Over the last 10 years, I have seen countless nonprofit leaders (myself included) with after school programs, summer internships, leadership development trainings, and myriad other “opportunities” practically beg for student involvement, or just resign themselves to facilitating to half-empty rooms of teenagers. I have seen schools expand programming for “opportunities” like credit recovery, tutoring, mentoring, leadership, college nights, and many more, only to feel that their efforts were rebuked by disinterested students when no one showed up.
I have seen dozens of business leaders who wanted to share their expertise and their time to provide financial education, career orientation, job shadowing, mentorship and other “opportunities” become bewildered and ultimately driven away by the lack of apparent student interest.
So, what’s the problem? Why don’t teens seize all of our “opportunities”?
The most common adult response in my experience has been simply to blame the teen: You know how teens are! (Insert eye roll and/or deep sigh here along with shaking head.)
But, unless we are really ready to disregard the vast majority of teenagers as apathetic do-nothings, we need to figure out a better response. We need to figure out our real “opportunity” gap – the gap between what matters and is engaging for teens and what we are actually offering.
So, here are three A’s we can use to “stress test” our opportunities. These criteria might help us understand why some of our efforts have been successful and others not so much.
Is the opportunity:
Is the opportunity concrete and tangible?
Executive decision-making around abstract future consequences, deferred gratification, or possible future opportunities is not in the teen brain biology. What does it mean to them now?
Does its concreteness mesh with the self-concept of the teen?
In other words, “opportunity” doesn’t necessarily mean “opportunity for me”. If I believe I’m not college material, then opportunities around college don’t really feel like opportunities, no matter how concrete they are.
Is the opportunity communicated in terms that are relevant and relatable to students?
“You need to eat your vegetables” is too often our model for communicating opportunities to teens. It doesn’t work. Our communications should help teens want to engage, not just tell them they should.
Is the opportunity communicated in a medium that teens like and can easily access?
Most of us have created posters no one sees, written school announcements no one hears, sent emails that no one reads, provided stacks of paper applications no one ever hears about, and on and on. We need to work with teens on a better communication strategy. We can do better.
Does the opportunity tap into something important to the teen?
This is where we need to be better at including teen voice and leadership in the design of opportunities for teens. We can’t know what’s important to them without asking!
Does it connect with something positive and forward looking – according to their standards and goals (and perhaps guided by ours as well)?
Adults support teens by helping them generate goals and aspirations, but teens must own those goals if they are going to matter when they are faced with the choice between going to the mall or to tutoring.
Can it really happen and do they believe it?
Depending on the opportunity, attainability can boil down to something as simple as access to transportation or as complex as overcoming cultural and social expectations. Regardless, the teen has to believe he really can make it happen.
Is there a pathway and a personal plan?
A plan and “my plan” are two very different things. “Your plan” for me is something altogether different again.
There is no need to run ourselves ragged trying to get opportunities to students. Like any of us, they are seizing and rejecting opportunities all day, every day. If we want them to seize our opportunities, we need to start by making sure they pass the AAA test.