Using "cheat codes" is more common among teenagers than you might think. In an era of smartphone ubiquity, teens need help not only finding ways to try new things, but also self-soothing and coping mechanisms to let off steam and cope with stresses.
Any time that students encounter some form of difficulty, like a test that didn't go their way, they generally turn to their friends, generally over text or WhatsApp, with which they can share their troubles. Students come to understand that this kind of communication can lead to lower grades. Knowing how to get their scores back up can really effect who they become when they graduate. With such high stakes involved, sharing negative feedback can be a traumatic experience for teenagers. In fact, studies have shown that some students feel more anxiety about a poor test or low grade than they do about being bullied or assaulted.
Communication is a major part of what keeps all adolescents close. A common technique that teens often use to find help is a conversation in which they admit something they are feeling or thinking. The chance to speak their truth for the first time is powerful, but also risky. It can be confusing, and triggering of negative emotions. We saw this phenomenon at a Boston magnet high school named after "Mary, Martha and Martha," three fierce, successful women who became a feminist cause celebre. The students there discovered that boasting to one another about their successes and failure left them much more vulnerable to hurt feelings. Hence, they turned to the school's Life Skills Skills Center, which provides peer mentoring.
The Life Skills Skills Center allows students to share with each other concerns about both passing and failing a test or making the school honor roll, focusing on the fact that they're dealing with this very important decision all by themselves. Once the students learn how to share one another's thoughts and feelings, it provides the groundwork for positive social interactions. The counseling center, which helps develop students' relational and leadership skills, saw a decrease in the amount of time students spent waiting outside for their families, as well as the amount of time they spent without a parent. Children can be told and told again that everything will be okay, but when they cannot talk to their parents—their peer group—that reassurance ultimately becomes disconnected and hollow.
Students also regularly discuss leaving home, currently a controversial subject in the United States, with one another. Students want to ensure that leaving home will not affect their relationship with their parents, whether or not it negatively affects their education. We saw high schoolers, whose parents were legal immigrants and talked about being subjected to physical and verbal abuse from their parents or even from neighbors, forge bonds and mutually learn from one another in what they call "Home Fair." Peer mentoring programs provide an opportunity for students to validate each other's experiences, more compassion and empathy. Children from different ethnic backgrounds and backgrounds from other countries, like Jamaica and Brazil, also have opportunities to learn about different cultural norms.
Boys are often limited to one set of topics. Generally, they discuss academics—which tend to focus on the negative consequences of failing a test. But when they're home from school, they can talk about anything, not just about taking the class, but about feeling hopeless at home or about their parents. This allows young people to both express what they are feeling and to talk about what they are doing to change their situation. A good life skills coach can help students bring together their differences, and give them the opportunity to connect with friends on the most productive way, rather than leave them feeling isolated and vulnerable.
There's nothing wrong with success or failure. Learning that there are consequences for doing what you want and not being what you want can help to minimize that negative emotion that might otherwise affect a teenager's drive to do well in school.
Thomas Goetz, Principal
Arlington Catholic Middle School