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Helping Adolescents Build Self-Confidence

Ask teenagers what they want, and you’ll get a variety of answers — a new Lamborghini, an “A” on the chemistry exam, no zits, or world peace. Look closely at what they need, however, and the answer is unequivocal. Most adolescents need a large dose of self-confidence.

Adolescents are probably the most misunderstood and discriminated-against age group (with the possible exception of the elderly). Store owners view them with suspicion. Many middle and junior high schools treat them with disdain. Parents are confounded by their argumentative behaviors. And, museum educators often shudder at the thought of touring them.

Nevertheless, those who enjoy working with teenagers find them funny, sincere, intense, and fascinating; and they wouldn’t work with any other age group. They know that many of the challenges of teaching these “in-betweeners” are directly related to the teenagers’ search for identity. And, that many of these challenges are made easier when adolescents acquire the self-confidence to accept the identity they discover.

Museums, science and nature centers, historic homes, and zoos can play an important part in helping teens develop self-confidence. By doing so, such institutions create a loyal, vital, and grateful audience. Definitely, a win – win situation for all.

Skills for Adolescents, a joint program of Lions Club International and Quest International, uses the analogy of a three-legged stool when discussing teen self-confidence. The legs are: skills and talents, appreciation, and responsibility. Each of the three components, or “legs,” must be present for a teenager to feel confident. One missing leg and the whole structure falls apart, dumping the teenager right on his or her fragile ego.

Skills and Talents

The teens who feel most self-confident are those who have skills and talents that are recognized as important by their family and peers. This is one reason so many teens find their identity in athletics. Academic success or talent in music, drama, or dance is also a confidence builder.

Museum programming that helps teens hone talents they already possess, or discover undeveloped talents and skills, can give teenagers an important boost in confidence. Such programs may allow teens to work with younger children, providing them with opportunities to discover talents for teaching or leadership. They may encourage teens to apply their computer skills to cataloguing artifacts or creating member data bases. A love of the outdoors and concern for the environment may be enlarged by volunteer opportunities or internships at a science museum, zoo, botanical garden, or nature center.

As teens search for the identity they will wear for the rest of their lives, museums can allow them to “try on” careers. Or, in the case of a one-shot museum tour, hands-on experiences and inquiry learning may teach new skills and uncover hidden talents by offering teens new or different ways of learning and contributing.


Museums also offer a great place to provide the second of the three “legs” of the self-confidence stool — appreciation. The most obvious forms of appreciation may be pictures and articles about teen accomplishments in the museum’s newsletter or the local newspaper, letters of thanks to the teen and their school for specific jobs well done, pizza parties, and recognition pins. All of these are important ways of showing the museum’s appreciation for the contributions of its teen volunteers.

There are equally important ways of expressing appreciation to even casual teenage visitors. Smiling, being attentive, and responding positively to touring teens goes a long way toward building self-confidence. Acknowledging the seriousness of their questions or expressing thanks for their attention and participation are also simple, but valuable, ways to show teenagers that your museum appreciates them.


The third leg of the stool of self-confidence is responsibility. As a teenager proves his responsibility, his self-confidence increases. The museum can provide opportunities for teens to accept responsibility for planning and presenting programs for younger children. Several of the museums featured in this issue of The Docent Educator go even farther, allowing teens a great deal of autonomy as they work within the museum. Even in the ordinary school tour, however, teens can be given choices about the exhibitions they wish to see, activities they wish to participate in, and the amount of time they want to spend in a particular gallery or area. The flexible docent who can give her teen audience the responsibility for shaping the tour does a lot to build the self-confidence of the group.

Nancie Atwell, author of In the Middle, posits three principles to help junior high teachers “make the best of adolescence.” Museum educators can also benefit from these suggestions as they develop programs to involve teens and help build their self-confidence.

  1. Accept the reality of the age group: By nature adolescents are volatile and social, and our teaching can take advantage of this, helping kids find meaningful ways to channel their energies and social needs instead of trying to legislate against them.
  2. Recognize that adolescence is a special and important time: … adolescents, too, need to be seen as individuals and responded to as people who want to know.
  3. Organize teaching in ways that help students understand and participate in adult reality: This means more say in what happens in the classroom, and more responsibility for their own learning.

Teenagers are changing and changeable. While it is always true that docents should understand the developmental characteristics of the groups with which they work, it is nowhere more important than with adolescents. Whenever possible, docents who work with teens should really like them! I read recently about an education professor with a unique pre-service requirement. Any student-teacher candidates who express a desire to work in the middle or high school must spend several hours at the mall observing the student with whom they think they want to work. Docents who are to work with this group ideally should have had positive experiences working with groups of teens. They will have seen the importance of self-confidence first-hand.

Those who teach adolescents must, themselves, be self-confident, flexible, and thick-skinned. They must also be confident in their knowledge of the material they are teaching; like other “pack animals,” teenagers can sense fear!

Docents who work with teens must be willing to treat their charges as adults, yet accept that they will act like children at any given moment. They must understand that teenagers can sound extremely rude when, in reality, they are only expressing their version of truth without the social graces that usually decorate it. They must know that adolescents are fierce in their loyalties, beliefs, and friendships, but that they may change those loyalties, beliefs, and friendships in the wink of an eye. They should also learn to separate individual teens from the “herd.” Individual teens can be charming, while at the same time they are intimidating in the “packs” in which they are most comfortable.

As with any prejudice, knowledge of individual teens can often dispel the “bad rap” teens receive in the popular media. It is sad, but true, that stories of teen violence, teen pregnancy, and teen drug abuse make titillating newspaper and magazine copy. It is difficult for individual teens to overcome the negative impact such reporting has on their self-image and the image others have of them. Is it any wonder why many teens come to school, and to your institution, with a defensive attitude that makes them hard to like?

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Helping Adolescents Build Self-Confidence,” The Docent Educator 5.4 (Summer 1996): 16-17.

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