What Teens Need From Schools

What do teens need? Asking more than 100 teens from different backgrounds will yield more than 100 different answers. Freedom. Support. Acknowledgment. Space. Sleep. Communication. To be known. Creativity. Heroes and role models. Money. Friends. Time. Success. Less stress. A voice. Trust. Affirmation.

Like every one of us, each teen is unique. As a whole, though, are today’s teens really any different from those who were coming of age 10, 20, or even 30 years ago? To answer this, it’s important to first think about the lens or mindset from which we address this challenge. To most parents and educators, it really seems as if psychologist Abraham Maslow had it figured out in his hierarchy of needs—with physiological needs at the base of his pyramid, followed by safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Most educators believe in the need to ensure that the physiological and safety needs of teens are met, but this is where we often stall out. Toward the middle and upper levels of the hierarchy, we often work so hard to foster the sense of self-esteem and inner strength that kids need to attempt a challenging task that we sometimes miss out on guiding them toward cycles of effort, planning, failure, resiliency, and eventual success.

When a teen finally reaches true success after experiencing the highs and lows of hard work and failure, they are able to internalize these experiences as fuel and firmly believe that they can work through anything. It is in these important moments that teens reach a sense of self-actualization that helps to reinforce their inner strength, as well as foster repeated success in a sort of positive feedback loop.

If success is hard-earned and achievable only through a long series of trial and error, how do we ever help teens realize they will reach these pinnacles of accomplishment? What if, instead of this linear pyramid, we thought of this more as an infinity loop? What if we created opportunities for our kids to experience a sense of self-actualization through risk-taking and exploration, one within a safe environment in which physiological needs were met and belonging rewarded more than the end products? Does this sound too complicated and idealized to work in a structured educational environment?

In a sense, this model of education already exists organically in youth culture, and it teaches our kids how to interact with the world around them every day. In fact, our kids have created a world of interdependence in which they can become self-actualized—and in some cases even wealthy—at the age of 15 through the simplest of apps, YouTube channels, and makeup or gaming tutorials. If we are to meet the individualized needs of millions of different teens, we must find ways for kids to access education from their place on the pyramid and then allow them to move fluidly from one place to the next without inhibition. The ways in which we create these opportunities are as diverse as the schools we lead.

Driving the Infinity Loop of Individualized Instruction

There are a few school models that have found success in creating individualized instruction through blended and/or project-based learning that is accessible to teens with both historically high and low academic skill sets. One particular school, e3 Civic High in San Diego, is finding success in helping students meet their social and academic needs by blending social and emotional learning within every aspect of their design thinking and project-​based curriculum.

e3 Civic High, a public charter high school, strives to create a place for students to engage in their journey to become their next best selves. Our mission and vision are to engage, educate, and empower students to be prepared for the workforce and life through two- and four-year colleges. At e3 Civic High, we employ a simple three-step plan that’s deep in its design. Engaging students in the learning community, within their classrooms, and within their own learning must happen first to be able to provide a world-class education. As Maslow made clear, before being able to learn, one must have basic needs met and feel a sense of belonging. This is an area often overlooked by schools, as test scores and academic performance have taken precedence as the only measures of school success. To be able to focus on developing the whole child, we must begin with meeting each student’s basic and psychological needs.

Social and Emotional Support

Every morning at e3 Civic High, students are met by a life coach and their principal. Since the school is located on the sixth and seventh floors of the new downtown San Diego Library, students are met with a “good morning,” direct eye contact, and a fist bump before heading up the stairs to success. When students reach the top of the stairs, they get a second positive reception by a team of three educators who greet and welcome them. Students who seem to be distressed on the way in or who seem a little down get a visit from the life coach either immediately or within the first hour of the school day. With a high-poverty population—just over 80 percent of students are free and reduced-price lunch recipients—students face an especially high level of physiological, safety, and belonging needs.

Throughout the day, the life coach—a licensed marriage and family therapist—and the dean of restorative practices and scholar support visit studios (classrooms) to check in on students with hellos, warm handshakes, and brief conversational check-ins. The life coach also brings around bags of baby carrots and nutrition bars from one of the science teachers, who acquires donations through DonorsChoose.org to help kids stave off hunger.

At this school, the support team includes an entire staff. Two counselors, each with a caseload of about 200 students, have the time to get to know each and every student personally so that they can ultimately lead the students into a successful post-high school plan that brings a sense of self-actualization. A dean of restorative practices and scholar support operates with the primary responsibility of helping students make good choices, restore relationships, and practice good life skills for success. This dean exists in place of a traditional dean or vice principal of discipline.

Students are also supported with two deans of curriculum as well as an instructional coach. All three educators work within what we call common areas. Here, they coach teachers and are only a few feet away to provide support with student engagement and individual scholar needs. The marriage and family therapist, or life coach, is on site Monday through Saturday to meet with families. Students can visit with the life coach at any time during the day, no questions asked. The life coach is a lifeline for many of our students who come to school having experienced trauma sometime in their lives.

Engagement With Relevant Content

As visitors move throughout the studios of e3 Civic High, they often see unusual instructional strategies—ones that help students connect to one another as well as to the curriculum. Since relevance is key to student buy-in, teachers often start lessons with open circles where students can practice “emptying the cup” prior to receiving additional instruction. This practice involves students and teachers sharing their thoughts, feelings, concerns, and wonderings at any given moment in a day. Sometimes this means that a student needs to vent about something that happened on their way to school. Other times students vent about their lack of understanding about a particular curriculum concept. Either way, it allows the teacher to address the needs of the students first prior to guiding them toward tackling new or more complex concepts.

Other practices that students use to connect to one another and their teachers include mindfulness activities, full physical response and movement exercises, journaling, and social and emotional activities such as restorative and connections circles in which wrongs are rectified and bonds built. Many would argue that there is simply not enough time in the day to conduct such circles and activities in each module. At this school, however, we are finding accelerated learning after having instituted these practices two years ago. Teachers and staff spend less time dealing with behavioral infractions or students acting out because every teen has the opportunity to be seen, heard, validated, and appreciated. This sense of belonging sets the stage for the next phase of our infinity loop—self-actualization.

Personalization Through Technology

The highest goal of education is to foster deep critical thinking skills in students so that they can use their resources to problem-solve and develop solutions to real-world issues. Nationwide, schools have worked hard to keep up with society’s changes by placing more laptops and tablets in the classroom. It is no longer unusual to hear that schools are 1:1. However, it is not enough to simply provide laptops to students and hope that their learning improves. In the Substitution Augmentation Redefinition Modification Model—which evaluates how computer technology impacts teaching and learning—replacing paper-and-pencil assignments with ones that can be completed via Word documents would only constitute the lowest “substitution” rung. If we want to truly improve student engagement by making assignments relevant and meaningful so that we can move students toward the realm of self-actualization, we must move into modification and redefinition of technology use.

At e3 Civic High, technology is indeed as ubiquitous as it is in our everyday adult lives. Not only is e3 a 1:1 school, this technology is employed to accelerate learning and engage students through programs and apps that personalize the learning experience. Through Clever, a centralized dashboard of apps and sites loaded virtually onto every student’s laptop, learners are able to access a variety of tools, including PowerSchool for grade management, Google Classroom to keep up with course assignments, and a host of content-specific learning sites such as NoRedInk, IXL, and Khan Academy, which provide differentiated learning practice. Students also have access to the Managed Software Center apps, where they can find dozens of creative applications such as the Adobe Creative Suite, GarageBand, and others that are used in their classes as they work on their design-thinking project prototypes.

Self-Actualization Through Design Thinking and Project-Based Learning

The design-thinking process is a form of project-based learning that is centered on empathy and guides students to solve problems they are passionate about addressing. Over the past three years, e3 Civic High has facilitated design thinking as a course for all seniors. Design thinking provides a structured process for solving complex problems, but it requires deep collaboration and research. Students choose topics that are of interest to them. They band together with a few classmates who have similar interests and learn how to work in a team; conduct authentic research through the use of technology; and produce models and prototypes by creating apps, 3D-printed models, and more. This innovative work allows students to use technology to pursue their passions, including projects aimed at solving real-world problems such as homelessness and encouraging more women to run for political office.

Students also use design thinking to create entertaining products such as apps and online games that meet a more psychological need for fun and social connectedness. Students use multiple ways of surveying others to build empathy and understanding, moving beyond the realm of regular online research and data gathered by others. This level of reaching out to the end users would not be possible without the use of online survey and data-​gathering methods such as Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media apps. Students also use Weebly, Google Sites, and other website-building platforms to communicate their messages to the public to reach their end users. As e3 graduates have noted, this level of direct engagement is both relevant and challenging, and they feel a sense of accomplishment from having designed or created a product that offers a real solution to a need or problem in society.

Strategies to Navigate 21st-Century Hurdles and Opportunities

We recognize the validity and importance of social media as adult educators, but do we truly acknowledge the potential for growth that our teens can access through these means? Yong Zhao, a renowned educational futurist, explains this opportunity well in “Education in the Age of Globalization,” when he says that the market of the future is not just tangible, it is made up of products that fulfill a deep psychological need in the consumer. Students at e3 have tapped into this, and if we are to keep up with the shifting economy and prepare them for success, we must also address this change.

This means trusting kids more with the ways in which they demonstrate their learning. It means differentiating instruction at a micro level. It means rethinking traditional tried-and-true teaching strategies so that we are able to reach our students and empower them toward self-actualization today, rather than encouraging them that all we do will prepare them for tomorrow “someday.” According to Zhao, the majority of the jobs that today’s teens will hold do not yet even exist. The time is now for us to stretch and become flexible enough that we are able to help kids become resourceful, adaptive, and free-thinking collaborators, and the way that we do this is to become facilitators of learning who continually ask, “What do you need?”

Bringing It All Together

In the end, it is not enough for educators to pose one-size-fits-all solutions for our students. However, all of the things that teens need can be encapsulated into one single word: openness. While demographic data tell us about some of the trends and patterns regarding what our students need, we truly must look closer to see our students as individuals in need of our personalized attention and care. It is only through this mindset that we will be able to truly address the needs as outlined by Maslow. We must resolve to support our students’ self-​actualization, celebrating their individuality while meeting their lower-level needs every step of the way.


Cheryl James-Ward, EdD, is the chief impact officer/principal for e3 Civic High, a public charter secondary school in San Diego, and an assistant professor at San Diego State University. She is also the lead author of the ASCD book Using Data to Focus Instructional Improvement. Michelle Harkrider is an English teacher, instructional coach, and humanities department chair at e3 Civic High. Craig Bowden, Lawrence Ke Xu, EdD, and Cesia Ayala Portillo are deans at e3 Civic High.