Communication Activity: Why Teens Need to Practice Having Difficult Conversations

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month.


Eighth graders have always had a difficult time with difficult conversations. At their age, conflict is common, but they lack the skills and experience needed to resolve it in a healthy and constructive way. That’s why communication is such an important part of any health curriculum. So many of the negative behaviors we see in middle school—exclusion, gossip, even physical altercations—are the result of young teens not fully knowing how to express themselves yet.


As part of our class, we’ve traditionally had the students learn about communication and then practice their skills by performing “Difficult Conversation Skits.” We ask the students to brainstorm several common conflicts or difficult conversations that can happen in eighth grade, and then they set about to write a script and perform an effective way of handling it.


Something was different this year, though. When I asked the students to brainstorm some common scenarios, they weren’t able to come up with nearly as many. In fact, it was almost like pulling teeth. When I brought up ideas and examples from the past, many of them looked at me like I was nuts and responded with, “Why wouldn’t you just send a message instead?”


That’s why this month’s Choices article, How to Talk to Anyone, is such an important read. Today’s teens have never experienced a world where texting wasn’t an option, so to them, conflict and awkward situations are easily avoided. The trouble with this, of course, is that when they are put in a situation that requires face-to-face interaction, they can freeze up and forget what to do.


After the initial period of discussion, we settled on the scenarios from the article to use for our skits. These were situations in which the author pointed out when it wouldn’t be OK to send a text—breaking up, having an argument, asking for a big favor, letting someone know you’re angry, or saying I love you for the first time. 


The students begged me to let them veto the “I love you” skit for fear of mortifying embarrassment, so they came up with talking to a teacher about a grade—a situation where a text definitely won’t do. The skits took longer this semester than they have in the past, and I suppose that’s a trend we’ll continue to see. Even the process of having small talk with their partners to get started took longer than usual—obviously more for some groups than others—which reinforced the need for what we were going to do. 


After the process, I asked the kids to reflect on their skits and what they learned through practicing their skills. 


Here’s what they had to say:


I was surprised at how easy it was to start the conversation once I remembered the communication skills we learned, like using “I statements.” They still don’t work on my little brother though.


I had to apologize to my mom the other day for something I forgot to do. She was super mad so I tried to avoid it. But then I remembered some of the stuff from the article and the skit that the other group performed in class. My mom was still mad at me, but things got chill a lot more quickly than they usually do.


I kind of like this whole talking face-to-face thing. I think I’m going to try it more often.


To help your students practice their IRL skills, have them read the article and then use the skills sheet below to help them plan their skits.

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