Emily Sevenz

Picture this: a family dinner unfolds. Sunlight fades, painting the room in warm hues, as everyone gathers around the table. Food steams, conversation flows, plates are passed. Except for one. Across the table sits your teenager, an island of silence amidst the chatter. Their gaze, uninterested, a frown pulling at their lips. One-word answers are squeezed out, the spark of their usual humor and engagement extinguished. Frustration simmers, questions bubbling up: “What’s wrong? Are you mad? Talk to me!” But your words seem to bounce off a wall of quiet resistance. But you’re not only a parent, but also a teacher, and you’ve built an arsenal of strategies to help break down the barriers of not only your own children, but also the students in your classroom.  

This scene is a poignant illustration of the often-neglected aspect of teenage development: self-awareness. While bodies morph and hormones rage, the inner landscape of emotions and thoughts can remain uncharted territory. It’s no wonder they retreat into their shells.  

The good news is, emotional intelligence and self-awareness are not fixed traits, but skills that can be cultivated. It’s a journey, yes, one with winding paths, dead ends, and moments of sheer bewilderment. But it’s a journey worth taking, not just for teenagers, but for all of us who yearn for deeper connections and a more fulfilling life.

Here are 10 ideas I use in my classroom that illustrate how we can embark on this quest for teaching self-awareness together:  

I See You

As I greet my students at the door, and I notice one of my students seems off, I start with a, “Hey, you doing okay?” Many times the answer is a flat, “Fine.” My response is, “Okay, well if that changes, you can talk with me about anything.” It’s important to let them know that they are in control of the conversation. They know I see them, they know my door is open, they know I am a safe person that will listen. 

The Power of “One to Ten”

Start by creating a safe space for open communication. Ditch the accusatory “What’s wrong?” and opt for a gentler approach. Ask them to rate their stress level on a scale of 1 to 10. This seemingly simple question invites them to pause, reflect, and acknowledge their internal state. Encourage them to explain the “whys” behind their rating and listen without judgment. 

Stress Detectives

After they rate their stress level, I like to follow up with the question, “Where are you feeling pressure? School, home, friends, sports, health?” Stress, like a mischievous gremlin, can hide in many corners. Schoolwork, peer pressure, family dynamics, even personal health concerns – any of these can be the culprit behind that furrowed brow. Help your teen become a stress detective, exploring all the potential sources of their anxiety. Once they recognize the stressors, then they can build a plan to address their stressors. 

Validation Station

Teenagers often feel like their emotions are a whirlwind, misunderstood and dismissed. The magic power of validation lies in acknowledging their feelings as real and legitimate. Phrases like “That makes sense you’d feel frustrated” or “It’s okay to be disappointed” can be immensely powerful. I sometimes say flat out, “Your feelings are valid.”  

Big vs. Small Battles

Teenagers are egocentric. This is cognitively appropriate for this age group. Child psychologist, David Elkind points to the fact that although the term has a negative connotation, it is a normal part of adolescent behavior. Not all problems carry the same weight. Help your teen differentiate between big, life-altering challenges and smaller, manageable issues. For the smaller ones, encourage them to brainstorm solutions, empowering them to take ownership of their well-being. For the bigger ones, offer your support and guidance, reminding them they’re not alone in facing the storm. Be patient. While the problem they are facing seems small to you, it can feel enormous to them.  

Pen Pals with Inner selves

Journaling can be a powerful tool for self-discovery. Encourage your students to write down their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This introspection allows them to analyze their own narrative, identify patterns, and gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what makes them tick. I do an activity I call the 3 Minute Diary. Each student is given a loose-leaf piece of paper and has three minutes to be completely honest with themselves. They write down anything and everything that is on their mind or heart. Then they tear it up and recycle it. I’ve had students ask to share their 3 Minute Diary with me, but it is never a requirement.  

Mindfulness Minute

In our fast-paced world, taking a breath can feel revolutionary. Find mindfulness playlists on YouTube that speak to you and would work with your group to practice mindfulness, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Guided meditations, focusing on the senses, or simply taking deep breaths can anchor them in the present moment, offering a much-needed break from the mental chatter.  

Find technology to support your work teaching self-awareness. 

I utilize EVERFI’s character education training. Easy to set up, easy to navigate, and completely free. (A teacher’s dream!) EVERFI pairs engaging interactive activities with social emotional curriculum. Need I say more? I build it into my Monday homeroom work. Students know what is expected of them, and it is a great way to process and decompress from the weekend.  

Remember, You’re the Guide, Not the GPS

It’s crucial to remember that you’re not your student’s therapist or life coach. Your role is to offer support, guidance, and understanding, not dictate solutions. Let them know you’re in their corner, cheering them on as they navigate the ups and downs of self-discovery.  

Teach Healthy Relationships 

Teaching teens about healthy relationships isn’t just about protecting them from heartbreak and drama; it’s about laying the foundation for their future well-being. Navigating the complex world of friendship, family, and romance shapes their self-esteem, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. When equipped with knowledge about positive boundaries, equal respect, and healthy conflict resolution, they’re less likely to fall prey to manipulation, abuse, or negative peer pressure. These skills blossom into fulfilling adult relationships, allowing them to build strong support systems, foster healthy families, and thrive in all aspects of life. It’s an investment in their happiness, resilience, and ability to love and be loved authentically. In essence, empowering them with relationship literacy is empowering them to build a richer, more fulfilling future. To aid in this work, I use EVERFI’s curriculum’s Character Playbook: Healthy Relationships 

The ultimate goal of this exploration is not to create perfect, problem-free individuals. It’s to guide them towards becoming independent, healthy, and happy adults who can weather life’s storms with resilience and grace. It’s about fostering open communication, building trust, and empowering them to understand and manage their inner world.  

So, the next time that familiar silence descends at the dinner table, remember, it’s not a rejection, but an invitation. Be patient, be present, and most importantly, be the cheerleader for your student’s journey of self-discovery. Their inner light may be flickering, but with your gentle support, it can illuminate the path ahead, shaping them into happy and healthy adults. 


Emily Sevenz is a passionate educator with 14 years of experience, primarily at the middle school level. A firm believer in student advocacy, she fosters a positive and engaging learning environment where her motto, “you can laugh while you learn,” comes to life.

Her dedication to her students extends beyond academics. Emily is a strong advocate, ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are met in a supportive and stimulating classroom atmosphere where everyone belongs and is valued.