Published 15th October 2021

Flow in lights in sky

Of all the age groups we can find ourselves teaching in a TEFL classroom, teens are often thought of the most challenging. Of course, this can be different for different teachers. Some teachers prefer teaching kindergarten while others would rather pluck their eyebrows than teach a Young Learner! But more often than not, the thought of teaching teens can send shivers down the spines of even the most experienced TEFL teachers. But this is where flow comes in.

Why is teaching teens so challenging?

To be fair, teaching teens is no more or less challenging than teaching any other age group. The difficulty comes when we, as adults, struggle to relate to learners at this age. It seems as though humans are wired to forget those turbulent years of adolescence, so it is difficult for us to understand teens.

In general, teens lack motivation, are influenced by peer pressure, and can have self-confidence issues. They can be disruptive (usually if they are bored), opinionated and emotional. On the flip side, teens can focus on an activity or topic for an extended period of time. They are opinionated and creative, which makes for interesting lessons. And they have a great sense of humour.

Read more: The Challenges of Teaching Teens

So while they might be a bit challenging they are fantastic students if you can harness their energy appropriately.

Teenage EFL students doing a groupwork task
Group Of Teenage Students Collaborating On Project In Class

What is flow?

A useful tool for TEFL teachers when teaching teens is known as flow.

Flow is a concept which was identified and studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the co-founders of positive psychology. While his name might be a bit complicated, his theory of flow is a simple one.

Flow describes those moments when a task is absorbing because it is both doable and challenging.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

In essence, what this means is that we experience a state of happiness when our levels of challenge and skill are balanced. If the challenge is too great for your skill level, you will feel anxious and stressed. If the challenge is too low for your skill level, you will be bored and distracted. Both of these cases will lead to demotivation.

When you enter a state of flow, you are not distracted by other thoughts or worries. You are totally involved in whatever you are doing, to the extent that you might not realise that you forgot to eat lunch!

Flow in the EFL classroom

Research has shown us that being in a state of flow increases your creativity, motivation and well-being. What’s more, students have shown that they prefer to experience flow when they are working in a group, or collaborating with other students. They rated these activities more enjoyable than when they experienced flow on an individual task.

What this means for the classroom is that we should organise activities which require teamwork. This does not necessarily mean the entire task needs to be done as a group. Rather, each student can complete an activity individually but then the students are brought together into groups to complete the next step of the task.

If you have done a TEFL course or have any experience in the EFL classroom, you should realise that this is exactly what we try to achieve in our lessons. Groupwork requires communication. In our EFL classrooms, this gives our students extra opportunities to speak and practise their English. But at the same time, we are actually contributing to their enjoyment of and focus on the task! Plus this is likely to lead them to perform better! Win-win-win!

Flow and teens

With teens, flow becomes especially useful.

Teens can struggle with motivation. Activities which result in a state of flow will increase their intrinsic motivation because they will want to experience that feeling of euphoria and achievement. Their extrinsic motivation is also increased as they feel the pressure to perform in their groups.

If teens are challenged adequately, they will not only push themselves to improve, but they will have more interest in a topic. They will be more engaged with the lesson materials and subject matter. This will lead to a greater retention of the information.

Read more: Top Tips for Teaching English to Teens

Teen EFL students working together at a desk
Group of teen EFL students in discussion in a classroom

Top tips for creating flow in your EFL classroom

  • Make sure the level of challenge is correct. Think like Goldilocks: it can’t be too easy, it can’t be too difficult, it must be just right.
  • Give them autonomy. If students are given any kind of a choice when it comes to a classroom task, they are likely to be more engaged. This can be choosing between reading a text or listening to a text, choosing between worksheets or choosing how to give feedback on a task.
  • Give regular feedback. Students need to receive feedback while they are carrying out a task, not only once they are finished. This will give them the opportunity to make sure they are on the right track, which will motivate them more, and make any adjustments necessary.
  • Make your lessons relevant. If students can relate to the task at hand or even the topic, they will find it more enjoyable and pay more attention. This is especially true when it comes to English when they can see how they would use the language in their lives outside the classroom.
  • Foster relationships between the students. In order to work well together in groups (which is the optimal learning environment), students need to get along with each other. Make sure you help your learners get to know each other and work nicely together.
  • Create an optimal learning environment. To be in a state of flow, learners need to feel relaxed and comfortable. They should not feel anxious about making mistakes. You should encourage them to take chances with their language and inject a sense of humour into your lessons.

Read more: An Activity for Your Teens

The bottom line: yes, teaching teens can be challenging but we know TEFL teachers love a good challenge! Besides, if you harness the power of flow your job will be so much easier – and your students will be so much happier!