technical problems that I have not discovered. As a teacher, I need to honor and respect that possibility.

Our responsibility as teachers in this process will be to show our teen students these things:
  • How to make wise decisions
  • What kinds of questions to ask
  • What kinds of decisions to make
When working with teens, keep in mind that teens want to claim more space in the world and be bigger in the social arena. They want to be treated as adults. Although teens think that they are ready to take on the world, we adults know in actuality how scary and difficult the world really is. Teens lack the experience that we adults have, although teens think they are ready. We adults recognize in actuality that teens may be ill-prepared for the challenges that they will face when they live in an adult world.

What will be important for a teacher to do during this time is to foster good communication and a strong personal relationship in order to weather any difficult storms later. The teacher needs to be a "safe haven" during any time that the teen struggles to handle life's problems. The teacher needs to offer helpful guidance that will steer the teen back into conversations with the teen's parents. Overall, the teacher must show the teen respect and that the teacher cares.

We teachers have a useful perspective when it comes to working with teens because we do not share the same emotional and family experience. We can therefore offer objective critical and analytical advice to help teens enter into further conversations with the teen's parents.

Along with emotional changes, teens also experience many physical changes as their bodies mature. Many of these changes are chemical and affect the teen's moods and emotions. These chemicals can cause the teen to experience inadequate sleep and become moody. The teen may sulk and engage in other disrespectful behaviors.

There are two ways to handle such unpleasant interactions:
  • Direct confrontation: Many parents and other adults engage in this option, but the result is generally that the teen will become more rebellious and uncooperative.
  • Engage differently: Parents and adults can interact differently with the teen and do these things:
    • listen more actively
    • show more respect for the teen's desires and preferences
    • share concerns but continue the conversation in a respectful way

When a teenager gets into trouble, it is usually because the teenager did not
have an opportunity to learn how to control that part of the teenager's life.

So how do we help a teen to learn how to control more areas of the teen's life? We can structure things to gradually allow the teen more opportunities to become more independent. Most importantly, we can allow the teen to learn and grow into independence. Rather than giving instructions and commands, we can allow the teen to take on more responsibility and gain more experience, including the experience of analyzing problems, finding solutions, and taking personal responsibility for outcomes and decisions.

What are some examples of areas that we teachers could offer a teen a gradual experience of taking on more personal responsibility? We could put the teen in charge of certain areas of the teen's home practice, such as maintaining the practice handbook records or completing the assigned review program. For many of my older, more tech-savvy students, I have found that scheduling issues related to lessons and makeups are better handled by the students rather than the parents. I also regularly engage my students in discussions about goal setting and supplemental repertoire choices. The teacher can play a big part in offering opportunities for the teen to stretch the teen's independence muscles.

In the beginning of this article, I wrote that teenagers need helpful attention. How can we teachers provide that? We can build a close and cooperative relationship. We can show our teens that we care about them, and that we will respond to their questions and needs. We can enjoy them and be interested in the persons they are and in what they are doing. We can listen to them talk and solicit their ideas and suggestions. Dr. Suzuki asked us to show everyone respect, and I believe the this means to show respect to everyone, even teenagers. We adults are so accustomed to take on the caretaking role so completely with younger children, that sometimes we forget how to loosen the reins and allow our children to mature into the independent adults they need to be to survive in the world. When we show our teenagers respect, we are showing them that they are important people. ("You're not the boss of me").

When things seem difficult with our teens, we can remind ourselves that they will not be teenagers forever. They will grow into different people with different opinions. We can choose to accept who they are in this moment with enthusiasm and without judgment ("Don't judge me").

Teens have special needs. They desire to be distinct individuals ("I'm my own person"). For music teachers, we can easily help teens fulfill this need merely by encouraging the teens' music pursuits, since this subject is distinctly individual. Teens also desire to be treated separately from their parents and their childhood ("I'm not a baby anymore"). A teacher is in a special role in this instance because teachers and other providers of instruction outside of the home stand outside the home and are therefore more closely aligned with the outside world.

We can recognize and encourage the teens' needs to have meaningful relationships with friends, classmates, and others outside of the home. Summer camps, institutes, workshops, conferences, youth orchestras, and school programs and groups are some of the many experiences that will provide teens with the opportunities to make friends and find emotional support outside the home.

Perhaps the most important thing a teacher can do is to serve as a role model for the teen. In this role, teachers help shape students' attitudes toward life and others. Teachers can demonstrate the best ways to handle typical life situations: conflict resolution, positive outlook about life, belief in the potential of life and the future, and positive impact for others. We can model the philosophy that Dr. Suzuki advocated -- that we serve something and someone greater than ourselves. We can role model how to serve our community and the world that we live in.

I sent a survey of questions to several teenager students, and I would like to share the answers from six of them in a future installment of this blog article. So stay tuned!

If you are interested in further discussion about the "overparenting" and "helicopter parents" issues, I have produced several podcast issues on these topics and reviewed the book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims (click here for the book).

How to Raise an Adult (Avoid Overparenting, part 1) (podcast episode)

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2019 by Paula E. Bird


  1. Thanks Paula for your post. As a Suzuki teacher It is inspiring to read this kind of articles.

  2. Yes it is amazing to keep teenagers motivation. we should motivate them abut the study because Education can change the world