Adolescence is an important period when young people examine who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to impact their communities and society. This process of exploration allows young people to shape their overarching self-concept and motivates them to pursue learning opportunities that align with their personal goals.
Developing a strong sense of self, known as identity, goes a long way toward defining an adolescent’s direction and personal capacity to meet the challenges the young person encounters in the world. But identity does not come from a simple formula. It develops as teens negotiate and integrate their own ideas and experiences with characteristics they acquire from their families, friends, and surroundings.
Adolescence also is a time when young people seek to influence the activities in their lives. This is known as agency. Having agency can help improve adolescent health and well-being and can lead to greater self-confidence. Students who view themselves as agents and advocates generally enjoy higher levels of mental health, maturity, and greater life satisfaction.
Shaping Personal Identity
Identity and agency develop in tandem with changes in the brain that support complex thinking and self-regulation. For instance, the mental agility needed to understand someone else’s perspective still is developing during adolescence. As this and other types of advanced cognition mature, adolescents are better able to perform executive functioning tasks involving planning, decision making, self-control, selective attention, working memory, and quick adaptation to changing conditions. These skills are necessary to help teens identify a meaning and purpose for their lives that can lead to a strong sense of identity.
Adolescents wrestle with questions like “Who am I?” and “Why am I?”. They reflect on personal memories of triumphs and hardships to construct their emerging identities. As teens shape these personal identities, they must reconcile the conflicting attributes and perspectives of the groups they encounter, both in their communities and through social media. For instance, conforming to the expectations of a certain peer group may earn a young person positive recognition in the moment. However, it also might conflict with a teen’s individual identity, especially for young people who feel they do not fit in with the groups that represent the majority of the individuals in a community.
Identity development intertwines what others think about an individual with what individuals think about themselves. Success with integrating these various perspectives can better equip teens to navigate diverse settings and experiences.
Assuming an Active Role
School represents an important testing ground for identity development and agency. For instance, when a high school student chooses elective courses that support a personal interest or career goal, the student takes a self-directed, voluntary action that demonstrates agency. Similarly, when students join together to create a school recycling program or to petition school administrators to start a new afterschool club, they take collective action to change their school environment.
Educators play a crucial role in supporting adolescents as they develop their own identities and seek to understand the world around them. Respecting teens’ ideas boosts their identity and confidence and helps them devote more brain power to academic tasks. In fact, such support is one of the most important dimensions of the social environment in schools. For instance, teachers can create opportunities and assignments that specifically call on students to reflect on their own identities and identity development. They can ask students to explain their strengths and needs as learners and the supports that help them succeed in school.
Additionally, schools play a pivotal role in providing adolescents with opportunities for agency. For example, educators can introduce students to civic engagement activities and youth programs to help them understand community and government structures and how to advocate for specific issues. Then students can seek ways to improve their school or community, plan how to accomplish those changes, and share their ideas with outside audiences such as community members and school board representatives. These and other approaches can go a long way in helping students develop positive identity and agency.
To learn more about how educators can support adolescent agency and identity development, read the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) report Science of Adolescent Learning: How Identity and Empowerment Influence Student Learning.
Science of Adolescent Learning at All4Ed
All4Ed supports schools and districts in implementing established findings from adolescent learning and development research—a body of disciplines known collectively as the science of adolescent learning. Visit all4ed.org/SAL to access All4Ed’s collection of resources and join All4Ed’s mailing list to stay current on the latest news and developments. To share your expertise and receive answers to specific questions, contact All4Ed’s Vice President of Practice Winsome Waite, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 261-9846.
Featured photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action