iBme Teacher Training faculty Oren Jay Sofer shares his expertise on mindful communication with teens, with a focus on the classroom learning environment. Oren is a Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and Nonviolent Communication specialist, and author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.
Communication is one of the primary ways we build relationships in life. This is as true in one’s work with teens and adolescents as it is in any other arena.
In this article, I’d like to explore four key principles of mindful communication with teens. These principles can help you to build a foundation of trust and connection in the relationship, strengthen healthy classroom culture, and support learning-readiness.
1. IDENTIFY WHAT MATTERS.
Which helps kids feel seen and creates relevance for your lessons and requests.
Whether you’re listening to students, teaching a lesson, or managing behavior, learning to identify students’ deeper needs in a situation is transformative. Instead of focusing solely on what is happening—the lesson, a student’s words or behavior—try shifting your attention to why—what’s important to your student right now?
There is a difference between our strategies and our deeper objectives. We might want a student to be quiet and cooperate; they want to goof around. Our attempts to get them quiet is a strategy for our needs, and perhaps our care for the needs of other students. We want everyone to be able to learn. What does the student who is acting out need? It doesn’t take long to recall that they may be longing to be noticed, or to have more connection and belonging with classmates.
When we’re able to identify and understand the needs behind someone’s choices, strategies, or words, something transformative happens. When they feel understood for what’s important to them (and trust that we care about that), we are no longer locked in conflict. We can learn to make these inquiries, and listen, in the midst of our lesson without losing the rest of the group.
Say you have a student who’s talking during your instructions and into the time you’ve set for writing. You’ve tried making your usual brief request, “Quiet, please, so everyone can hear the instructions.” Next, you might connect further with the student by guessing what’s going on for them, then share your own needs and propose some ways of working together.
“I notice you’re talking during this assignment. Are you bored? Do you want to be a little more engaged? Or just want to have some fun?”[Student responds]
“I’d like to find a way for you to have that, and I want everyone else in the class to be able to focus on getting their work done too.”
Depending on the student and your relationship with them, you might offer one or two suggestions, or invite them to share their ideas.
When you teach a lesson or make a request, if you share the “why”—our needs, values, or objectives—you honor students’ autonomy and intelligence, and help create a sense of relevance and meaning.
2. MAKE SPACE FOR EMOTIONS
Which can build trust, de-escalate tension, and bring healing.
Growing up, did your teachers mirror and validate emotions?
So many teens today are struggling with isolation, stress, anxiety, or depression. If there’s emotion, something matters. Emotions are evolutionary signals that point to our needs being met or not. Unacknowledged emotions can build up inside, interfere with learning, and cloud decision making. Making space for them can help us understand what’s going on for a student, which lets them know we care about them and that they’re safe with us.
If a student is visibly upset, acting out, or seems to be in a terrible mood, find the time and space to empathize with their feelings. Be patient. “I hear how angry you are but …” will likely register as dismissive. Genuinely reflecting what you hear and see is more likely to help:
“I hear how angry you are. This must be very important to you.”
Similarly, when you’re feeling upset (as we all do at times), use it as an opportunity to model your healthy relationship with your own emotions. Instead of trying to stuff it, pretend you’re okay, or express things reactively, how would it be to share what’s happening in an open and transparent way? Not only are we taking responsibility for our emotions and modeling how to do that for our students, but when we do this, we’ll feel more internal balance. This is critical in bringing mindful communication with teens into the classroom.
3. LEARN TO SEE “RESISTANCE” AS INFORMATION
Which supports better outcomes.
When students behave in a way that’s at odds with your goals, educators tend to label this as “resistance”. This judgment blinds us from the real emotions and yearnings driving a student’s behavior. A mindful teacher understands resistance as a student’s way of communicating their inner experience or exercising autonomy. This is especially true with teens, who need to be seen as an individual with a clear identity.
As educators committed to teaching mindfully, when students make choices different from our wishes, you can ask yourself: can I connect and build the relationship right now? Find ways to balance respecting the individual, the needs of the classroom, and your own wisdom. Engage with care as you inquire about the student’s feelings or needs. Invite collaboration to work towards a shared goal.
4. SHARE POWER AND DISCUSS LIMIT
Which models respect and teaches collaboration.
Many schools function in a power-over, hierarchical system as a strategy to create safety, order, and support learning. If we’re not conscious of how we use the structural power we have with kids, we may unintentionally reinforce cultural messages that disempower our children and stunt creativity. This dynamic is amplified if we are part of the dominant culture. (As a white, male teacher, for example, am I conscious of the inherent power dynamic with female students or students of color?)
These dynamics are particularly relevant for teens and adolescents, who are undergoing a process of psychological differentiation and are hyper-attuned to power, autonomy, and choice.
When you acknowledge the power you hold and engage students in collaborative decision making, you model democratic values and send an important message about their self-worth, intelligence, and capacity.
If you need to set limits or use your power to resolve a situation, share your reasons calmly and clearly. Acknowledge any limitations of time, resources, or energy that prevent you from working more collaboratively, and affirm the student’s autonomy by restating their choices that are viable for you.
Mindful communication with teens. Each of these keys points to the underlying ethos of a range of more specific, concrete communication tools that you can build over time through practice. However, what’s most important is the genuineness of your heart and where you are teaching from and how you are relating, because this is what teens feel first.
Oren Jay Sofer has practiced meditation in the early Buddhist tradition since 1997, having become interested in contemplative practice in high school, when he picked up a little book called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. His book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication is a practical guidebook for having more effective, satisfying conversations. He is also co-author of two books on teaching mindfulness to teens and adolescents: The Mindful Schools Curriculum for Adolescents and Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Teens.