Adolescent Psychology Research Paper

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One of the most important factors of quality middle schools, according to experts, is responsiveness to the findings of developmental psychology regarding the emotional and intellectual development of students as they operate with peer groups. Current thinking about adolescent self-esteem, self-concept and identity formation stems from work such as that of Freud, Piaget, Erikson, and recently, Fitzgerald's description of adolescence as an existentialist crisis of varying proportions. Adolescence takes place within multiple contexts, and experts are agreed that adults who display authenticity in dealing with adolescents stand the best chance of guiding or mentoring them along the path to an intellectually, emotionally and physically healthy adulthood.

Keywords Adolescence; Authenticity; Concrete Operational Thinking; Developmental Psychology; Developmental Responsiveness; Ego; Existentialism; Formal Operational Thinking; Id; Identity Formation; Multiple Contexts; Peer Groups; Role Confusion; Self-Concept; Self-Esteem; Stages of Development; Superego


According to the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, there are three main criteria for a quality middle school in the United States. The middle school must be:

• Academically excellent - they challenge all of their students to use their minds well;

• Developmentally responsive - they are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence and respectful of students' needs and interests; and

• Socially equitable, democratic, and fair - they provide every student with high-quality teachers, resources, learning opportunities, and supports and make positive options available to all students (Lipsitz & West, 2006, pp. 57-58).

While the first and second criteria might seem like common sense, the second criterion - developmental responsiveness - is perhaps less obvious. The Forum defines developmental responsiveness in this context as a school that "provides access to comprehensive services that foster healthy physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development…and develops alliances with families to support the well-being of students" (Lipsitz & West, 2006, pp. 60-61).

In order for middle schools and even high schools to deliver on the promise of a higher quality education for all students, parents, teachers and administrators need to develop a better understanding of adolescent development and its possible implications for pedagogy.

Adolescent Development's Many Influences

Adolescent development takes place within many contents, only one of which is school or the classroom. This "multiple contexts" view allows developmental psychologists, parents and educators to look at adolescent development in the broadest possible sense and help address the many different ways adolescents can be influenced. Youngblade and Theokas (2006) offer insight as to how adolescents can be guided in their behavior:

More broadly, working from the perspective of developmental systems theory and contextual psychology, researchers theorize that behaviors arise from the dynamic, bidirectional interaction between a person and multiple levels of his or her ecology (e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Lerner, 2006; Magnusson & Stattin, 2006; Petraitis, Flay, & Miller, 1995). Youth will thrive when there is a goodness of fit between individual developmental needs and contextual resources (Chess & Thomas, 1999; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003). In addition, researchers in the field of developmental psychopathology suggest that multiple contextual factors influence both competent and risky developmental trajectories (e.g., Cicchetti & Aber, 1998; Cummings, Davies, & Campbell, 2000; Masten & Curtis, 2000; Sroufe, 1997) (Youngblade & Theokas, 2006, p. 58).

Thinking about and characterizing adolescent behavior goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Among the Greeks we hear echoes of sentiments that would be repeated throughout history by those who observe, parent or teach adolescents. Socrates (470 BC - 399 BC), for example, said young people are "inclined to contradict parents and tyrannize their teachers," while Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) wrote, "youth are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine" (cited in Dahl, n.d.).

Since the end of the 19th century, researchers have learned much more about adolescent development by applying scientific tools and methods, and pedagogues have been sought to apply those insights to areas such as curriculum development, rewards and punishments, and classroom management. This article offers a history of research on adolescent development, some key figures in the discussion and a discussion of how it bears upon education.

G. Stanley Hall: Adolescence as a "New Birth"

In 1904, G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) published Adolescence, a seminal treatise on child psychology, with an emphasis on adolescent biology - such as was known in the days before DNA and brain scans. Evoking biblical imagery, he described adolescence as a "new birth" in which, following the metaphor, the old child dies, only to be reborn as a new man or woman. But as with any birthing process, the event is not without its share of trauma, and certainly there can be emotional complications that may persist to adulthood.

Dahl and Hariri (2005) describe Hall's approach to the study of adolescent development:

One overarching principle evident throughout Hall's work-and an issue of increasing salience today-is the importance of a multidisciplinary framework for understanding adolescence. Hall drew from many different areas of investigation and observation. The title of his book, Adolescence, Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education, speaks to this diverse range of interests. Hall sought to integrate understanding across multiple disciplines. He focused attention on the role of physical growth, the biologic changes of puberty, brain development, genetic influences, sleep and biological rhythms, physical health, social transitions, religious, educational, and cultural influences (p. 368).

Sigmund Freud: Adolescence as an Inner Struggle

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) viewed adolescence as a time of inner turmoil. It is during adolescence that, after a time of pre-adolescence Freud called the "latency" period, the superego (the conscience) formed during childhood collides head on with the id (a primitive drive for food, comfort, shelter) that first manifested itself in infancy. Whereas the id and the ego (the sense of self) gradually came into balance within the child as he or she approached adolescence, the tug-of-war between the libertine id and the puritanical superego leads to inner stress and turmoil within the adolescent.

Erik Erikson: Adolescence as a Search for Self

While eschewing some of Freud's more overt sexualizing of the process of child development, Erik Erikson (1902-1994) accepted Freud's view that human development occurs in discrete psychosocial stages marked by social or cultural changes. However, Erikson viewed ages 12-18 as the stage characterized by the struggle for identity in the face of role confusion. The main objective of the adolescent, then, is to create a sense of self-identity by weeding through and then synthesizing all the information he or she had acquired during childhood. Well-adjusted adults are those who successfully worked through this integration process as adolescents (Fitzgerald, 2005).

Jean Piaget: Adolescence as the Entryway to Abstract Reasoning

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) also accepted the idea of stages of development, but he held that the stages were marked by advances in the child's mode of thinking. Piaget understood adolescence as the period of time, beginning at age 12, when a child moves from Concrete Operational Thinking (where a child can think logically) to Formal Operational thinking (where a child reasons abstractly).

Bill Fitzgerald: Adolescence, Angst

Most recently, Fitzgerald (2005) has shown that adolescent's quest for meaning has much in common with the existentialist philosophy popularized by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre. He argues that all the core themes of existentialism - most importantly the idea that humans are left largely on their own to make their own sense (or non-sense) of the universe - are played out in the lives of adolescents for the first time, and their ramifications are perhaps felt the most keenly.

It is commonly agreed that adolescence is a time filled with conflicts. A number of these conflicts closely resemble existential issues. Among these are an increase in freedom, choice, responsibility, and awareness of isolation. In addition, there is a search for meaning which may result in increased anxiety and a sense of personal emptiness (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; Frankl, 1984; Fry, 1998; Hacker, 1994; Weems, Costa, Dehon, & Berman, 2004; Yalom, 1980) (Fitzgerald, 2005, p. 795).

Adolescent Development Today

Summarizing current thinking on adolescent development, Youngblade and Theokas (2006) note that researchers are now taking a more positive view of adolescent development. As such, they are laying more emphasis on ways to enhance adolescent development, rather than looking at the ways in which healthy development can become sidetracked:

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