This is video #6 in my 12-part video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. In this video you will learn 5 practical strategies for incorporating self-awareness activities in the middle and high school classroom. These 5 strategies include the following ideas:

  1. Use self-awareness assessments
  2. Let students keep personal journals
  3. Connect content to students’ personal lives
  4. Teach mindfulness meditation
  5. Have students create autobiographies

You can watch the video above, or read a transcript of the video below:

‘’Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and this is Video #6 in my video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (published by ASCD).  As part of this series we’re looking at eight practices that middle and high school teachers can implement in the classroom, which are in line with recent research concerning how the adolescent brain develops.  In this video, we’re going to focus on adolescent brain-friendly intervention #2:  using self-awareness activities.

One of the hallmarks of adolescence is the development of a deeper sense of self-consciousness.  Teens often obsess with how they come across to others.  They become sometimes even morbidly self-reflective.  They grasp at groups, ideologies, fads, fashions, and trends as ways of defining who they are or who they might be.  Erik Erikson, the noted psychoanalyst, who originated the idea of ‘’identity crisis,’’ believed that adolescence was the crucial stage in human development when people work at construct an enduring and coherent sense of self that will serve them well in meeting the challenges and opportunities of life. Erikson said that in the adolescent years there’s a struggle taking place between two forces, one that is helping the teen forge that stable identity, and another that is essentially preventing that process from occurring, leaving the teen with what Erikson called ‘’role diffusion.’’

Role diffusion, or what I’d like to call Identity Confusion, happens when the teen fails to create this core sense of self but instead, flounders in a state of bewilderment concerning who he or she is, or creates a negative self-image based on bad or misperceived life experiences, or forges an artificial identity through identification with a gang, a clique, a media star, or some other substandard role model.  This, then, can become the negative or muddy identity that they take with them into adulthood, resulting in poor choices concerning work or life partner, poor lifestyle habits such as alcoholism or drug abuse, or increased risk of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Neuroscience research suggests that this process of building a sense of identity during adolescence is actually going on in the brain, as evidenced, for example, by a study where teens had their brains scanned while answering statements related to themselves such as ‘’I like to read just for fun,’’ or statements pertaining to some fictional character like Harry Potter. When teens made statements about themselves,  the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain important for self-reflective processing, lit up, whereas when adults made the same self statements, the lateral temporal cortex, an area of the brain having to do with recall of prior life experiences, lit up.  This suggests that teens are actively constructing a sense of self, while adults are recalling their previous experiences of a self they have already created.

In addition, because the prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t fully mature until the early twenties, while the limbic system or emotional brain matures in early adolescence, the capacity of a teen, especially a young teen, to use mature reasoning to deal with life experiences having to with a sense of self, is severely limited, leaving the limbic system to be the area of the brain that responds to life’s challenges, as in this example of a teen who shows up at a formal party in his jeans and a t-shirt, whereas his peers are wearing suits and tuxes.  The fully mature limbic system responds emotionally by judging the teen a loser, while the still-maturing prefrontal cortex may not yet be developed enough to understand that this could represent a good learning experience that wouldn’t be repeated in the future.

The upshot of all this is that middle and high school teachers should be spending time in the classroom helping the teen in constructing this sense of self through the use of self-awareness activities.  Here are five strategies that can help accomplish this goal.

The first strategy is to use self-awareness assessments.  There are a wide range of assessments online that teachers can have students take that will assist them in exploring their abilities, capacities, traits, and intelligences.  The website Edutopia, for example, run by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, has an online checklist that helps students better understand their multiple intelligences, and there’s another one they have for emotional intelligence. Other assessments include the Gallup organization’s StrengthsExplorer (available by purchasing the book and receiving an access code), and the VIA Inventory of Strengths for Youth developed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology program available online for free.

The second self-awareness strategy is to let students keep their own personal journals. Personal journals represent a powerful way for students to engage in a process of self-reflection of their own ideas, feelings, goals, experiences, and aspirations.  These journals can be tied directly into the curriculum in different ways.  For example, when reading a novel, students might keep a journal representing the life experiences of a favorite character.  Or in history class, a journal might be kept as if the student were living in a particular historical era being studied. There are a number of books available to help young people keep journals, including this one by Lucia Capacchione, The Creative Journal for Teens.

The third way to engage self-awareness in the classroom is to connect whatever is being taught to the personal lives, memories, feelings, and experiences of the students. For example, if students in a science class are studying anatomy, the teacher might bring in the skeleton of a dead animal to share and ask students to share their own experiences of finding animal skeletons while out walking in nature. A simple formula I like to use in eliciting personal connections to course content is as follows:  ‘’This of a time in your life when you ____blank.  And you fill in the blank with whatever is relevant to what you’re teaching at the moment.  For example, if the lesson is about the American Revolution, ask your students to ‘’think of a time in your life when you felt like revolting against authority.’’  Or, in algebra, when asking students to ‘’solve for x, which is an unknown,’’, ask students to think of a time in their lives when they confronted an unknown and how they went about solving it.

A fourth way to develop self-awareness in the classroom is to engage students in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a process of becoming aware of one’s present life experience.  The usual approach to using it involves having students sit comfortably in their seats, close their eyes, and pay attention to their breath, attending to the inflow and the outgo of their breathing for a period of time ranging from 5 to 30 minutes.  Distractions will naturally occur during this time.  Students are instructed to notice when their mind is distracted by a thought, a feeling, a sensation, or a perception, and then to return their attention to the breath, and to keep on returning to the breath after each and every distraction.  Students gradually become aware of the different things going on inside their minds and outside in the world, and this can help them deal with negative emotions, stressful situations, and other life challenges. There are a number of books and guided meditation CDs available on the topic of mindfulness meditation, including this one entitled The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time.

Finally, a fifth way to build self-awareness in the classroom is to have students create their own autobiographies. The most typical way to create an autobiography is to write one.  But there are many other ways in which an autobiography can be constructed.  Students can put together a photo collage, a video documentary, a series of drawings or cartoons, a musical autobiography (for example one song per year of life with explanations for their personal significance), or even a multi-act dramatic play.

For more information, read my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. You can also find the other videos in this series on my You Tube channel.

This video was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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