Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 2

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Working with Adolescents More Productively

Elizabeth Wadlington, Southeastern Louisiana University

Fabian Elizondo, Birkman International, Inc.

Patrick Wadlington, Birkman International, Inc.


Elizabeth Wadlington, Ph.D., is a Professor of Teaching and Learning. Fabian Elizondo, M.S., and Patrick Wadlington, Ph.D., are psychometricians in industrial/organizational psychology.


The purpose of this article is to explore ways for educators to work with adolescents more productively. To do this, the researchers conducted a study to look closely at adolescents’ vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions. It was found that personality characteristics and social perceptions of adolescents are significantly different from those of adults in many important ways. The researchers then used their findings to develop implications for working with teenagers in positive ways.


Educators are constantly searching for new ways to work with adolescents more productively. They agree that adolescent brains are different from adult brains, and brain development during the teenage years results in changes in cognition and behavior (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006; Monastersky, 2007; Sercombe, 2010). Alterations in function and structure occur as a result of biology, experiences, and social contexts. Environmental influences (e.g., experiences, social contexts) are important in brain transformations and affect thinking and actions in multiple ways (Gentile, 2009; Hudley & Novac, 2007, Kolb, 2000). Direct and indirect experiences create new brain circuitry and alter existing circuitry to a great extent up to approximately 18 years of age. This coincides with compulsory school attendance and challenges educators to stimulate optimal brain development for each individual (Kolb, 2000).

Keeping the critical nature of adolescence in mind, we conducted scientific research to learn more about vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions of adolescents.  The purpose of this article is to use our findings to suggest implications for working with adolescents in educational settings in more productive ways. The content of our paper will be divided into the following sections:

a) brief review of relevant literature

b) our research

c) implications

d) conclusion

e) reference list


Working with schools ourselves, we have found that the implications of this research are valuable in educational settings. It is our desire that our implications will be useful to others who also work with teenagers.


Relevant Literature

An important role of educators is to help adolescents build career awareness and preferences. Knowledge of how vocational identity develops during adolescence is critical for educators to be able to do this in a beneficial manner. Briefly, school and leisure activities (Vondracek & Skorikov, 1997) as well as opportunities to explore new careers play vital roles in adolescent occupational development (Hill, 2009; Vondracek & Skorikov, 1997). Academic achievement and peer social interactions/perceptions also stimulate vocational development (Meeus, 1993). In addition, individuals tend to choose vocational environments that are a good fit for their unique characteristics (e.g., personalities, self-awareness) (Holland, 1985; Paa & McWhirter, 2000). Furthermore, adolescents with parents in professional occupations tend to choose professional careers and keep their career options open longer than those with parents in unskilled jobs. Finally, teenagers’ vocational interests tend to remain stable over time (Mullis, Mullis, & Gerwels, 1998; Rottinghaus, Coon, Gaffey, & Zytowski, 2007) similar to adults (Swanson, 1999; Low, Yoon, Roberts, & Rounds, 2005; Rottinghaus et al., 2007).

Educators also must understand that personality characteristics play a key role in the overall development of adolescents. From the beginning of life, a goodness of fit between children’s personality characteristics and their parents’ personality characteristics affects the quality of parent-child relationships (Galambos & Turner, 1999). Personality characteristics also affect degree of school absenteeism and successful interventions to prevent absenteeism (Lounsbury, Steel, Loveland, & Gibson, 2004). In addition, personality characteristics may affect the degree and persistence of Attention Deficit Disorder into adolescence (Miller, Miller, Newcorn, & Halperin, 2008). Furthermore, personality characteristics affect adolescents’ goals, which in turn influence aspects of life such as education, vocation, social perceptions, and interpersonal relationships (de Acedo Lizarraga, Ugarte, Lumbreras, & de Acedo Baquedano, 2006).

In recent years, researchers have sought to identify patterns of personality development during adolescence. It has been found that agreeableness and emotional stability tend to increase or mature while individual differences in personality traits become more set during the teen years. Also, females tend to mature more quickly than males (Klimstra, Hale, Raaijmakers, Branje, & Meeus, 2009), and adolescents of both genders become more controlled and socially-confident while becoming less alienated and angry over time. Furthermore, perceptions of positive self appear to encourage adolescents to become more flexible, positive, task-oriented, and approachable (Klein, 1995).

Our Research

The purpose of our research was to explore adolescents’ vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions. To do this, we compared teenagers' vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions to those of adults.  We also compared vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions of middle school students to those of secondary school students.  We then used our research to suggest appropriate implications for working with teenagers in school.

In 2010, adolescents enrolled in 12 schools within a large school district in a southwestern U.S. metropolitan area participated in our research. The total adolescent sample consisted of 1,682 students from middle schools (seventh/eighth grades) and 205 students from high schools (eleventh/twelfth grades) for a total of 1,887 students.  The age range was from 13 to 19 years. Students were diverse with approximately 50% economically disadvantaged (according to mean), 33% limited English proficient, 55% Hispanic, 31% Caucasian, and 19% of other various ethnic groups. 

The students' vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions were compared with those of 4,300 adults from the 2007 Birkman normative data base.  This adult database has been stratified across gender, ethnicity, age, and occupation, from a variety of industries including healthcare, engineering, transportation, protective services, retail, financial services, and education (Birkman, Elizondo, Lee, Wadlington, & Zamzow, 2008). In addition, we also compared the vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions of the middle school students to those of the secondary students.

For this study, the vocational interest scales of The Birkman Method (Birkman et al., 2008) were used to gather data. The Birkman Method is a self-report measure that explores perceptions of self and social context. It has been validated via classical test theory, exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, and item response theory. It is also shown to be reliable and has been validated with other personality and non-personality constructs (Birkman et al., 2008). The Birkman Method has ten scales describing effective behaviors, ten scales describing interpersonal/environmental preferences or expectations, and ten scales describing vocational preferences. These scales are used to understand behaviors and motivations related to vocational success, social relationships, and teamwork. We took this a step further to use this knowledge in a practical manner in educational settings.

Independent t-tests were conducted to determine differences between adolescents and adults as well as between middle school students and secondary students. For all scales, raw scores were used to test statistical significance of mean differences. In addition, effect sizes analyses (Cohen’s d statistic) were conducted to determine any small, medium, or large effect sizes to indicate if behavioral differences found were observable or only due to large sample sizes.

No significant differences were found between adolescent and adult vocational interests (p < .01). However, there were significant differences in personality traits and social perceptions between the adolescent and adult samples (p < .01). Therefore, our research indicated that personality traits and social perceptions of adolescents are significantly different from those of adults.

Specifically, we found that adolescents appear to be less agreeable than adults. They tend to be more verbally dominant and enjoy debate. They tend to be more self-assertive and are less likely to be collaborative, team players. Also, their moods are less stable, and they tend to be more strong willed and opinionated than adults.  In addition, they are more non-conventional in their attitudes and perceptions than adults. Furthermore, adolescents perceive other teenagers to be very much like themselves as opposed to adults who recognize more diversity in their own peers. As a result, adolescents try to fit in with their peers and believe that there is something inherently wrong with themselves if they do not. These findings support the idea that personality characteristics and social perceptions are still developing in adolescence to a greater degree than in adulthood. Although, adolescent personality characteristics are relatively stable, their brains are still developing due to physiological and environmental influences. Therefore, their external behaviors vary during this time period as they grow and mature.

We also found that adolescents prefer an environment with more variety, change, and options than adults. They tend to like to do several activities at once resulting in multi-tasking, and they can be annoyed by delays. They also are more sensitive to real or imagined criticism and desire an environment that considers their feelings to a greater extent than adults.  In addition, they tend to like opportunities to shift their priorities as new interests arise. Therefore, they are more likely to be happy and successful in a school setting that takes these factors into account. Conversely, they can be easily bored and off-task when these factors are not considered. Failure to provide diversity and ask for student input can lead to such things as lack of focus and self-discipline as well as negative, counterproductive behaviors. These in turn can lead to poor motivation and underachievement.

We found no observable differences in personality traits, social perceptions, or vocational interests in adolescents in middle school and adolescents in secondary school (p < .01). Also, there were no significant differences in broad vocational interests between students in middle school, students in high school, and adults (p < .01).  This supports the findings of other research in which it was found that vocational interests remain stable across time (Mullis et al., 1998; Rottinghaus et al., 2007).  It suggests that basic personality traits and social perceptions do not change considerably between middle and high school.  However, adolescents can manifest these traits and perceptions in different ways as they mature.


The implications of this research are critically important to educators. A primary implication is that educators need to remember that it is normal for adolescents to be non-conventional, experience mood swings, state their opinions strongly, and identify with other teenagers. Therefore, educators can avoid taking controversial teenage behavior personally as well as develop appropriate ways to guide adolescent behaviors and learning positively. They should allow adolescents to vent their frustrations and provide emotional support for them. Furthermore, adults considering going into educational fields that involve working with teenagers should make sure that their own personalities are a good match for coping with adolescent personality characteristics.

Second, our research implies that educators should plan a variety of activities to facilitate learning and development. They should facilitate frequent changes of settings, materials, groups, and methods to motivate adolescents to stick with tasks to obtain their goals. Long term projects should be broken down into parts, and educators should provide breaks between parts. They also should actively listen to adolescents and take their ideas into account when planning. Educators should be flexible and willing to adjust as a result of teenage input. This gives teenagers a sense of ownership and control which is very important for learning. In addition, adults can provide diverse new experiences directly and vicariously to expose adolescents to new information and encourage creative/critical thinking. Furthermore, they should put extra effort into working with adolescents on team projects that involve diverse individuals (e.g., different ages, genders, cultures, socioeconomic groups) to help adolescents understand the perspectives of others. Adolescents should be helped to understand experientially that different perspectives are valid and that their own perspectives may change over time.

Thirdly, an implication of our research is that educators must help children start to identify their interests and strengths and loosely correlate these to possible types of vocations at an early age. However, adults working with adolescents should be careful not to let teenagers get locked into a career path too early without knowing themselves and about multiple types of jobs. Adults  should encourage adolescents to be open to new occupations as they continue to grow and learn more about themselves. They should be helped to realize that they are not limited by their parents’ and peers' opportunities and choices. Educators can also demonstrate how occupations change as modern technologies are developed and help adolescents become aware that they might change their vocations multiple times over their life spans.

Finally, our research implies that educators should take every opportunity to help adolescents develop more self-awareness of their own emotions, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Personality characteristics and social perception instruments (e.g., The Birkman Method) can help students better understand behaviors, preferences, and attitudes. In understanding themselves, adolescents can make personal and professional choices that encourage them to become fulfilled, productive, happy adults.


The purposes of this study included to compare teenagers' vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions to those of adults as well as to compare vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions of middle school students to those of secondary school students. We found no significant differences in vocational interests when adolescents were compared to adults which supports research demonstrating that vocational interests are stable over time.

We also found no significant differences in vocational interests, personality characteristics, and social perceptions of middle school students and secondary school students. We plan to increase and diversify our sample in future research to further investigate these findings. We would like to expand and break the student sample down to look more closely at age groups, cultures, geographic locations, gender, and influence of life experiences.

However, we did find that personality traits and social perceptions of adolescents are significantly different from those of adults. Knowing this, educators, parents, and others who work with teenagers can better understand how to deal with diverse emotions and behaviors of adolescents in effective ways. They can also plan appropriate learning environments and activities to better hold the interests of teenagers.  In addition, they can explore ways to help adolescents determine and understand their own interests, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses as well as help them see the perspectives of others. In doing so, adults will learn to work with adolescents more productively and have a lasting positive impact on the next adult generation.

Reference List


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