How to Teach Teens Valuable Communication Skills

group of teenagers outside smiling about the value of communication skills

This blog post includes unit and lesson plan strategies for teaching high school students about effective communication skills.

Social Connections

Children spend astounding amounts of time on their electronic devices, and as a result, they are losing the ability to communicate their needs using their voices. As a result, screen time significantly impacts their development and social skills, as well as social connections.

Technology is changing how we communicate, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the importance of face-to-face communication. Improving communication skills in children of all ages today in a healthy way benefits future generations.

The ability to communicate clearly and effectively for social connection is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. With the proliferation of social media, social networking, and communicating with a text message or video chat, there are more ways than ever before, but that doesn’t mean traditional communication skills are becoming obsolete.

Thankfully, a communication crisis can be averted because communication is a skill that can be learned. Teaching high school students how to develop and hone important communication skills in different ways is fun and rewarding.

Teaching Communication Skills

School can be difficult for teenage students, especially when they struggle to communicate effectively with their peers and teachers. As a teacher, you help your high school students develop the open communication skills they need to succeed by teaching them effective communication and conversation skills in lessons and activities. Including creative ways when unit planning and lesson planning to teach high school students to become effective communicators is the first step.

Teachers can include different communication methods and activities in their unit and lesson planning. Examples of activities include:

  • Role-playing scenarios.
  • Group discussions.
  • Worksheets with open-ended questions.
  • Lessons about body language, nonverbal communication, and non-verbal cues.
  • Using an assertive communication worksheet.
  • The art of conversation.
  • Interactive games.

These activities will give students the chance to practice their communication style in a variety of situations, including situations of interpersonal conflict. 

With some guidance and effort, your students will learn how to communicate effectively and confidently – skills that will serve them well in school and life.

Examples of Teaching Communication Skills

Teaching communication skills to high school students can be a challenge. Many students are uncomfortable speaking in front of the class or in public, and teaching students how to communicate confidently and effectively is challenging. 

The best way to improve your students’ communication skills is to let them practice frequently and give them feedback.

Here are three instructional strategies to quickly implement into lesson plans:

  • Group work is one way to teach students to communicate effectively. Give them an assignment to work on together in a small group to complete a task. When students are sharing in a group, you can watch their body language and see how well they work together with others.
  • Board Games are another great way to teach students about communicating. Get your favorite board game like Scrabble, Monopoly, Life, or Labyrinth, and group students together for a fun activity. Teachers also create their own games and use them for formative assessments. 
  • Communication fluency is an excellent activity to use with students to help build their confidence in speaking. Starting with scripted dialogue, students work in small groups to practice listening and responding to each other. Using fluency with oral communication as a goal, students learn how to speak without hesitation. While practicing conversations with a partner, students will become comfortable talking without reading from a script. Practicing gives students more confidence when speaking to groups and in class.

Communication and Conflict

Central to the origin of interpersonal conflict is communication. Barriers to communication between parties have the potential to evolve into a conflict marred by misunderstanding and indifference. To effectively problem solve, the parties must communicate directly with one another about why the topic of the conflict is important to each of them. It is also essential to discuss what needs and interests are vital to each and what emotions and feelings about the conflict are generated. It is through direct communication that many things may occur:

  • Each party has the potential to learn why the topic of the conflict is important to the other.
  • Each party has the potential to understand how the conflict has affected the other.
  • Each party has the potential to seek understanding and communicate a compelling message about the conflict to the other. 
  • Each party has the potential to resolve the conflict through communication and understanding.

Common Ground

For every conflict people experience, there is always common ground between them. Parties would not conflict together if they had not shared competing interests and needs about the topic of the conflict. Because of both the shared and competing needs and interests, and with identifying the common ground, it becomes apparent through conflict that the parties have a shared relationship of some form that may benefit from strengthened communication to resolve the issues of contention. This interpersonal, relational factor creates the intensity of the conflict and generates deep feelings from the parties about the conflict.

Finding common ground when we are faced with conflict situations requires communication skills. Unfortunately, when we are in conflict, we experience barriers to communication that get in the way of our conflict management effort to find common ground. 

Barriers to Communication

Sometimes because of their developing maturity, high school students are inexperienced in finding their place in the school community. Most teenagers struggle to navigate peer relationships and their sense of belonging because their communication skills are underdeveloped. As a result, they have difficulty creating friendships and finding common ground with their peers.

So imagine the challenge for a teenager learning to speak a second language. For example, a student who moved from another country with his family when he was in elementary school. This student experiences the same challenges as other experiences and possibly is also emerging as a speaker of the same language as his peers. 

Students with special needs face the same challenges as their peers. Although sometimes perceived as being uninterested in what the teacher has to say, teachers can teach them practical communication skills so that they are equipped to better participate and engage in lesson activities. It is essential to teach these skills to students with special needs at their level of communication. For example, creating cues through spoken or written words, flashcards, body language, and sign language ensures all students fully participate in class activities. 

Teaching Communication Strategies

Teach your students the importance of active listening and how to use it to understand better what a speaker is trying to say. In addition, teachers are in a position to help students understand the importance of assertively expressing their thoughts and opinions, and lessons about assertive communication teach students how to assert their ideas and perspectives healthily. 

Communication is a cornerstone for success in all areas of life, and teaching young people practical communication skills to speak their truth sets them up for the future. 

The communication skills activities presented in this post have the potential to offer conflict-resolving measures to students who are faced with conflict in their lives. In addition, these communication skills activities provide opportunities for students to gain self-awareness to be empowered to find different means to create understanding, develop healthy communication patterns, and acquire valuable life skills.

The following handout explains the dialogue process starting with self-awareness:

Communication Skills Activities

Using communication activities provides opportunities for students to practice effective communication skills. These activities also allow teachers to model good communication skills to their students. Teaching students soft skills for becoming better communicators is essential for modeling healthy communication. Two examples of communication skills necessary for young adults are active listening and encouraging them to practice assertive communication. 

The following activities are best delivered in order, although lesson plans can include any one activity in a lesson plan. 

Communication Barriers Activity

To develop effective communication skills, your high school students learn about the concepts best by starting with common communication barriers. Communication barriers include projecting passive and aggressive communication onto others. 

  • Passive communication involves not communicating or speaking politely but not stating one’s opinion clearly. 
  • Aggressive communication is how we talk to others when feeling frustrated or angry. 

Often when we are faced with conflict, we may choose not to communicate through verbal communication of spoken or written words. Several barriers cause people to have a breakdown in communication.

Instructional Strategy

Using a group discussion format, the teacher will encourage students to discuss what communication means for each of them. The following questions provide a framework for the discussion and are best captured in point form on a flip chart, whiteboard, or smart board in each small group.

Teacher AsksCommon Student Responses
What are some barriers to communication? It’s hard when the person you are talking to doesn’t want to listen. Being picked on. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  
What are the methods you use when talking to someone who feels angry? Sad? Happy? Not sure if the person you are talking to wants to have a conversation with you. It may be challenging to trust the person you are talking to. 
What influences how you approach them? It is sometimes hard to put things into words. 
What do you do when you feel like you are unheard?We only hear what we want to hear. 

The teacher then summarizes each group’s responses to the barriers they believe can create conflict in communication. Finally, the teacher must offer students an opportunity to brainstorm options for how they can ensure ownership of the obstacles on their side of the communication experience.

It is equally essential that the students talk about communication barriers and that they are asked why there may be communication barriers.

The teacher may then share with the group that specific criteria may affect communication. Just like when baking a cake, you need specific ingredients to mix for the cake, like flour, sugar, eggs, and butter. 

When we experience conflict, the following ingredients influence how we communicate:

  1. Hidden Content
  2. Feelings
  3. Relationship

Lesson Extension

The teacher may keep the discussion going, building on the concepts of content, hidden content, feelings, and relationship, and seek examples from the group of how these concepts may impact conflict in communication. 

Questions to ask for reflection include:

  • What relationships with what people are they more likely to want to resolve a conflict?
  • When do you not say what you are thinking?
  • How about feelings? At what times is it difficult to share feelings in conflict?

In addition to barriers to communication and the criteria for communication, some roadblocks may occur from time to time. Roadblocks to communication may include any of the following:

  • ordering
  • threatening
  • preaching
  • judging
  • lecturing
  • providing answers
  • prying
  • diagnosing

The teacher may seek out information from the students about how these communication approaches may create roadblocks and make it difficult for people to want to communicate with someone using any of the above.

Active Listening Activity

Active listening is listening with the intent to understand. It involves giving full attention to the speaker, making eye contact, and responding with questions or comments that show genuine interest in what is being said. It means you listen to the other person without interrupting or trying to convince them of your opinion or how to solve their problems. Instead, you listen to understand their concerns and reflect on what you hear.

Instructional Strategies

Encourage your students to commit to becoming good listeners by listening actively and asking follow-up questions when they don’t understand what someone has said. Active listening is a way to help your students participate more actively in class discussions and allow them to improve their communication skills. You can model one aspect at a time to teach active listening and explain it to students. For example, teachers show students how to listen closely when speaking by looking directly at them and making no other move until they finish. Then ask them to do the same for you.

Assertive Communication

As a teacher, you can help your high school students develop the communication skills they need to succeed by teaching them active listening and encouraging them to practice assertive communication. 

Active listening and assertive communication are healthy communication skills. These are the differences between the two communication styles:

  • Active listening is when we pay close attention to what someone else is saying without interrupting. 
  • Assertive communication is communicating in a way that clearly expresses our thoughts and needs while respecting the rights of others. Strong communicators can effectively handle conflict, stand up for themselves, and express their feelings honestly.

Defining Active Listening

Active listening is a communication skill that involves reflecting on or summarizing what the speaker has said. It is essential because it allows the speaker to clarify what they said and gives time to think about how you should respond. Active listening can also indicate to the speaker that you are paying attention while they are speaking. Finally, as a listener, if you are actively engaged, it shows interest in what the other person has to say.

Active listening involves:

  • Giving full attention to the speaker.
  • Making eye contact.
  • Engaging in a back-and-forth conversation.
  • Responding with questions or comments that show genuine interest in what is being said.

Active listening is a crucial communication skill that all high school students should learn. By giving their full attention to the speaker, making eye contact, and engaging in back-and-forth conversation, they can show genuine interest in what is being said. There are many activities that high school students can do to practice active listening, such as role-playing scenarios or discussing a current event with classmates. These skills will become second nature with some practice and help them in all aspects of their lives.

Practicing Active Listening

Active listening involves more than just paying attention. It’s learning how to convey understanding in a way that helps others feel heard. Good listeners don’t interrupt and don’t ignore what the speaker is saying.

Even if you disagree with what the person is saying, show that you understand by paraphrasing and asking for clarification.

An active listener is someone who makes it a point to take in what is being said and respond appropriately through:

  • Taking notes while listening
  • Asking appropriate questions when listening
  • Responding to what is being said
  • Not interrupting the speaker

Active listening is a way of communicating that involves listening with the intent to understand. This is a beneficial skill in the workplace. When high school students actively listen to their teachers and peers, they demonstrate a positive attitude, respect others, and are eager to learn.

The following handout provides examples of active listening statements:

Defining Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is also sometimes referred to as non-aggressive communication. Assertive communication is the kind of communication we need to have healthy relationships with others. We can use assertive communication in all areas of our lives, especially in relationships with others.

Practicing Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is different from passive communication and aggressive communication. Here are two examples:

  • Passive communication: “I’m sorry?”
  • Assertive communication: “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”

Assertiveness is not the same as aggression. Aggressive communication is using threats, insults, or other intimidating behavior to get our needs or wants to be met. Aggression can involve violence, and most people dislike being around anyone who behaves aggressively.

The following video gives examples of how to practice assertive communication:

Lesson Activities

Create a list of scenarios where assertive communication would be the most effective. Then, offer students an opportunity to practice responses to each situation. This is an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate aggressive, passive, and assertive communication styles.

Allow time for students to brainstorm ideas about how they will respond in each scenario.

Scenario Examples
  • You studied for hours to prepare for an exam, and your teacher gave you a lower grade than you think you should have received for your efforts. 
  • You are out with a group of friends, and one friend makes comments about your outfit and laughs, and you feel hurt.
  • You are at a mall kiosk and want to buy a new phone case. The salesperson is texting and ignoring you.

Candy Introductions Activity

Candy Introductions is a fun get-to-know-you game that helps students learn new facts about each other quickly. This game also goes by different names, including the M&M game, Candy Confessions, the Skittles Game, and the Gum Drop game, among others.

This activity is good for the first week of school but can be played at any time throughout the school year. 

To start, students select various pieces of candy from a bag, and each candy variety is associated with a fact about themselves that they will introduce to the others. 

Candy Introductions can work with any group size. However, the activity works best when the group size is limited to 12, so if you have more than 12, divide the larger group and run the activity within the smaller-sized groups. 

This activity works best indoors and suits classrooms or meeting rooms well. Materials required are candy with about five different variations (color or candy type) and an optional chalkboard/whiteboard.

Setup for Candy Introductions

Purchase several variety packs of candy, enough for each person to be able to have at least five pieces. They can be any candy type, but not too many choices (limit them to around five or six varieties). Alternatively, you can buy gummy bears, life savers, gum drops, skittles, M&M’s, or any other candy that already has a variety of colors.

Instructions for How to Play

Pass around the candy and tell each student to choose between 1 to 5 pieces of anything they want. Instruct them not to eat it yet, though. After they have chosen their candy, you will tell them what each candy type/color represents.

If there is a whiteboard or chalkboard present, write on the board the following:

  • Red – Favorite hobbies
  • Green – Favorite place on earth
  • Blue – Favorite memory
  • Yellow -Dream job
  • Orange – Wildcard (tell us anything about yourself!)

If you don’t have the above colors, change the above to match the candy types you have. Each person takes turns introducing themselves, beginning with their name and then saying one fact for each candy type they have. This easy game will go relatively quickly (assuming they didn’t take too many pieces of candy!)

Jam Sandwich Activity

Based on the idea that we cannot not communicate, and to illustrate the difficulty of one-way communication to emphasize further the importance of listening, ask students for two volunteers to participate in this activity.

This activity takes approximately one hour to complete, and the teacher will need:

  • One container of margarine and one container of jelly or jam
  • Enough small containers for each type of spread
  • Two volunteers
  • Two pieces of bread
  • One blindfold for each pair of students
  • One spatula
  • Paper towels (for clean-up)

Instructional Strategy

The teacher will divide the class into pairs, designating one person as the sender and one as the receiver in each team. Students in each pair will sit across a table from one another. Then, the teacher will blindfold the receivers.

Once students are organized, the teacher will place jam sandwich-making materials on the table(s). The teacher will then inform pairs that the goal of the exercise is to prepare an edible sandwich in 5 minutes, following these rules:

  • Senders can speak, but they cannot touch anything. Instead, they should clasp their hands behind their back.
  • Once each pair has had the opportunity to make the sandwiches, ask the receivers to take off their blindfolds.
  • At this time, the teacher will ask the group to join together as students eat their sandwiches while they debrief the activity.
Discussion

For the debrief of the activity, the teacher leads the discussion with the following questions to the senders, receivers, and observers:

  • What was it like as the sender?
  • What was it like as a receiver?
  • What did the observers see?
  • What, if anything, was frustrating?

By discussing what it felt like for each participant as sender or receiver during the activity, the door to understanding how important it is to recognize that we cannot not communicate becomes open. 

Sometimes, we may think we are effective communicators, but our messages may, from time to time, be lost in translation. Often, the intent of our messages is missed. However, we become genuinely effective communicators when we become aware of how we communicate and align the purpose of our messages with our verbal and non-verbal messaging.

Slam the Door Activity

Sometimes, we may find that when conversing with someone, our minds start to wander, and we are not sure what the person is saying. Times like these are hearing times. This means that when we hear someone talk to us, we essentially have vibrations that carry noise to our eardrums, and this noise then creates a stimulus that allows us to recognize that there is noise around us. This recognition of noise is how our ears carry noise to our brains.

Listening refers to a more complex psychological procedure that involves our brains interpreting and understanding the significance of the message. To listen attentively, we must be dedicated and committed to understanding the message of the sound being carried from our eardrums to our brains for psychological evaluation and interpretation. This complex procedure is often referred to as Active Listening.

Assumptions

When we actively listen to someone speaking to us, we interpret the information being provided to us and formulate our responses. However, sometimes during our communication and between hearing and listening, we can experience a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the information based on an assumption. An assumption is when one person decides for another person what it is that the person is thinking or feeling or meaning without ever checking in with them or asking them what they are thinking, feeling, or meaning. Assumptions can be very damaging to relationships, cause conflict, and contribute to a conflict that already exists.

The following handout illustrates the assumptions and perceptions process:

Instructional Strategy

The teacher will prepare the students for the ‘Slam the Door Exercise for this activity.’In this exercise, the teacher will inform students that they will leave the room for 1-2 minutes. Usually, one minute is enough time to prepare students for the exercise. 

Once the teacher returns, students will watch the teacher act out a scene. When the teacher returns to the group, the teacher will act out or perform several things that may include kicking the floor, looking frustrated or angry, pretending to cry, checking the clock/watch, looking confused, scared, hurt, and angry, any emotion for affect with the group. 

The task of the students is to tell the teacher what they saw. The teacher will signal the students when they are done acting out the scene by taking a bow or putting their hand up in the air after finishing the exercise. 

Discussion

The purpose of the exercise is for students to describe to the teacher what they saw. Then, the teacher asks students to say what they saw. Students will offer several responses that will include a variety of assumptions:

  • You fought with your boy/girlfriend
  • You just got dumped
  • You just lost your job
  • You got in trouble
  • You forgot something at home
  • You were sad
  • You just found out someone died
  • You got a text you didn’t like
  • You found out you are pregnant

After the students share an exhaustive list of possibilities, the teacher reminds students the task is to describe what they saw. The responses showed that the students assumed what had occurred before the teacher entered the room.

This is a valuable exercise for reinforcing how easy it is to make assumptions and how damaging it can be when we make assumptions without checking in for clarification of what the speaker or individual may be meaning, saying, or feeling.

It is crucial for the teacher to debrief this exercise with the students and to seek feedback from the group about what can be done to minimize assumptions.

Active Listening Skills Activities (3)

When we are communicating, we may hear content, often not the meaning, and unfortunately, we may lack awareness of the implied message of the speaker. Therefore, an essential strategy for interpersonal communication and dialogue involves Active Listening, which is a listener taking in information at three different levels:

  • Content
  • Meaning
  • Feeling

Active listening skills allow both speaker and listener to reach a mutual understanding through their interaction. In addition, active listening skills provide a respectful way of communicating to ensure that opportunity is offered to both speaker and listener to share their experiences, thoughts, ideas, or concerns.

The most vital ingredient to active listening is empathy. Empathy is the ability and willingness to be influenced by others to understand the positions of others truly and to accept others’ feelings. Empathy is proper understanding by the listener of what the speaker is saying, meaning, and feeling.

To achieve empathy in communication, it is helpful to first break down the communication interaction by dividing it into three categories. First, to practice active listening, in this activity, students will learn active listening techniques like:

Reflecting Content
  • Reflecting on the speaker and the topic of their communication.
  • ‘What’ the speaker is talking about
Reflecting Feelings
  • Reflecting on the speaker is an opportunity to share how they may feel about the topic of their communication.
Responding with Empathy
  • Reflecting both content and feeling of the speaker
  • Offering the speaker an opportunity to clarify that proper understanding occurs between speaker and listener.

Instructional Strategy

With students paired together, the teacher hands out the following activity worksheets about active listening techniques. Groups of three are just as effective, with one speaker, one listener, and one observer who changes roles throughout the exercise to practice each part.

The teacher needs to provide students with the first examples on each activity worksheet to ensure they recognize that they are essentially dissecting the communication into the three steps for understanding.

Reflecting Content Activity

Reflecting Feelings Activity

Talking about feelings is crucial when practicing and using active listening skills. However, feelings are difficult to put into words. In most cases, teenagers haven’t developed a comprehensive vocabulary of words describing emotions.

The following handout provides a feeling word list for various emotions:

Responding with Empathy Activity

Team Challenge Activity

The Team Challenge Activity allows students to see how natural it is to adapt to our dominant conflict management style when faced with a conflict. 

This blog post explains conflict management styles and includes a conflict management style assessment for students to complete:

This activity takes approximately one hour to complete, and the teacher will need:

  • Two pieces of string to make an approximate 8 feet in diameter circle on the floor
  • Two coffee cans in the middle of the circle of the string with one coffee can filled with candy or popcorn.
  • Four pieces of string approximately 4 feet in length
  • One deflated bicycle tire tube

Instructional Strategy

The teacher organizes students based on their conflict management style. Therefore, the group should have a mix of conflict management styles: 2-3 of each type is sufficient. The goal of the activity is to transfer the popcorn or candy from one can into the other without having the cans leave the center of the circle. 

Activity Rules
  • The cans cannot be pulled to the edge of the circle and cannot leave the center of the ring. 
  • The circle itself cannot be moved or manipulated in any way. 
  • The activity site must remain intact throughout the activity. 
  • The students cannot lean into the circle or have body parts inside the ring.

The only resources available to the group members are the deflated bicycle tire tube and the four pieces of string. This task is solvable!

Discussion

Once the task of transferring the popcorn or candy from one can to the other is complete. But, first, it is important to debrief the activity process about critical areas for seeking feedback are the students’ conflict management styles. 

The teacher leads the discussion by asking:

  • What conflict management styles were evident to students of the activity?
  • How did each of the competing conflict management styles of students play out in the activity?
  • What did you learn about yourself in the activity?

Summary

Interpersonal communication skills like active listening are essential for high school students to learn and practice in class. When students grasp the concepts of effective communication skills, they are better equipped to incorporate healthy communication strategies for conflict management into their interpersonal relationships. The goal of teaching students communication skills is to set them up for life outside of the classroom and in the future. 

References

39 Communication Games and Activities for Kids and Students. https://positivepsychology.com/communication-activities-adults-students/

3 Fun Ice Breakers To Help Connect Your Guests – Medium. https://medium.com/passiondig/3-fun-ice-breakers-to-help-connect-your-guests-69ef587bb45b

Candy Introductions Activity – Fun Icebreaker Ideas & Activities. https://www.icebreakers.ws/small-group/candy-introductions.html

TACT (Teens and Conflict Together): A Facilitator’s Guide for Empowering Youth to Engage in Creative Problem Solving: Petryshyn, MA., Chartered Mediator, Suzanne: 9781451516593: Books – Amazon.ca. (2022). Amazon.ca.

TACT (Teens and Conflict Together)

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How to Teach Teens Communication Skills (2022)

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If you are an educator, parent, or grandparent and looking for practical strategies to use with children, concepts to understand, and ideas that can be easily implemented about how to create space for self and others, you have landed in the right spot.

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Published by suzannemarie

Educator and published author of conflict management and children's books. Living life to its fullest. I believe in courageously honouring my truth and living my legacy. Lover of meaningful conversations, coffee, food, art, and building connections. I love writing about my fascination with culture, food, adventure, self-love, and living a healthy and fulfilled life!

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