Sunday, March 2, 2008

Aiding Adolescents into Adulthood: Examining the Patchwork Self

"Girls need a sense of belonging and it just makes sense to take the biggest distraction for girls out of the classroom so that they can focus better. I have also found these student's to participate more in an all girls classroom because they feel like they belong and do not have anyone over shadowing or intimidating them as boys often do." - freshman science teacher comment on single sex verse coed schools.

Common Questions of new educators:

What is a patchwork self! How can I as a teacher acknowledge and help students create a more individual identity?
Is this important to do, I’m only a teacher?

If you are asking yourself any of these questions it is important to read this article! The adolescent years are some of the most important years in a person’s life because they are the years that often times define and develop a person’s personality and identity that they will carry throughout their adult life. During junior high and high school this identity process can often lead to instability and emotional outbursts that often seem out of character for the student and can be disruptive in your classroom. The identity process is one of the most crucial processes that students will go through as they create a patchwork self. David Elkind is one of the leading researchers on student personality development and has identified students as creating a patchwork self. He defines a patchwork self as, “an end result of a personality growth by substitution” (Elkind 1998). A patchwork self is the result of different attitudes, values, beliefs and habits that do not really connect. It is a combination of students trying to create a personality that mirrors someone else, such as a popular kid or a well liked student at school to the struggle of trying to decide what is best for them as an individual. Student’s who create a patchwork self often have low self-esteem and are trying to fit in with a more popular crowd at school. They may for example go to a drinking party that goes against their religious beliefs but sacrifice their own values in order to be/feel accepted. This creates an inner anger problem as they struggle with being angry at themselves for not standing up for what they believe in to the polar opposite of being angry at themselves for standing up and not going along with the crowd (Elkind 1998). The stress that goes along with this inner struggle can cause many difficult situations within your classroom. It is important to understand the causes of this stress in your students in order to be better able to help them coup with the stress and help them begin to create an identity that is true to themselves which is important for a solid transition into adulthood.

David Elkind defines many different stresses that can cause problems for students with a patchwork self. Two that we will examine are anxious and conforming teenagers because these will be the two most common found in your classroom. Anxious teenagers stew over their decisions because they lack a sense of self and can not decide whether to give in or get out of a situation, when these students are confronted with negative situations that are avoidable oftentimes their conflicting values within their patchwork self can pull them in multiple directions at the same time, this can lead to a potentially dangerous situation. Elkind compared anxious adolescents to those lacking mature stress-management skills and often times reverting back to infant skills such as pretending to get sick to avoid the situation (Elkind 1998). While many new teachers could have trouble seeing how this personality disorder can have an affect on your classroom an environment it is often something that when not considered can cause a huge problem during class. An example would be when you ask the students to break into group to solve a problem say in a history textbook. This problem could deal with how the students would react to a situation during the Great Depression. A student with a patchwork self who leans toward anxiety disorder may pretend to get sick or not participate in the group for fear of saying something that would not be accepted. One way we can help encourage our students to develop a greater sense of self identity and maturity is to encourage each student to first write down their thoughts separately and then compare them. We also must create an environment where everyone’s ideas are respected and heard. You can create this environment by setting down ground rules on day 1 about respect and the consequences of not respecting their peers. Conforming teenagers have similar issues as they deal with creating a patchwork self but differ from those with anxiety because they lack self-acceptance and often do not get support from home so they seek it in their peers (Elkind 1998). These are the teenagers in your classroom who most likely will engage in risky behavior to get the attention and support of their peers. It is important as educators to notice when a student is acting out in class to get a response from their peers and to not respond to them in front of their peers. In order to deal best with these students it is important to set up a time to meet with the student outside of the classroom time when their peers are not present. Often it is during this time that we can talk with the student and encourage them to discover their own identity and not define it by others. One way we as a teacher can assist students in this process is to assign classroom time or homework where the student is given a life situation or a problem and they must journal how they would respond to this. By the student being able to write privately about their response they will avoid the stress of conforming to their patchwork self. It is with hope that this will help aid the student into a more mature and adult like identity and allow them time in quiet to get to know their inner self and not the outward self they claim to be in front of their peers.

While we as teachers want to make a great impact in teenagers lives and often times go into the teaching profession seeking to “change” students, it is important to note that we may never see these changes that many times will occur. Often times these changes take years to see and we as educators may never see the benefits of what we have done but we must still march on and continue to encourage our student to grow in maturity. Creating a classroom environment that is accepting of students from all background and cultures can help open the door for new identities to be formed and students to start breaking away from the patchwork selves. Acknowledging this issue is the first step into aiding students in a transition to adulthood. You can not change them even when you see negative behavior but you can use your knowledge and understanding of these behaviors to create lessons and environments where individual learning is encouraged and respected.

Elkind, D. “All Grown Up and No Place to Go.” Perseus books, NY, NY 1998.

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