By Cathie Ericson
Could reading about someone else’s rocky college start—and subsequent success—change an incoming student’s academic trajectory? Can encouraging teenagers to share their struggles with others like, say the children they’re babysitting, be a way of building teen confidence?
That appears to be the case, based on research co-led by Professor David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin. While his goal is to help first-generation students—a group typically prone to more difficulties with the college experience—Yeager’s research applications extend to all teens and tweens.
Letting Someone Else “Feel Your Pain”
In the experiment, incoming UT freshmen read essays from current students about their experiences acclimating to college life. One group read messages from students who worried about not fitting in and not feeling smart enough when they first arrived, but these students eventually adjusted and became smarter as they attended classes. Another group read messages that were more mundane, focusing on how the new students adapted to the weather and culture of Austin.
After reading several essays from one of the two groups, students were asked to contribute their thoughts on how they felt about embarking on their college path. They were told that their work would help future students—but the goal was really to help them internalize the messages they read and how they might apply to their own lives.
Some interesting results came to light when the researchers analyzed the incoming students’ first semester progress. At UT, students are required to complete 12 credits per semester. Fully 86 percent of first-generation students who read the essays about not fitting in completed 12 credits, whereas only 82 percent of first-generation students who read the generic essays completed the credits. While a four percent spread may not seem like a big deal, it actually closes the gap by half between first-generation and non-first-generation students. Ninety percent of non-first-generation students completed the required credits, the same percentage as in previous years. That one intervention put first-generation students almost on par with their non-first-generation peers.
An Idea for Building Teen Confidence
How can this research help our middle and high-school kids? Yeager says parents can set the stage for building teen confidence by helping teenagers to internalize their own affirming messages.
But here’s the catch: those affirming messages can’t come from us.
For example, you’ve probably told your kids about failing a test or finding yourself alone during a partner activity. You’re trying to show them that it’s normal for school to be hard, and it’s normal to occasionally feel left out. You probably emphasized that all kids sometimes feel the way they do, but they don’t talk about it because it’s not cool.
And your kids probably have rolled their eyes.
The disconnect, says Dr. Yeager, comes from the messenger. “Teens don’t like to receive knowledge; they like to get it first hand,” he says. “They want to be their own anthropologist of the society they live in and see it with their own eyes.”
And that’s why a key part of the essay exercise for the incoming freshmen—mostly 18-year-olds—was having them write their own message, ostensibly to share with the next year’s students. “We told them that the essay was to help a future student by sharing their own experience,” Dr. Yeager says. But really, it was a self-intervention, allowing them to process their own feelings.
As Yeager notes, there’s something about having your own suffering be a lesson for others that makes it more bearable. “You’re able to tell yourself that some good came of it.” Those internalized lessons then help students the next time they encounter those same struggles.
So if telling teenagers it will work out isn’t effective in building teen confidence, what can they do? Dr. Yeager suggests giving the teen an avenue to process their own experiences by having them be the messenger. Babysitting, tutoring, or even just hanging out with younger kids—neighbors or cousins, perhaps— provides opportunities for teenagers to share their own struggles. “When your teen tells younger kids these bumps are normal and it’s going to get better, they are liable to internalize that for themselves.”
And then they actually believe it.
Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.