Key Differences Between Teaching Children, Teens, and Adults Online

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Author: Andrew Leacy-Shiels Published on: July 24, 2019 Expected Reading Time: 8 mins


Teaching online can sometimes be a little challenging. Some students require more attention, patience, and stimulation. When teaching a student of any age, in any environment; the atmosphere and vibe can and will vary. A teacher needs to be able to observe and decide how they will approach each lesson with the student(s) in order to make it as fulfilling and enjoyable as possible; all whilst ensuring there is sufficient and hopefully excellent progress being made. 

Understanding the key contrasts between teaching children, teenager and adults online will go a long way in making the lessons as enjoyable as possible for both teachers and students. It’s vital to know what level your student is at. Many ESL companies will communicate with parents of younger students beforehand to estimate their abilities but it can often be down to the teacher to assess the learning level of each student during and after each lesson. This is often more applicable with teenage or adult students, as many will sign up to learn through more free form teaching companies such as Cambly.

Throughout the duration of a lesson, it is important for teachers to know that students are following the curriculum, lesson plan or even just the general flow of the conversation. I have spoken with students who were just giving me the answers and responses which they thought I wanted to hear. Depending on a student’s age, they may or may not be afraid of being wrong. A huge advantage of one on one online lessons is that it’s usually easier to break down the barriers such as the fear of failing in front of peers. These kinds of social trepidations can affect students from all walks of life. I’ve spoken to wealthy businessmen with whom it took hours of lessons before they were able to give me their trust and realize that they didn’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed about being wrong. Student’s backgrounds, cultures and life experiences are all individual and it may take a teachers skill and patience to work through these potential stumbling blocks in order to help the student progress.


Ryerson University published an insightful article which was prepared by Michelle Schwartz, Engaging Adult Learners. It detailed the teaching styles which adult learners responded best to. Two which I find most applicable to my own teaching style are:


Approachable and Available 


A teacher should value a student’s opinion and perspective. Making yourself more open to their views will encourage them to share with you what they honestly think about a subject or situation. I feel more comfortable when I know a student feels happy. If they are unsettled, unable to focus or a little stressed out, then it’s important for them to know it’s OK to tell me what’s bothering them. I’m there to help them in any way I can. I’ve had student’s twice my age, earning more money than anybody I know, with a job that brings more responsibility than I can ever imagine; who just want to tell somebody (me) that they’ve had a bad day, week or even a bad month at work! This is good for me to know, I can tailor the lesson to be a little less intense than it may usually be, and I’ll be sure to give them extra praise as it’s something they’re maybe missing in their professional life. A few kind words can sometimes make a world of difference.


Fun and Enthusiastic 


I try to make a few jokes about myself, current events or whatever it is we’re focusing on during the lesson. Adult students will often ask me a word that they heard a native English speaker use for the first time. Even if it has a rude meaning, I’ll be honest and tell them. This usually leads to a laugh and relaxes the situation. 

Checking that a student understands the subject, questions and answers are my number one priority, otherwise, it’s impossible to move from A onto B. With younger students, say from aged 4-9, I would ask them a few simple and basic questions as we went along to gauge their understanding. I may turn these quick quizzes into games with visual prizes so that they understand that by giving me and the material their full effort and attention; will bring a fun reward. Teenagers can be a little bit more difficult to reach, as the ever-changing and engaging world of social media, playing video games or just chilling with their friends is usually where they’d rather be. Their mind may not even be in the classroom with you. This is why I find it helpful to keep talking to them, keep asking them questions and keep challenging them. I’ll even make fun of the material or lesson; just like their friends would. Teenagers have fast working minds and need a lot of stimulation to avoid the monotony setting in. When you’re speaking with them, they’ve probably already been through 7-10 hours of school that day, so I try to keep the feel of the lesson casual by having a chat about anything and everything. Once I have their attention, we can blast through the material. Remember, these kids are used to learning, it’s not difficult for them, but being interested can be. 

In a Guardian published article by Carl Hendrick, he shares some learning strategies that I’ve found to be helpful and relevant. Reducing cognitive load is one that I found particularly beneficial. As I explained, many of the students I speak to online will have already had a busy day whether it be in school, university or at work. One similarity I’ve found between students of all age groups is that they don’t want to be bombarded with information. I try to keep the lesson moving, with the subjects of conversation or material fairly short and snappy, without compromising the quality.

A lot of ESL teaching companies who cater to younger students will have their own curriculum and unique lesson material which it is not easy to deviate from or experiment with. It’s usually not necessary to change things anyway, as most of these companies have put a lot of time, research and money into designing the lessons which are best suited to giving their students the best results possible. However, a few companies do allow teachers the freedom to tailor and alter the curriculum to fit their own teaching styles and to also be flexible with student needs. Whales English allow their teachers such freedom with bespoke lesson software that already includes activities, stories, games and videos to ensure the lessons are giving the young children exactly what they want; learning through fun. The children can often be familiar with the lesson layout, but as I mentioned earlier with regards to games and rewards; they normally won’t care if the learning and teaching strategies are a little familiar, as long as it’s fun and rewarding.

A recent Telegraph article delved into some interesting and perhaps revolutionary new learning methods that will be trialed and tested in the near future. One particular method, which employs the idea of “Uncertain Rewards”, whereby the combination of luck along with a student chancing their own intuition and intelligence to give the right answers in order to reap the rewards may hold some real relevancy. 

Whereas younger students may be more than happy with a simple reward or a few words of praise, teenagers may not be as thrilled as their younger counterparts having studied under this method for several years. There’s only so many times they can be told they’ve done a good job along with receiving a shiny smiley face sticker before the novelty wears off. 

A 2015 Guardian article explores the relationships between how a teenagers mind works and how teachers can work with, rather than against it. Looking into the risk-taking nature that many adolescents are prone to, it is again suggested that by encouraging them to take “safe” risks, we can enable them to engage more. This goes back to earlier in the article where I spoke about the fear of failing, especially in front of peers. Some teenagers may be more inclined to back their own intellect more than others and therefore answer more questions in class. But what if we could encourage them all to say what’s on their mind, without the risk of ridicule, both by teachers and fellow students. We are only decades removed from corporal punishment being recognized as an acceptable teaching tool to not only tackle unruly behavior but wrong answers and differing opinions too. I’m in my late twenties and so I can still remember how disheartening it felt to be bluntly told that I was wrong in a classroom, especially in creative subjects like English and Art. Teachers and students alike can be a little unforgiving in their respective responses to an answer deviating from the norm. I can relate to the teenage students whom I teach online, and luckily in a one to one, online lesson, it’s easier to prompt them into taking such risks. 

During online lessons, I would normally ask a teenager about their hopes for the future. I’d then query them on their plans to make these hopes a reality and from there it’s easy to explore the risks and rewards of future decisions. By telling me about their aspirations for later in life, they’re already taking a risk (one told me that he wished to own his own superyacht and travel the globe in it) so it’s a good start. Adult students may not be as open to taking such risks, so, therefore, may prefer a more straight forward approach, providing it is done in a relaxed and stress-free manner. 


Teaching young children, teenagers and adults can be a wildly interesting and even entertaining experience. Three things I’ve found which they all respond universally positively to are patience, encouragement, and prompting. Don’t be afraid to occasionally embarrass yourself or be wrong, because then they won’t either.


Further Reading:

Engaging Adult Learners

Teachers: your guide to learning strategies that really work

Six new ways to teach children more effectively

Secrets of the teenage brain: a psychologist's guide for teachers

The Adolescent Learner

The Adolescent Brain –Learning Strategies & Teaching Tips

Motivation, Leadership and Curriculum Design: Engaging the Net Generation ...


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