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How to Lead a Student You Just Don’t Understand

I recently spoke to a collection of high school and college students who most would describe as “unconventional.” They wore very different clothing, sported piercings in a variety of places on their body, as well as tattoos that covered a lot of real estate.

As we discussed their social and political views, some of them could be called “radical.” (This may be true for every youthful generation over the last fifty years). At the same time, several told me they embraced some very traditional practices and had committed to never smoke, do illegal drugs or have premarital sex. As one male sensed I was trying to figure out what “box” he fit into, he smiled and said, “I am a conservative progressive.”

Teachers are finding high school and college students acting in both conventional and unconventional ways these days.

The fact is, teens and twenty-somethings are breaking from past binary stereotypes that adults aligned with in past decades. Many refuse to be forced into a mold or pigeon-holed into a predictable past category.

No boxes. No molds. No slots. No categories. Some paradoxes.

The New Narrative of Generation Z

Market research was unveiled recently from Barkley and Futurecast. Their study reveals that typical adults won’t recognize how students today define themselves. Even those who do, often cannot understand how it works. The study reports:

“If you were born before 1980, then you remember that moment in your life when you “came of age.” Whether it was traveling abroad, starting a family or some other significant life milestone, the common narrative was that young adults embarked on a journey to define who they are as a person.”

Teens today do not believe in the same narrative.

“Instead, they view their identity as a curated composition, not a revelation. Whether through their Instagram feed or by their gender expression, teens have the ability to decide who they want to be at any given point in time and how they want to share that image. All it takes to change their outward identity is a simple swipe and an upload to Instagram. According to Jaclyn Suzuki, creative director at Ziba Design, more than 75 percent of teens today feel comfortable having multiple online personas.”

In a new book (released this July) called, Marching Off the Map, Andrew McPeak and I attempt to enable educators, parents, coaches, employers and youth workers to embrace these new post-digital kids and disclose what makes them tick. This new approach to identity is foundational to Generation Z (born since the turn of the 21st century). Adolescents constantly reflect this notion of curating their own identities. Often it shows up in how they represent themselves on social media; in the way they express their gender identification (and it could be both plural or non-existent) or how they’ve meshed worldviews, both conservative and progressive. One student asked me, “Are we still labeling people like that these days?”

This may just be your own child.

Seven Steps to Lead Them Well When You Don’t Understand Them

photo credit: Black Room Photography The look via photopin (license)

The fact is, the research vividly illustrates that Generation Z is breaking down the binaries that once defined human behavior. Young teens are constantly battling the forces that push them into either traditional values or non-conformist behavior. So, what’s this fluid identity they experience mean and how do we lead them well?

1. Give Them Slack.

This may mean you relate to them a bit differently, allowing them leeway to express themselves in innovative ways. Don’t put them in a box.

2. Don’t Freak Out.

Whatever you do, don’t go ballistic and freak out at their unconventional ways, their seemingly odd choices or appearances. This shuts them off.

3. Affirm what you can.

Practice the 101% Principle. Find the one percent positive elements of their identity you can affirm, and give it 100% of your attention.

4. Call out what is harmful.

As you accept them, you’ll need to help them discover which expressions can be harmful or cause them to feel fuzzy and unclear about who they are.

5. Offer the long view.

As you converse, enable them to recognize the long-term implications of poor decisions that may diminish their future prospects. Help them see the future.

6. Help them focus.

This could just mean you help them discover their best “self” by equipping them to focus on their unique style, talents and strengths.

7. Tell them the truth.

In the end, leaders must balance grace and truth. While we allow for unique expressions of who they are, never sacrifice truthful conversation on what is constructive and what is destructive in their decisions.

Just a few years ago, I got a “thank you” note from a college student. I met her when she was in the eighth grade and had known her for six years. Over those years, her hair looked like a rainbow, she already had tattoos and piercings; she wore make up as if it were Halloween and called herself “pansexual.” To me, she seemed unique.

Looking past all of that, I began a conversation with her and got to know this strong and winsome young woman on campus. In a somewhat paternal way, I processed all the zig-zagging she was doing with her and loved her for the person I knew she was. The “thank you” note from her as a collegian came from a poised and satisfied young lady who had settled in on who she really was. No more zig-zagging. She reduced herself to one persona on social media. She no longer felt the need to project her self-worth. There was no more impulsive attention-seeking behavior. She was secure in her identity. And both her smile and her grades reflected it. She wrote me to say thanks for caring for her while she figured out who she was.

No boxes. No molds. No slots. No categories. Just one great young person.


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  • Tom B.

    Great stuff as always. One small editing point. Under #5 “Enable them TO recognize” . . . Just in case you post this another time!

    • Tim Elmore

      Honored to help. Thanks for the edit, Tom.

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