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Turn Your Teen Driver’s Head Knowledge into Practical Application

Parents, do you remember the following scenario happening when your kids were little:

You: What do we do before crossing a street?

Kiddo: Stop, look left, look right, look left again, then go.

You: Right! Let’s practice up ahead at that corner.

Kiddo runs directly into the street…

You literally just talked about it, but somehow your kid could not put into practice what you know for a fact they understood in their brain. As a driving coach, I see this all the time. I will have a full conversation with a student about how to handle a driving scenario, confirm that they know the correct procedure, and then have to use my instructor’s brake to avoid a crash. It’s mind-boggling.

Putting Theory into Practice

What it seems to come down to is that there is a big difference between theory and application. Learning and doing reside in different brain systems until we have an opportunity to put them together.

There are a lot of skills we have been practicing as adults for so long, and so automatically, that we can’t relate to our child’s disconnect. It’s natural for you to look both ways before crossing the street. You know you have to look (theory), and you know you have to register the actual activity in the roadway and make a follow up decision (application). A young child knows they are supposed to look, and they might actually look. But they don’t know what to do with what they see. They haven’t learned to process that information into the next decision of waiting or going. That’s the application part. 

For the young child crossing a street, the parent might keep a firm grip on their hand, stop at the corner, and then do something that can’t be taught in theory. They need to ask their child what they see coming from the left side of the road, then ask what they see coming from the right side of the road. If they say that something is coming, ask what that means they need to do (wait). If the road is clear, ask what that means (safe to cross). The child needs to deliberately work through those extra processing steps in order to operate their knowledge in real world conditions.

I have learned the necessity of pushing questions through all the processing functions the hard way more than once. I have seen students look both ways at an intersection with oncoming traffic, and yet still proceed into it. They saw the oncoming cars, but they didn’t use that information to make follow up decisions. They “checked the box” of looking without applying what they learned from that look to their next steps.

Practice Takes Patience

For student drivers, applying knowledge correctly is vital to becoming a safe driver. It’s not enough for parents and coaches to teach the academic skills. We need to patiently help our teen drivers mentally process each skill until they fully understand how to make ongoing decisions. This will take a lot of patience. It can be extremely frustrating to watch someone struggle with something you understand so instinctively at this point in your life. But remember, this knowledge wasn’t always automatic for you, either.

Think about it this way. Does your child play a sport that you never played or followed? To support your child, you take the time to learn the rules and aspects of the game. You might get to where you know a lot about how to play the game, but the second you try to actually help your athlete practice, you realize that you have no idea what you’re doing. Your kid knows how and where to move, while you’re fumbling with the equipment and violating every rule in the book. You learned how the sport works, but you never had to apply your head knowledge to the real game conditions.

Teen drivers need to be supported during this learning process. They will be safe, competent drivers if they receive patient instruction that they can practically apply in the real world. At that intersection, try this series of questions:

  • Who has the right of way?

    • Oncoming traffic

  • Is there oncoming traffic right now?

    • Yes

  • Where is it coming from, can you tell me what you see?

    • The red truck is coming from the left and doesn’t have a stop sign

  • What do you need to do?

    • Wait for the truck to pass the intersection

  • Now the truck passed, what else do you see?

    • No other traffic

  • Is it safe to move?

    • Yes

  • Okay, go ahead

It feels drawn out. But in my experience, this series of questions helps the student fully process each decision so that they complete a safe driving task. When they only answer the academic questions of what they should do, they don’t think through the decision of what to actually do.

Stay Calm and Be Supportive

Learning new skills is hard! Our kids today are encouraged so heavily into head knowledge activities that the learning curve of practical skills might be more challenging for them than it was for you. If they are seriously struggling to connect practical driving skills to their head knowledge, take a break from the car and find other examples. Cross a street together on foot and talk about all the automatic processes you’re both using. Play their favorite strategy game or sport and remind them about what it took to learn certain skills and techniques. Help them see how they’ve made other connections in the past, and ask them to trust you in mastering new connections behind the wheel.

My Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers is a great starting point for your own teaching mindset. This course is specially designed to help you guide your teen behind the wheel. If you feel that your teen driver would benefit from outside instruction, schedule Safe Driving Lessons with one of our coaches. We are passionate about helping teens learn to apply safe driving skills in everyday scenarios.


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