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The Four Seasons of Growth for Students

Recently, I spoke to teachers who said they’d each received notes or calls from former students, years after they graduated. The good news is, in every case, the young adult wanted to thank their instructor for a particular conversation, for a unique experience or for a class discussion that marked them. Permanently.

We all love getting such notes from former students.

What interests me is what they say in these notes. So, I began to track the kinds of remarks these former students made and what they were thankful for. In every case, it wasn’t so much the class subject or the textbook or even the personal applications (homework) assigned. It was something more than these.

The Four Seasons of a Student’s Life

photo credit: francisco_osorio University Life 143 via photopin (license)

Depending on what season of life they’re experiencing, young people pick up cues from their environment in different ways. Observation. Conversation. Participation. Based upon brain development and on environmental factors, a child takes shape under our noses, and we often don’t realize the impact of those factors at the time.

Have you ever asked the question: How are values or priorities transferred to students or young employees? Why do they adopt some big ideas and not others? Have you ever wondered who is most influential in your child’s life? Or, do you know why they embrace certain values that seem so different than the ones their mom and dad embraced? Values are being transferred all the time—negative and positive. We need to figure out how to get in on the game.

Years ago, Dr. Rick and Kathy Hicks wrote about this in their book, Boomers, Xers and Other Strangers. They talk about four distinct stages for how kids adopt their values growing up, and the authors position them in the four columns below. In different periods of life, kids develop in this way:

Ages 1-7 Ages 8-13 Ages 14-20 Ages 21 and Up
Imprint by Observation Modeling by Heroes Socialization by Peers Significant Emotional Events
Kids pattern after adults Kids choose who they’ll emulate Kids change via key relationships Experiences challenge them to change

How Students Grow and Learn

In their earliest years, students acquire values almost exclusively at home. During ages 1-7, they’re communicated through “imprint by observation.” Whatever Mom does is right. It becomes the norm. Children are too young to distinguish between an acceptable or an unacceptable value.

During ages 8-13, values are picked up from the model their heroes give them. They are now old enough to choose their heroes, and they tend to willfully emulate them, whether they are athletes, TV stars, friends, relatives or parents. This is the stage when Spiderman posters or Katy Perry pictures are hung in bedrooms.

By their teenage years, the method of value transfer is socialization by peers. At this point, the student begins to compare their values and style with their friends’ values and style, to see what works best. They notice how one friend’s curfew is midnight while theirs is eleven o’clock. Key peer relationships now play a vital role in values and behavior.

Finally, at about 20 years old, the student moves to an adult method of acquiring values. That method is significant emotional events. They are old enough for events to spark a change they want to make, even though they need follow up to make it permanent. Key events cause them to evaluate their values or enhance them.

Two Key Ingredients

You will notice that during their young adult years, people grow by engaging in two vehicles. Adolescents require a vital blend of these key ingredients: coaching relationships and catalytic events that challenge them. Consequently, we can see the crucial role of both “events” and “process” in their growth. Their growth will depend on the creation and wise use of both of the following:

1. Significant events
2. Safe environments

The first rule I suggest to adults who wish to invest in Generation iY, is to recognize the power of these two ingredients in their lives. I recommend you host events, then follow them up by forming communities for conversation and application of the topic revealed at the event. The event introduces the new idea you wish to convey, but the community environment is where the real life-change occurs. Far too often, we have depended solely upon some big conference, assembly or retreat to do all the work. We download a bunch of information and trust they understand it and will conform. For most young people, this just isn’t realistic. They need a process after the event:

The Event The Process
1. Encourages decisions 1. Encourages development
2. Motivates young people 2. Matures young people
3. Is a calendar issue 3. Is a consistency issue
4. Is usually about a big group 4. Is usually about a small group
5. Challenges young people 5. Changes young people
6. Becomes a catalyst 6. Becomes a culture
7. Is easy 7. Is difficult

My question for you is—how well are you practicing these two elements in the four stages of your students’ lives? Are you hosting significant events and do you offer safe environments for them to talk? For ideas on development and the use of these two key ingredients, visit GrowingLeaders.com.


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  • Fantastic points if we are the help create the type of lasting change we want to to see in those we influence. I am guilty of relying on those big calendar events to do all of the work and have just now begun to explore ways to dig in on the on-going safe environment side of things. As we know, motivation wanes and needs to be cultivated continually so I understand why these safe environments to develop are so important.

    Tim, I’m curious – as a follow-up is there a recommended frequency? 1x per week? Monthly? How much does iY consider too much? I’d love help finding the sweet spot as we continue to build out awesome programming for our student-athletes.

    Now, time to search amazon for the Tim Elmore posters! Thanks for the insight 🙂

    • Tim Elmore

      Great question. Every culture is different. What we’ve found is that you create a structure that allows you to build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth. The most important thing is that you are consistent in these meetings and that you let your players talk. We consult many teams for free on how to do this. If you’re interested, please contact our Director, JT Thoms – jt@growingleaders.com.

      P.S. Please tell Jon Gilbert hello 🙂

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