Research Summary

Priorities, identity and the environment: Negotiating the early teenage years

Why and how environmental identity and priorities evolve through the early teenage years

The Journal of Environmental Education

Understanding why and how a person develops and keeps a pro-environmental identity could help tailor more effective environmental education programs throughout primary, middle, and secondary school. The childhood to adolescence years are a period of time that is often recognized as pivotal for identity development in an individual. Long-term, or longitudinal, studies on this topic during these formative years can help us understand how identifying as “green” may develop and persist over time. Thus, for this study, researchers examined the evolving environmental identity—how students saw themselves in relation to the environment—and shifting priorities of a group of 10 individuals going through transition from childhood to adolescence. Rather than focusing solely on in-school environmental experiences, the authors also examined the impact of out-of-school experiences (such as home projects) on the changing priorities and developing identity of the study group.

The authors considered 6 theoretical perspectives that mix science and social science to explain how a person develops and keeps a pro-environmental identity. Significant life experiences refer to meaningful ways an individual can connect to the environment and become “green.” Personal or school-mediated transformative learning refers to the connection between thoughts and feelings towards a sustainability issue and pro-environmental actions. Environmental literacy directly affects decision-making processes and environmental behaviors because it helps individuals create emotional connections and a will to act. Personal values, like caring for the environment, are another factor for establishing a will to act but not necessarily for pro-environmental behaviors. Action competence is the process in which a significant life experience becomes an instance of transformative learning through understanding the how, why, where and who of an environmental problem and then deciding to act. Finally, environmental identity is the decision to act based on the perception of one’s role in the creation of environmental problems and solutions.

The researchers selected a group of students from a New Zealand school that participated in a nation-wide EE initiative called Enviroschools Program. A group of 10 high school students (ages 13 to 15) participated in the study. Teachers recommended participants based on whether they had shown an enthusiastic interest in environmental sustainability from an early age, particularly during their 5th or 6th schooling year (ages 9 to 10). The authors interviewed these 10 students and one or both of their parents. To analyze the data collected from the interviews, researchers applied the 6 theoretical perspectives listed above.

Authors found that all students considered school projects involving parents, as well as both in- and out-of-school experiences (especially outdoor activities) as significant life experiences. These in- and out-of-school experiences may have been linked to transformative learning. Participants also demonstrated environmental literacy and a strong belief of the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. The participants indicated that value-driven environmental concerns developed at primary school and out-of-school programs changed during teenage years, integrating other value considerations and being affected by the teenage culture and peer-pressure. Regarding action competence, students seemed aware of which environmental actions were desirable, and a willingness to do more than their current small-scale actions. Finally, authors report that environmental identity was directly influenced by the social context in school and in their home life.

These themes pointed at two findings related to aspects beyond the formal classroom setting. First, each of the students interviewed could not differentiate between the role that their school and their home had played on the origin of their environmental values, behaviors, literacy and especially on their identity. Activities in-school that involved the family, or those that could be carried out both in school and out-of-school settings (like gardening or gully restoration), seemed to be particularly powerful.

The second key finding was that paying attention to participant students’ capabilities, likes and dislikes, and self-awareness from early teenage years can help practitioners better leverage EE for adolescents by understanding the challenges they face to develop a pro-environmental identity. For example, peer pressure or a challenging point of view from peers may influence the adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors. The findings indicated that secondary school years were indeed periods in which students negotiate conflicting social priorities and conflicting (nature and self-centered) worldviews. Adolescence was also a period in which students are trying to establish a self-identity which includes and is affected by caring for the environment.

Because of the small number of participants, findings from this study may not transfer to other contexts or settings. Particularly, the group of participants for this study came from families from a high socioeconomic group that may have influenced their school and family experiences in relation to the environment.

The authors recommend preparing teachers with knowledge and skills regarding core principles of EE could be helpful in supporting the development of students’ environmental identity. This research also shows that providing a variety of EE experiences, including school projects with family participation and activities within the natural world, could be crucial for students to develop a pro-environmental identity. The authors also suggest that, in this period where students struggle to rationalize a nature-centered and self-centered view of the world, schools should provide an environment that ensures that the EE gains made in primary and middle school are not lost in secondary school.

The Bottom Line

Understanding why and how a child develops and maintains a strong pro-environmental identity could help improve both formal and informal environmental education. This study in New Zealand explored how school-mediated and extracurricular environmental activities influenced participant students’ environmental priorities and identity. The results indicated that better preparing teachers with knowledge and skills on core EE principles and providing a variety of EE experiences, including school projects with parent participation and activities in nature, could be crucial to help students develop a pro-environmental identity. The study also found that the teenage years are a period in which participants struggled between a nature-centered and a self-centered view of the world. Consequently, the authors recommend an ongoing school EE program could benefit the development of students’ pro-environmental behaviors and identity.