Make the Most of GDL's Learner Phase

October 1, 2013

As a developmental psychologist, I am thrilled that this year’s theme for National Teen Driver Safety Week (October 20-26) is It Takes Two: Shared Expectations for Teens and Parents for Driving. This theme emphasizes that research and practice efforts should consider the family unit as opposed to focusing on parents and teens in isolation. One of the key developmental tasks during adolescence is for parents to foster their teens’ growing autonomy while keeping them safe from harm – a delicate balance, as many families know! This is why driving is often called an ‘official’ rite of passage, but this journey on the way to adulthood can be difficult for some families to maneuver. Fortunately, Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs provide a structure for families to lean on during this time of growth and transition.

The learner phase of GDL provides a minimum amount of protected time for a teen to practice driving under the supervision of a parent or other qualified adult. However, it is up to both the adult and the teen to use this time effectively. Last week, my colleague Dr. Dennis Durbin focused on the intermediate period of GDL and provided insights on what rules to set and how to talk about them with your teen. Here are practical tips to share with parents and caregivers about making the first part of GDL, the learner’s permit, effective:

Autonomy
Look for safe ways to assess and support your teen's growing autonomy. Encourage your teen to take an active role in identifying your state’s GDL provisions and sharing this information with you. This exercise – and others like it – will help your teen to take some ownership of the learning-to-drive process. If your teen drags his or her feet or shows no interest in talking about learning to drive with you, he or she may not be ready to learn.

You should also ask your teen to justify why he or she should start learning to drive and also what may be difficult during the learner permit phase. What your teen shares will tell you a lot about his or her readiness to drive. Encouraging open and honest discussion will also help you identify barriers to providing effective supervised driving practice along the way.

Don’t be surprised if talking about driving issues gets a little heated; it is a very sensitive topic. Hearing and giving constructive feedback can be difficult for both you and your teen, but it’s very important to get this conversation started before your teen drives alone. Click here for tips on talking with teens.

Competence
To have your teen become a safe, competent driver, he or she needs to develop critical driving skills and practice them in a range of driving environments and conditions.That’s why supervised practice needs to be more than just about the hours. Practice should be appropriately challenging and diverse. The behind-the-wheel license test is not going to cover the wide range of environments and challenges your teen will face during the intermediate phase of licensure. It’s up to you to work with your teen to find opportunities to provide plenty of quality practice during the learner period. Click here for resources to structure supervised practice drives.

In my next blog post, I will share insights and tips for parents to help their teen transition from the learner permit phase to the independent phase of GDL.