Why year 9 is such a tough year for teens
IT AIN'T easy being 15.
Just ask year nine students. Or, better yet, ask their parents.
This difficult developmental stage is when teenagers' hormones start wreaking havoc on everything from their mood to mental health, with this cohort experiencing record-high levels of anxiety, stress, self-loathing and worthlessness.
But what is it about year 9, specifically, that pushes angsty teens over the edge?
Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller says that while raging hormones are a big part of it, communication breakdowns are another critical factor.
"This is a hard time for teens," he says.
"Hormonally, it's all a bit of a mess. As well as the obvious surges of testosterone (the production of which increases tenfold in adolescent boys) and oestrogen, teenagers tend to be a little bit lower in dopamine and serotonin, which means they are less happy, more grumpy and generally harder to motivate.
"We also know that young people are more vulnerable and more affected by mood disorders at this age, which is why engagement in school often bottoms out, and attendance is at its lowest in years 9 and 10."
Add to this already low levels of self-esteem, which is exacerbated by social media, at a time when teens are trying to define who they are and you've got a recipe for adolescent depression, despondency and dejection.
Thankfully, Fuller says, many Victorian schools have recognised these increasing levels of teenage indifference and developed curriculums and - in some cases, even dedicated campuses - to engage and educate them.
For some schools, addressing these changing needs has seen them introduce programs that encourage confidence building and independence. For others, it's a case of shipping them off to a completely separate campus where they learn a different skillet altogether.
"When you really look at the data - the education gains just weren't happening in traditional forms of year 9," Fuller says.
"As a broad recognition at this stage of life, young people aren't really interested in what older people have to tell them or teach them, so it's a time when experiential learning and peer-based learning can be really invaluable."
This was impetus for programs like all-boys school Berwick Grammar's Year 9 Endeavour Program, now in its eighth year, which challenge students to step outside their comfort zones, helping them develop confidence, independence, resilience and leadership through off-site excursions, community service and personal development.
The idea is to instil in the students a sense of accomplishment and pride that carries them through the rest of their schooling.
"Students come in to year 9 and they can be a bit lost with what they're doing; a bit too-cool-for-school," year 9 co-ordinator Andrew Lardner says.
"The program refocuses them on specific traits and asks them to think about what they to lean about themselves and others."
Year 9, Lardner says, is basically the education equivalent of middle child syndrome. Students are no longer the new kids on the block but they're not yet heading into VCE so they're less focused on their studies. They're used to high school, which means they're comfortable but they're also acting out and easily distracted.
"What we found, especially with boys, is that they are at that age where they're starting to want to be treated as adults but don't really know how to take on that responsibility," he explains.
"They're going through puberty, discovering the opposite sex and they've got a whole lot more social things happening.
"These programs are about having conversations with them and trying to keep them engaged in school by providing structured opportunities to help them learn life skills - such as how to become more independent or organised, or allowing them to take controlled risks.
"They come into year nine as boys and we're sending them out as young men."
This type of experiential learning is nothing new. Geelong Grammar's Timbertop boarding campus was established for year 9 students in 1953. Lauriston Girls' School year 9 students have been sent to study at Howqua, in Victoria's high country, since 1993.
Wesley College students embark on eight-week intensives at Clunes and, since 2012, Emmaus College's Burwood campus has been a dedicated Year 9 campus with a specialised Y9@E Program.
Similarly, Albert Park College unveiled its purpose-built, multimillion-dollar year 9 campus in Port Melbourne in 2016 - to name just a few.
One of the most important things these year 9 programs do, Fuller says, is help children develop resilience and self-worth. At a time when students are suffering a crisis of worthlessness, schools - and parents - need to be doing everything they can to help students feel not only like they have a purpose, but that they are valued and wanted.
"Teenagers are fairly good at putting themselves down at the best of times so having someone believing in them and believing they have potential is an enormously powerful thing," Fuller says.
HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR CHILD THROUGH YEAR 9
FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR KID
The rate of change that occurs in teenagers lives is so rapid that they often no longer remember their own history. This means you have to start again and get to know your kids, again.
In the middle of adolescence, kids are forming their own identities so part of what parents have to do is relearn their child. Year 9 students are starting to differentiate themselves from their parents and begin to see themselves as separate people so, often, mum and dad can do no right and they can do no wrong.
They're forming their own away of doing things, which quite often means a lot of the historical knowledge parents have about their children is past its use-by date. Who is your child now?
In families, everyone grows up and everyone has to adjust and readjust as people start to develop and find a sense of who they are. Parents have to shift with their kids a bit and learn how to relate to them in a different way; relearning their values, relearning their sources of pride and relearning their love languages. Once you've got that knowledge under your belt you're much more able to think about what you want them to do and how you can help them.
DON'T EXPECT THEM TO LISTEN TO YOU
If you're not going to rebel when you're 14, 15, 16 - when are you going to do it? During this time it's critical to maintain and preserve a positive relationship so, when it comes to communication, it's often a case of the fewer words, the better.
It's more about what parents do rather than what they say, so make sure you're reminding your child that they are wonderful people in their own right. Make sure you tell them you believe in them.
Part of what motivates people to be successful is that they think you have something worth contributing. For students, that often comes from parents thinking you are somebody who is worthwhile; that you are worthwhile.
Having a parent who thinks you're wonderful is a wonderful gift, regardless of the situation. If your child is behaving in a way you don't love, make sure they know that doesn't mean you don't love them. Sometimes parents think that if they become too kind they'll be seen as soft, or as bad parents. But being kind doesn't mean being soft.
TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF THE CAREER PEDAL
Everybody wants to have a sense of success and wants their capabilities to be recognised. Some kids are lucky enough to be school smart, others are smart in other ways - but it's important that kids know they are more than just their future job or future exam result.
We are putting a lot of pressure on our kids to know who they should be before they know who they are. I think we need to realise there are many diverse pathways toward success and people really can learn to be smart in their own ways.
This is a time of great potential for many young people: it's when your brain is probably developing most rapidly, but also when you're not necessarily capable of making very good decisions and you're also most vulnerable to stress.
The numbers of kids that I see that who don't think they're worth much is alarming - we have a bit of an epidemic of worthlessness. We need to be helping young people value who they are as individuals, as unique people, and accepting that for some children, the best career options aren't going to be as an employee, and that's OK.