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    Four Ways to Nurture Growth and Empowerment in Your Teen

    Posted August 16, 2023, 9:40 am by Adam Aronovitz
    teen climb mountains

    “That age must be a nightmare to work with.” As a middle school teacher for Boston Public Schools, I heard this a lot. And I understood - most of us are just glad we made it through our own adolescent years! 

    For me, I actually adore working with students. It’s an adventure - they’re always learning and you never know what’s coming around the corner. I also relished discovering the “secret sauce” for meaningful student development as I spent the following years as an educator, a summer camp leader, and Executive Director at Global Routes and Carpe Diem Education. 

    To determine the “ingredients” for nurturing student growth today, I sat down with Dr. Beth Warsof of Cornerstone Safety Group. In addition to spending the last 20 years in education, Dr. Warsof assists us with programs as our mental health consultant, integrating psychological practice with critically conscious education to create transformative, empowering teen experiences. 

    So, what are those “ingredients” that promote meaningful development? 

    The Ingredients:

    1. Sense of Belonging vs. Fitting In
    2. Connecting through Disconnecting (tech-free)
    3. Cross-Cultural Experiences
    4. Space to Grow and Learn Outside of Family Shadows

    Sense of Belonging vs Fitting In 

    Adam Aronovitz: Most adolescents wander through the wilderness of school, dreading the constant maze of trying to “fit in,” making it extremely difficult for teens to find a stable sense of self.

    I knew we had to create a program that built an environment in which students felt genuine belonging for exactly who they are! Creating a small, caring, close-knit group where they can build strong relationships with their peers and mentors allows them to feel supported navigating their stretch zone and the inherent challenges (especially on programs abroad). 

    Dr. Warsof: Human beings all need a sense of belonging. Today, we often hear that loneliness is one of our greatest dangers - isolation can lead to mental and emotional unwellness that leads to poorer life outcomes. It is a universal human need to feel seen for who we are. Communities in which young people learn that they don’t need to (and perhaps can’t) hide any part of themselves in order to be accepted is a revolutionary space in today’s world. And at the same time, young people in these spaces are learning to accept others, not in spite of, but because of, each of our individual quirks and needs and wants and lived experiences. 

    Connecting through Disconnecting (tech-free) 

    Adam Aronovitz: The average teenager in the USA spends nearly 8 hours a day on their devices. Yikes! The opportunity for students to rest from the constant barrage of notifications and messaging that they are ‘not enough’ is a central component of a nourishing and transformative experience. 

    A tech-free summer is a game-changer start for adolescents. Tech-free programs build peer-to-peer connection, time in nature, and truly engaged learning. It’s important to fill that tech “gap” with other meaningful experiences to make it stick. Anyone who has tried to adjust eating habits understands that you can’t just stop eating entirely; you just fill that space with more nourishing and uplifting food that is in alignment with your goals! 

    Dr. Warsof: Simply put, we’ve created an external device through which we are training ourselves to source the neurochemicals that make us feel content, engaged, regulated, happy… even loved. It is important that developing minds create neural pathways that source more sustainable outlets for those feel-good and self-regulating signals. Social media teaches us that we are always being studied and evaluated. This seems antithetical to an adolescent’s developmental task of turning attention inward, towards self-knowing, self-curiosity, self-empowerment, and self-trust. Letting go of these devices shows that there is a beautiful, awe-inspiring world that exists beyond the screen. 

    Cross-Cultural Experiences 

    "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust. 

    Adam Aronovitz: In student interviews, I ask, “Why is this the right time and place in your own journey of growth, learning, and discovery to embark on a Global Routes program?” The most common response from students is a variation of: “I want to get out of my ‘bubble’ and gain perspective.” I love hearing that! Cultivating a desire to expand their worldview means they’re

    ready to take on challenges in a supportive environment. Having the opportunity to test their self-confidence, teamwork, and resilience are critical parts of forming independence. 

    Dr. Warsof: Adolescence is a prime developmental time for brain neuroplasticity. Connections in the prefrontal cortex, in charge of executive functioning, are developing a foundation. Young people need new experiences to expand their potential here. Moreover, they need opportunities to improve their “heart” functions, such as developing empathy and compassion, to overcome our biological priming to perceive “different” as “danger.” 

    Awe is the feeling we experience when we are aware, at the same time, both of our immense significance and vast insignificance. When we stand in front of mountains, we feel small while seeing the vastness of the natural world. When we share a smile without needing a common 

    language, we feel bigger than the space between two strangers. These experiences of awe give us meaning, purpose, and can be clues to fulfilling life choices. 

    Space to Grow and Learn Outside of Family Shadows 

    Adam Aronovitz: While “resilience” took a dive post-COVID, the level of growth in students participating in immersive, tech-minimalist programs is deeply inspiring. By learning to work together and bond as humans, they overcome both natural and contrived challenges. This negates the impacts of “snowplow parenting” that has prevented students from being able to address problems independently. 

    In my work as an educator, I always insist that adolescents are so much more capable than you imagine! When they need to rise to the occasion and face a new challenge, you’ll often be amazed by the confidence they gain. 

    Dr. Warsof: In today’s world, many parents have the privilege of giving their children everything they could ever want. In doing so, we may forget to consider what young people need. Many of the Western world’s most prolific psychologists saw “growing up” as a series of developmental tasks, from socioemotional (Erikson) to cognitive (Piaget) to love and relationships (Ainsworth), that we must master through trial and error, through failure and course correction. When we take away the opportunity for young people to try hard things, to step into their stretch zones, we cheat them of important and fulfilling life events. 

    Human beings are regrettably quite inefficient at learning; we often must “do the thing” in order to fully understand an experience for ourselves. It is a crucial developmental task to be challenged within a “zone of proximal development” (the space between that which we are already capable of and that which we are not) to explore the richness of trying, grasping, learning, mistaking, fumbling, and ultimately achieving that which we did not have before. 

    We learn how to trust ourselves through the entire arc of learning, including the discomfort of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt to ultimately experience the joy of resilience.

    In Summary, students need immersive, challenging experiences to become confident, capable adults. These ingredients are those that help students transform through meaningful programmatic development - something worth reflecting on!

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    Adam Aronovitz image

    Adam Aronovitz

    The Executive Director of Carpe Diem Education and Global Routes, here to spark and support transformative and immersive educational programming. He knows that meaningful, authentic cross-cultural exploration is a powerful teacher and helps perspective unfold while building life-long global competencies.