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Posted: Jul 22, 2005 14:12

HOW CAN WE ENCOURAGE TEENS TO LEARN AND GROW?

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By Kristie Henley

When pondering this question, I look back to my own experiences as a teen to reflect on what encouraged me to grow and learn. I was an at-risk teen who needed an intervention to help me redirect my life.

Gene Stephens, author of A Variety of Factors Put Teens At Risk, proposes community youth programs as a solution to help teens at-risk, but I've found many teens need more than mere programs. They need lessons in maturing emotionally. In my career, I have talked with hundreds of parents whose children, for some reason or another, missed valuable life lessons. The private network of special purpose schools and programs meets this need by utilizing emotional growth/ character education to help students advance in every part of their life.

In this essay, I explore the options of how private education can help keep teens out of trouble and teach them to become responsible young adults, while also helping them succeed in school.

One option could be smaller, more personalized classes, creating more one-on-one time between staff and students. Many teens are discouraged from learning because of over-crowded schools where there is a high incidence of student anonymity. Smaller schools and classes would insure against feelings of anonymity or inadequacy, and prevent kids who struggle academically from slipping through the cracks unnoticed. It could potentially create close-knit, healthy peer-to-peer relationships and less insult-based peer cultures or 'cliques.' In addition to smaller, more personal classes, an emotional growth component teaches teens ethical value systems and successful ways to work through grief, loss, anger, depression, loneliness, etc.

Today, many teens live in single parent homes or dysfunctional families that make them gravitate toward their peers or gangs for attention and approval, or for protection and security. Addictive behaviors such as eating disorders, sex, drugs and alcohol offer them a sense of comfort, control and relief from boredom. (Stephens, 18; also Strugglingteens.com. 1) Many feel, as I did, their lives are out-of-control and acting out is a way to get attention, because negative attention is better than no attention.

In our network, many of the at-risk youth come from single parent/ divorced families. According to Wade Horn, author of The Absence of Fathers Puts Teens At Risk, if boys grow up without a responsible male role model, how will they learn to work through their emotions or become mature responsible men?

Every year, Woodbury Reports surveys the leading independent educational consultants to compile a Directory of the top parent-choice, emotional growth/ therapeutic schools and programs. The number of estimated completions from the selected schools and programs rose from 8,000 in 2001/02 to 10,000 in 2004/05.

A key problem for private education is the cost to the parents. However, if a smaller staff to student ratio with individualized education and emotional growth components is a better option for teens, then a way must be found to pay for it. Individualized education, smaller classes, and emotional growth/ character education allegedly cost a lot more than larger public education institutions. However, in Arizona, for example, a report produced by Vicky Murray, PhD and Ross Groen, Legislative Assistant, indicated that the average private high school tuition, with an average student to staff ratio of 14:1, was $5,500, while public high schools "per-pupil expenditure was $7,816." These results show that "on average, public high schools spend over $2,000 more per pupil than private high schools." 3

With the growth of the Internet and technology, many of the private schools we work with offer a large variety of classes through distant education. Resources are cheaper and more readily available, courses are self-paced, and the need for costly "specialized" professionals is reduced, which allows increased funding for character development activities.

Based on my personal experiences with public education, I believe private and smaller, more personalized schools are better. In my elementary school (K-8), there were 150 students. All classes were small and all teachers connected with the students on a personal level. Teachers knew what limitations each student had and worked to enhance all aspects. At that time in our community, once students graduated 8th grade, schools merged into one high school and class sizes jumped from about 15 students to 25+ per class. The high school could offer a wider variety of classes, but, during the three years I attended the local public high school, I began to feel that I was just another number. Other than my parents, who really cared about my progress?

I entered high school with great expectations. By my junior year, I had lost my National Honor Society membership, skipped classes, failed a couple and dropped out of my extra curricular activities. The teachers didn't seem to notice that I was failing. I decided that it wasn't worth trying to achieve, and, to gain recognition, became one of the 'bad kids.' Bad attention was better than no attention in my mind, and the school administrators had already labeled me a 'troublemaker.' Eventually my parents caught on and took action to remove me from public school, but by this time I no longer believed in myself.

I went to an emotional growth wilderness program the summer before my senior year, which gave me the one-on-one assistance I needed to regain my self-confidence. After the wilderness program, I went to a private, therapeutic boarding school for girls with no more than 28 girls on campus at one time, and a student to staff ratio of 5:1. Each student had an individual education plan, and the staff worked with each student to achieve success, not only academically, but in character development as well. I graduated high school with a class of three, and rather than honoring only the best like the larger public schools do, each one of us received special recognition. What I learned in the private programs continues to direct my decisions more than 10 years later.

I am one of thousands of success stories of children who graduated from private, character development schools and programs. With the growing number of successful students coming into the network, the next generation will have more professionals who understand the need for character development and for smaller classes.

I believe that the best way to reach teens and help them learn is to get away from larger educational institutions, and incorporate techniques that build emotional growth. Teens need to feel important and adequate. They need to learn how to work through emotional traumas, such as divorce and poverty. Parental involvement is also necessary because children need to feel adequate and supported in order to progress through their teenage years.

One thing I've learned through personal experience and my career is that all children learn differently. Although state laws vary, all states say children must attend some sort of recognized education, and the "No Child Left Behind Act" offers more options for parent-choice education. 3 However, students do not need one governmental body telling them how they have to learn, they need educational plans tailored to their specific learning style. As teens learn by example, teachers must also lead moralistic and ethical lifestyles, to set examples for students. From personal and business experience, I believe that the emotional growth/ therapeutic network of parent choice schools and programs create a successful model to help teens both enhance their education and grow into responsible young adults.

References:
1.) Strugglingteens.com; Places for Struggling Teens, a resource and information website.
2.) Survey of Arizona Private Schools: Tuition, Testing and Curricula, by Vicki Murray and Ross Groen, Goldwater Institute Policy Report #199 January 5, 2005
3.) US Department of Education Website, No Child Left Behind Act.

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