Teach Adolescents Autonomy to Lower Anxiety, Depression

School is more than just a place for learning academic subjects. It’s also where students mature as people and figure out how to be part of society.

Kids take the more general lessons they learn in school out into the rest of their lives. Because students spend such a big portion of their lives in the classroom, their educational experience is an important part of their day-to-day lives.

With this in mind, psychologists from South China Normal University looked at how different teaching styles affect students’ broader life satisfaction. In particular, the researchers looked at whether teachers who encouraged and supported autonomy had an impact on their students’ lives that extended beyond the classroom.

The researchers didn’t choose to focus on autonomy randomly. A study last year found that teacher support for autonomy changed students’ lives for the better. Specifically, all of the following were true for students who received more autonomy support in 7th grade:

  • More of their basic psychological needs were met in 8th grade.
  • They were more engaged in school in 9th grade.
  • They experienced less problematic online game use in 9th grade.

Previous research has also suggested that encouraging autonomy is a win-win for students and teachers. Teachers who were more autonomy-supportive experienced higher teaching motivation and job satisfaction as a result.

The latest study, however, looked for even farther-reaching benefits of teacher autonomy support, with an emphasis on students’ mental health. What it found was:

  • Students receiving higher more teacher autonomy support in the fall semester of 7th grade reported having more of their basic psychological needs met in the spring semester of 7th grade.
  • Having more of these basic psychological needs met in spring of 7th grade in turn increased school engagement in fall of 8th grade
  • Ultimately, being more engaged in school in 8th grade resulted in being less anxious and depressed in spring of 8th grade

In other words, teachers who supported and encouraged autonomy set of a chain reaction of positive psychological effects that culminated in reduced anxiety and depression.

This is a study with an important takeaway: supporting autonomy is one of the most effective things you can do to change teenagers’ lives for the better. Teachers, parents and anyone who works with kids should make encouraging autonomy a priority.

However, there’s one other piece to this: as a society, we have to make sure we’re giving teachers the tools and support they need to support autonomy in their students. A study published in December showed that as teachers become burned out and emotionally exhausted, their ability to support students’ autonomy rapidly declines. There is a direct path of cause-and-effect that starts with poor work environments for teachers and ends in anxiety and depression for students.

In the end, this is one of the best kinds of psychology research because it gives us two concrete things we can do to make the world a better place: use teaching methods that build independence and self-sufficiency by encouraging autonomy, and do everything we can as a society to make sure teachers aren’t in overly stressful work environments so we can help teachers help students.

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