March 1, 2023 - Podcast

Episode 349 — Empowering adolescents

Adolescence, encompassing ages 10 to 25, is full of firsts, growing independence and a lot of change. It is also IU researcher Tennisha Riley's favorite life-stage of human development to study.

Her research, which is focused on understanding the emotional development of Black youth and how social context impacts their emotional well-being, often takes a community engaged approach. She works directly with Indiana youth to gain important insight, which allows her an opportunity to serve as a mentor and to empower adolescents to take an active role in their schools and communities.

Adolescence is a time unlike any other in your entire life, and there is so much we don't know, says Riley, a developmental psychologist in the IU School of Education. She says adolescents are very future oriented and tend to ask the question "why?" all the time. They think in complex ways as they try to figure out what is fair, just and equitable and why that is.

In spring of 2022, she began working with students in the Bloomington area on a youth-led participatory action research project designed to better understand adolescent emotion in learning settings.

This approach changes the way youth learn, helping to equal the playing field so they have as much experience and knowledge as the adult, Riley says. In thinking about school, and knowing it can sometimes be restrictive, especially for Black youth, she wanted to flip the situation so they feel empowered to engage in the learning process.

Though the students she engaged with were from different schools, they found a lot of common ground as they came together to discuss racial discrimination at their schools. These students had already shared grievances with their administrations and were not satisfied with the outcomes. They began to look into policies across the country and how it impacts students like them. Riley and Jazlyn Rowan, a graduate research assistant, taught the students how to dive into the research, looking at literature and understanding data.

Their final project was to make a presentation to their local school board, advocating for anti-racism policies to be added to the school district’s student handbook. Four of the students went on to receive the City of Bloomington Commission on the Status of Children and Youth’s 2022 SWAGGER Awards for their work. 

When youth are at the forefront of projects, Riley says, their work often continues even after the project ends,Riley says. Shebelieves the students discovered they do have an equal voicethrough the project. Riley still serves as an ally and consultant for students.

Adolescents remain a critical part of Riley’s ongoing research, including projects to better understand how instances of racial discrimination impacts a Black youth's emotion regulation and how people talk about race impacts their biological stress and other mental health outcomes.

Ultimately, Riley hopes her research will positively impact the way people view and work with adolescents.

She hopes her researchcan highlight how systems are not just unequal or inequitable for youth of color because of race, but also the inequitable hierarchy between who knows what.She hopesthere is more community involvement, hopesindividuals in the community can trust science, and that science can trust that the community knows what they’re talking about when they share about their experience.