Teaching Well-being to Teens

Statistics show that up to 10% of teens and young people in the UK are suffering a major depressive order at any given moment. Depression leads to substance abuse, social disfunction, academic failure and suicide, a major cause of death in young people in the western world.

Not only are these facts very scary, but on a purely personal and even selfish level, teachers know from experience that happy students are better learners. Incorporating well-being activities into the language classroom will not only result in happier and healthier students in the long run, but in the short-term will mean students are happier and more confident in learning English.

Sarah Mercer talks about the important effect of well-being on learner motivation in Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, and experience show us that happy students not only make better learners, but also well-being in the classroom will result in an increase in the teacher’s enjoyment too.

Of course there are many ways to increase the general feeling of well-being in the teens class; being warm but firm – authoritative rather than authoritarian, choosing activities that are of interest to students and related to their lives, giving choice where possible, playing upbeat music when students come into class, etc…

However I think we can go further, incorporating well-being tasks into language lessons. The advantage is obvious, teens may be reticent to try well-being techniques as such, however they are used to performing a variety of tasks for the sake of learning a language without ever asking why. Personally I have used all the ideas suggested here without ever mentioning well-being, nor have they ever asked for the reason behind my choice of activities.

For me, these activities come under three groups; those that invoke well-being in oneself (S), within the group (G) – very important for teens, young people who are not comfortable with their classmates will find it difficult to take risks with the language, especially orally, and finally with learning (L) – I believe that being able to reflect on one’s learning is an essential step in this process.

Quick Fillers

Status Update  (S)

Useful when you can feel the atmosphere isn’t brilliant. An important first step in improving a mood is first recognising what that mood actually is. So ask students to just note down how they’re feeling, they can show you or keep it private. Give them some vocab to express their emotions if they need it.

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Exam-Wrappers (L) 

At the end of tests and exams I always include a questionnaire, asking how students felt they had done, whether they had worked well during this unit, what they think the result will be, what they would do next time, etc.

Class Motto (C)

Ask groups to come up with a class motto, give them a selection of motivational quotes to choose from if possible.

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Lessons

BHAGs & Babysteps (S)

This lesson is adapted from Personal Well-Being Lessons for Secondary Schools, BHAGs are Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals, completely wild, un-SMART, life changing goals. Ask students to make a list, ours included going into space, stopping pollution, etc. Then ask students to brainstorm 5 to 10 ways to achieve these goals, for example join NASA, make your own rocket.

The next step involves finding 5 ways to undertake these secondary steps i.e. get a physics exam, be head-hunted. And so on, until the students are left with a series of baby steps that they can carry out immediately.

I actually find this a powerful tool for myself, I don’t exactly want to take over the world, but by finding the relevant baby steps I can provide myself with interesting challenges that push me to develop, as in the example here:

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Save Me!

Many books suggest students do exercises that involve enumerating their qualities although teens are often uncomfortable doing this. One way to get round this is to alter the entry point. In this activity we are facing a zombie invasion, when a rich businessman appears with his private helicopter. Unfortunately he only has room for one/two/three of you. You must persuade him to take you, you can’t lie or invent but you can exaggerate your qualities.

I often use this activity in a sequence  alongside English for the Zombie Apocalypse, a great book by Lindsay Clandfield and Robert Campbell which I highly recommend.

A variation of this activity is the balloon debate, where students must justify their place in a rapidly sinking hot-air balloon.

Letter to a Newbie (S) & (C) & (L)

During one of the last lessons of the year the students write a letter to next year’s students, telling them what they will learn, and how to survive a year with me! This is a great way for students to see how far they’ve come in a year. During the first lesson of the following year I give out these letters to the new students.

Presentation Subjects (S) & (C)

Language students are often asked to prepare presentations for their class, good practice for oral skills and speaking in front of an audience. One of my classes practises “No-French Friday” – a day where we only speak English and I encourage oral activities. Every week they are given a theme to research. This is the perfect opportunity to enable students to inform themselves : What is “flow”? What makes us happy? for example. I also provide a list of upbeat TED talks and encourage presentations on positive role models such as Michael Jordan and Emma Watson.

Year-long Projects

#3bestbits (S)

Research has shown how Gratitude plays a part in increasing well-being and so this year with my students we started posting our 3 best moments of each day on instagram. Most students message me privately (it’s not that cool to admit chatting to teacher every evening) but this has really enabled me to get to know students better, something they have mentioned as being a good reason to post regularly. Feel free to join in.

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Memory Jar (S) & (C)

Every class I teach has their own memory jar, whenever we have a couple of minutes, or when students ask, they can note a positive recent event on a bit of paper. During the last lesson we open the jar (after I have checked it through first – these are teens remember!) and we reminisce together.

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Good News-paper

The media is full of sad, horrific events so it’s great to create a newspaper that contains only good news. This can take the form of a blog, or as we do, a paper version that students write, practising their IT skills along the way. We then sell it to parents at parents evening and give the money to a charity that the class has voted for during the year – after students each present the charity of their choice.

Please add your suggestions in the comments below!