School Conventions and Adolescence (page 2)
Early adolescence is a second phase of negation of convention. This is coupled with an expansion of what children at this age consider to be personal, rather than under the jurisdiction of adult authority. The developmental double whammy of the early adolescent negation of convention along with the expansion of the personal is associated with an increase in parent-child conflicts (Smetana, 1995). It also makes teacher-student relations more challenging. School norms that were annoying to fifth graders become highly objectionable to some adolescents in grades 7 through 9. Issues of appearance, manners, tardiness, talking in class may become a blur of personal choice and arbitrary adult dictate.
These adolescent behaviors often give a false impression of self-centeredness, and the resistance to authority is sometimes mistakenly responded to through harsh control. University of Michigan researchers (Eccles, et al., 1993; Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998) have provided evidence that despite the increased maturity of adolescents, middle schools and junior high schools emphasize greater teacher control and discipline and offer fewer opportunities for student involvement in decision making, choice, and self-management than do elementary school classrooms. Accordingly, Eccles and her colleagues (1998) have reported that the mismatch between adolescents’ efforts to attain greater autonomy and the schools’ increased efforts at control resulted in declines in junior high students’ intrinsic motivation and interest in school.
Through it all, these students are still children in need of affection and structure. Schools are still social institutions that require compliance with certain norms in order to function. The key then in terms of positive social climate is to construct a conventional system that allows for personal expression. In many American schools this is accomplished through generous dress codes that permit oddities, such as green hair, but draw the line at obscene or immodest attire. But open dress codes needn’t be the avenue that a given community or school takes. As stated above, adolescents are generally able to adjust to the idea that school is a place where behaviors (e.g., public displays of affection, such as kissing) that would be personal matters elsewhere are under legitimate conventional regulation at school (Smetana & Bitz, 1996).
As with young children, a positive approach to this age group is for the teachers to make a distinction between the norms needed to operate the school and to protect student safety and those behaviors that constitute a “minor threat” to the social order. For example, marking a student tardy for being next to his seat rather than sitting in it as the bell rings may make the adult feel powerful, but it does little to enhance the student’s appreciation of the norm of promptness. Without reducing things to a cliché, this really is a phase that will pass, and some adult patience is called for. Most students who were “good kids” in fifth grade still view teachers as people worthy of fair treatment. For example, a student will call teachers by their titles in order not to needlessly offend the teacher, even though the student is clueless as to why using the teacher’s first name is offensive. Firm and fair enforcement of rules with a dash of humor will work better than rigid requirements for compliance.
Eventually junior high school students and high school freshmen reach the point (14–17 years) where they construct an affirmation of convention as basic to the structuring of social systems. As one would expect, this developmental shift is associated with a marked decline in classroom misconduct (Geiger & Turiel, 1983). It is also a period in which students fully comprehend that the array of school conventions structures the high school as a societal system. Even as students move within their own particular crowds and cliques, the larger conventional culture of the high school with its norms, rituals, and traditions provides many students with a sense of belonging.
An example of how this affiliation can be leveraged within a traditional large high school is provided by the “First Class” program at Deerfield High School in Illinois. First Class originated in 1994 as a result of problems with graffiti, littering, vulgar language, and a basic lack of belonging that was perceived by some students and faculty as characterizing student life at the high school. In response, a committee was formed of students and teachers who set out to democratically establish shared norms of faculty and student conduct, and agreed-upon modes for teachers to address student misbehavior. The result of these efforts was a visible dramatic shift in the overall look of the school, in student behavior, and in a general sense of school community. The challenge faced by Deerfield High School and other schools that might wish to engage in similar sorts of activities is to keep such efforts current and alive. This cannot be done simply by addressing crises and by generating formal codes of conduct. The community discourse needs to become a much more integrative aspect of student life. For this to happen, however, schools are going to have to recognize that a portion of “instructional time” is going to have to be apportioned for these social developmental purposes.
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