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How Can We Support Risk Taking During Adolescence?

June 13, 2022

Filed in: Learning & Education

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Taking risks and trying new things are how we explore and discover the world during adolescence. So how can we support the kinds of positive risk taking that best promote learning?

This was the second discussion topic at our May symposium, with panelists Molly Pencke, manager of the Bezos Scholars Program, and Wouter van den Bos, PhD, faculty at the University of Amsterdam.

To start, we can help young people think about taking “smart risks”—where they can learn something from taking the risk, said Wouter. Trying new things with the goal of learning as much as possible is not so different from the process of scientific experimentation. If you set up an experiment right, you always learn something even when the outcome is not what you expected or hoped for. Learning that you dislike acting or that you need a lot more practice to make the team is valuable information.

“A good experiment cannot fail, because you learn something anyway,” said Wouter. “Even if the thing you thought would happen didn’t happen, that’s fine because you learned something.”

We need to reframe our idea of failure, Wouter said, including our perceptions of who is allowed to fail at what. The consequences of exploration and trying new things is different for different communities–varying along gender and racial lines, for example.

The Bezos Scholars Program, a year-long leadership development program for teens managed by Molly Pencke, encourages positive risk taking by asking students to try something most have never done before: devise and lead a change project in their own school or community.

Molly explained that they approach the projects as a learning process. The scholars come up with an idea for change, run it by the key stakeholders, try it, iterate on it, and reflect on it. “It’s not, ‘I failed or I didn’t’” Molly said. “It’s never that cut-and-dry.”

Molly told the story of one scholar, a student in a diverse high school outside of Los Angeles, who had noticed that she was consistently one of the only Black students in her Advanced Placement classes. In an effort to make these AP classes better reflect the demographics of her school, she designed a “Black AP Expo” to increase Black students’ awareness of and participation in AP and honors classes.

The administrators pushed back on the idea, concerned that the project focused on only one race. But the scholar held firm–after all, Black students were the ones who were missing from the classes.

In this case, the student was not only tackling a new kind of project, she faced the additional risk of standing up to her school’s administration while talking about issues of race and inequity which some adults shy away from.

To help youth navigate these sorts of challenges–attempting something new and facing challenges–the Bezos Scholars program starts with the creation of a “brave space” that supports a sense of belonging in the cohort. Youth agree to a baseline code of conduct, then build their own agreements about how they treat each other. “If you create a space with consistent, supportive rituals, they cheer each other on,” said Molly.

This kind of supportive environment can help young people find their “growing edge.” Imagine three concentric circles: the one in the middle is the safest, where we’re comfortable. The second circle out is uncomfortable and a little bit scary, but we feel as though we can do it and learn from it. The third and outermost circle is the “danger zone,” where we don’t feel ready and might end up with a negative experience instead of an opportunity to grow. That second circle, where we feel scared but ready, is our “growing edge,” the place where we are challenged in ways that help us learn.

One more point about supporting exploration: youth don’t have to do it alone. Peers can influence positive risk taking, said Wouter, motivating friends to take on social projects or try new activities. In Molly’s example, the Bezos scholars provide positive feedback and encouragement as they each tackle their individual change projects. In turn, they may inspire other young people, like the scholar influencing her Black peers to join more AP and honors classes.

“Who are those peers?” Wouter asked. “How can we support them, how can you leverage that peer influence to have that smart risk taking? Because they can learn from each other’s experiences.”

Key Takeaways

  • Encourage youth to think about taking “smart risks” that help you learn as much as possible, even when the outcome is not what you expected.
  • Change the perspective on failure. Like a good scientific experiment, a smart risk cannot fail because you can learn something from the result.
  • Create a “brave space,” with structured opportunities to help youth, individually and in a group, reflect, express gratitude, and celebrate their risks, efforts, and learning.
  • Help young people find their “growing edge,” that zone in which they feel challenged but not overwhelmed.
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