Adolescent and Adult Decision-making Processes

When we look at our students, we can see all sorts of choices being made that make little sense to us, unless we look back to some of the choices we made when we were students, choices that may seem foolish to us now.

According to R. Kail et al’s Human Development: A Life-Span View, adolescent and adult decision-making processes are similar, although the conclusions reached are often different. Like adults, adolescents and emerging adults weigh their options, consider the consequences of each possible course of action, and choose the alternative that will most likely bring the most desirable results. The difference lies in what adolescents and adults find desirable; also, adolescents may be less clear on real outcomes than adults are.

When I was in my early twenties, I began my BEd during a summer session, and at the same time fell madly in love with a very irresponsible young man. I was serious about my long-term goal of becoming a teacher, and had always been a focused and dedicated student. However, the dizzying experience of being so enamoured of someone, particularly someone so very un-adult in his attitudes, caused me to regress to an adolescent frame of mind when it came to making choices.

Every morning I had to decide whether to leave the object of my desire alone in bed while I went off to class. It might have been a difficult decision, but he made it easy – going to class was an obligation, he explained, and fulfilling obligations was lame. Along with all the other desirable consequences of staying in bed, that rationale, and my concern that he not think of me as lame, tipped the scales. I’m sure that my phonetics teacher, seeing me wander in forty-five minutes late every morning, perceived me as rude, egocentric and lacking in drive, but for me it was simply a question of priorities.

Years later, the “B” I received in that and other courses I did that summer caused me all sorts of problems, including putting me out of the running for a number of scholarships, but at the time, those kinds of consequences seemed so far off as to be irrelevant.

Whenever I am irritated about students who don’t come to class, don’t hand in their work or don’t show up for their appointments, I remind myself of what my priorities were when I was an adolescent and emerging adult. There is a reason that our mature students are generally more dedicated than our younger ones; older and younger people’s decisions are made in exactly the same fashion (what are the possible outcomes? Which of these outcomes would I prefer?) but older people’s choices are often based on values and life experience/understanding closer to the teacher’s, whereas in the world of a teenager or emerging adult, different criteria take precedence. Many of our students are far more preoccupied with the personal and the social than they are with the scholastic, and if they have to choose between a party (or band practice or a night with their boyfriend) and their homework, sometimes their homework will lose – the consequence of attending the party is more immediately desirable than that of completing the essay, or maybe the consequence of not doing the readings is ambiguous.

It may be our job to point out, and then bring about, some of the consequences that our adolescent and young adult students are overlooking. Until those consequences take on real form and make a real impact, they may not figure much in our students’ decision-making processes. If I had received all As in my courses despite my dismissive attitude, I might have continued to be lax (and stayed with that particular boyfriend) longer than I did. And it was only years later that I understood the long-term impact my actions had had, and only then that the lesson was truly learned.

Disaster may have to be the teacher in some cases: failing an assignment or a course may be the only outcome a student truly understands. One of my biggest beefs is the disconnect I often see in students’ minds between their actions and the results of those actions. (More on this another time.) If they see clearly that the undesirable consequences of a certain behavior outweigh the rewards, the behavior may change.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)


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