How To Teach Teenagers

Teaching teenagers can be difficult. The class can quickly get out of control and authority can slip out of the teacher’s hands. The first step that teachers take is to look for ways to impose discipline, but rarely is discipline the solution. Often an entirely different approach is necessary; something that is close to the opposite of discipline. The truth is: Discipline is ALWAYS the last resort and it’s a resort you should want to avoid at all costs.

If you are in situation of having to take an unruly group of students, you need to back up a little. Approach the situation as someone trying to make the class more controlled rather than someone intending to impose further discipline. These may seem to go hand-in-hand, but they don’t. Endeavouring to impose more discipline in order to gain control is likely to have an adverse effect. More discipline simply means more regulations for the teens to rebel against. As a teacher, you could be adding fuel to the fire.

Teens are experts at being taught. They do it most of their waking hours and they have been doing it for years. They are given books and the same type of tasks over and over again. If teens are unruly it is usually because they are bored and unmotivated. That usually means what they are being asked to do is not challenging them. It’s not making them think. By being unruly, they are communicating to you their frustration and irritation in a way that only a teen knows how!

Rather than attempt to silence that communication, listen to it. If possible, discuss this with one or two of your students that you identify as being more mature, but don’t be afraid to discuss this as a class. Be prepared for harsh comments; realise your teen students will be truthful. Think outside the box. Find new ways to teach your teens. YouTube videos and songs are a great, albeit an obvious, start. As an example, there is a video about the morning routine of successful people. From there, you can discuss the morning routine of your students. What would they be willing to sacrifice in order to become a billionaire? Would they get up at 5am as many successful people do?


  • Conditionals: What would/will you be happy to do if it made/makes you into a billionaire?
  • Past Perfect: If I had woken up at 5am this morning…..
  • There is such of a lot of material you can get from videos and songs.


Getting the class to debate and discuss, gets them to use their brains and imagination. Getting the class to use books does the opposite. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I used a book while teaching teenagers. They just don’t learn that way. Theirs is the generation of ‘How To’ YouTube videos: short blasts of information that they take in and then move on from.

I would also advise not to have too many rules. The more prohibitions you have, the more time you need to spend enforcing them. The truth is: teens are not kids. They can be trusted to monitor their own behaviour far more than teachers usually give them credit for.  I allow teens to use their phones in class, for example. They can use them for translations and to play on when they have finished their set task. They are allowed to call me by my first name and they are allowed to swear (although not to insult anyone)

By meeting teens half way on these issues, you show them respect. A teenager who is respected, usually respects the teacher. Everyone responds better to boundaries than to bannings. A ban is an absolute: a binary condition. A boundary is more flexible that better fits in with the moment. Allowing a teenage student to be part of that decision of use will foster a better working environment and greater co-operation between teacher and student.

Of course, a teacher will always have at least one student (usually a boy) who will push the boundaries. That’s ok. It is easier to control one or two than an entire class. A teacher who adopts these methods will find they have support from other students who will, on occasion, impose peer pressure on the wayward student.

It’s also a good idea to give the students 3-5 minutes downtime at the end of a set task. Let them use their phones and chat to each other. If you are teaching them a foreign language, let them chat in their native language. The downtime allows their brain to absorb the new information and the students get their social media fix, so they can re-focus on their studies after the short break.

In short, discipline is not the best solution when it comes to unruly teens. All they are doing is using their age-appropriate social skills to tell you that they are not happy.  Rather than look to discipline them, look for ways to make them happy and motivated. Don’t be afraid to listen to the students. They are often the best at showing us all how to improve our teaching.

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