Four Strategies to Help You Stop Stereotyping Teens

By Tim Elmore


None of us like for others to stereotype us. When we were young, we hated it when adults assumed something was true about us and never gave us a chance to prove them wrong. I wore my hair a bit longer when I was a high school student, and I am certain some of the faculty on campus assumed I was a troublemaker. 


Why do we do this?


Stereotypes are mental shortcuts. We stereotype people all the time because we’re not willing to do the work to dig deeper and discover what’s true. Our brains are wired to draw conclusions quickly. These judgments are not necessarily accurate, but they can feel like they are, and they’re responsible for many of the narratives we have about our students. The best way to describe what happens is that our brain fills in the blanks when we first hear or see something. We prefer to fill in those blanks rather than wait for a student to fill in their own blanks. Brains do this as a survival mechanism, always alert to address harmful input. We base our judgment on the previous information or experience we possess on someone similar. The problem is we fill in the blanks even if we have very little previous input, and it can do harm. According to research by the Fawcett Society, “Stereotyping in childhood has wide-ranging and significant negative consequences for both males and females, with more than half (51%) of people affected saying it constrained their career choices and 44% saying it harmed their personal relationships.”


Let’s be honest. We don’t like other people doing this to us—but we certainly do it to our teens. So, how can we curb this?


Four Simple Strategies to Stop Stereotyping 


Don’t get furious. Get curious.

If you’re impatient or quick to get angry, check yourself when you feel emotions rising. Instead of getting furious at a student who’s said something unexplainable, why not genuinely inquire why they did so? Stay calm, ask them, then listen well. I did this recently, and afterward, I ate humble pie. I saw a high school student trying to break into someone else’s locker. Instead of rushing to judgment, I asked about it and discovered the student had a reason for his conduct. He was helping a friend who’d forgotten her combination, grew anxious and ran to the restroom in a panic attack. He was solving a problem. 


Delay judgment until you dig deeper.

We’ve all heard the instruction—count to ten before you do or say something rash. Taking a moment to reflect before rushing to a conclusion could save the day. In that waiting time, why not dig a little deeper to discover more information that might guide a wise response? Years ago, I heard about a middle school outside of Philadelphia that was having disciplinary issues with its students. A local partner recommended that they institute a new system to help students communicate their feelings. Now, as students enter the building, they call out a word and a number to represent how they are feeling. Students with a negative emotional report card are pulled aside for direct intervention. Simply taking time to listen to struggling students helped the school drop their disciplinary incidents by more than half and even led to higher overall GPAs


Begin with belief. 

I have come to believe that people are down on what they’re not up on. When we don’t have all the information, we tend to get suspicious or skeptical, especially about teens. The best default response for me is always to assume a posture of belief. I can turn my frustration into fascination with a student by believing the very best about them. I imagine them on their very best day before I confront a situation. It completely changes my demeanor, my tone of voice, my body language and my words. I recently practiced this with a teammate, and his defenses went down. Consequently, we enjoyed an emotion-free problem-solving time. 


Imagine how the trait you see in a student could be used for good. 

This one is almost magical. When a teen does something you feel is absolutely ridiculous or downright stupid—try getting alone, closing your eyes and imagining how that teen’s behavior could somehow be leveraged for something good. It might be a quirk that could be used in a stage play or a phrase that could be tweaked and used to achieve a positive goal. I read about police who arrested New York gang members for painting graffiti on some walls. They encouraged those teens to use their artistic gift for good, enrolled them in art classes and now they’re making beautiful paintings and getting paid for it.


I think I’ll never forget my freshman year of college. Dan, a college senior, approached me during my first semester and accused me of being fake. He felt I acted overly excited and my passion was phony. I don’t know why Dan felt he had to confront and judge me, but I returned to my dorm room stunned. He was a respected and influential student on the floor. After recollecting my sense of identity, I determined I would prove him wrong. My enthusiasm was real. The years passed, and during my senior year, I saw Dan again. I was in my final year of undergraduate studies; he was in his final year of graduate school. He stopped me in the library and looked me straight in the eye silently for what seemed like an eternity. He then said, “Tim, I was wrong about you. I’ve watched you on this campus for almost four years now, and you are the real deal. I’m sorry for what I said.”


I’m grateful for his retraction. Let’s refuse to stereotype. Our words must shape, not destroy.


Four Strategies to Help You Stop Stereotyping Teens