“The adolescent brain is wired to drive them through this transition, but there will be a few hairpin curves along the way.
Skillful drivers are not born from straight roads.”
--Karen Young, Hey Sigmund
Teen brains can be a tricky thing. There’s so much going on in their heads (some things of which even they not even aware), such as peer pressure, self-awareness, individual growth, social awareness, etc.
It is undeniably a crucial and significant time in life for them.
There’s a ton of information out there for parents of teens, but I believe teachers of teens should be just as informed about how teens brains work.
So, I did a ton of research and narrowed down all different types of information and tips to the most applicable to your classroom. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new that benefits your students’ learning with these 5 key points that middle and high school teachers absolutely must know about teen brains!
An article on KQED shares an interview with Sarah- Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London; she has a new book, Inventing Ourselves, The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, where she shares research and science that informs us about how young adults are thinking, problem-solving and learning.
Blakemore shares that young adult brains are still growing and changing; although, there tends to be a common misconception that the brain is still developing during childhood. Since they’re still growing, it’s important to remember they are influenced by their environment.
Blakemore offers insights into how young adult brains learn. “The brain is particularly influenced by the environment during the teenage years and might be particularly amenable to learning certain skills. It's a sensitive period for social information, meaning that the brain is set up during adolescence to understand other people and to find out about other people's minds, their emotions. Brains at this time are good at understanding social hierarchies.”
We have to remember how social awareness and peer influence is critical to these growing and changing teens! Consider assigning a slightly lighter homework and studying load (without sacrificing rigor and effectiveness!) or be mindful of incorporating social learning activities during class.
Be honest, did you ever do anything risky as a teen? Chances are your answer is yes! Although now, you may be shaking your head with regret, you know that it is completely normal, even expected.
According to an article, Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity, there have been studies that prove teens are more likely to gamble when chances of a successful outcome are unknown. It discusses their findings from a research study that shows teens are more willing to accept ambiguous conditions, such as a lottery with an unpredictable outcome.
The article states, “Biologically, such a tolerance may make sense, because it would allow young organisms to take better advantage of learning opportunities; it also suggests that policies that seek to inform adolescents of the risks, costs, and benefits of unexperienced dangerous behaviors may be effective and, when appropriate, could be used to complement policies that limit their experiences.”
You should take advantage of teenagers’ risky mindset! If you guide this risky behavior by encouraging them to take chances in class, a safe environment, they will learn by challenging themselves, and develop a growth mindset.
3. Teen Brains are Resilient
The National Institute of Mental Health states, “Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development actually may help protect against long-term mental disorders.”
Keep this in mind when you feel like you’re not doing enough to help your students.
An article on Hey Sigmund informs us about the importance of sleep for young adults. Writing for teens, they say, “Melatonin stays in an adolescent body for longer which is why you’ll feel groggy in the morning. Because your brain is growing at a phenomenal rate, it needs sleep – about 9-10 hours of it.”
It becomes tricky for students to actually get this much rest as their ideal sleep schedule shifts during adolescence. Some schools are working to accomodate the later shift in awake / asleep time throughout the day, but many still have early start times, which can make it challenging for teens to get enough rest. Their bodies are more able to sleep in than get to bed early. So much is going on as teens transition physically, mentally, and emotionally. Sleep is often a variable that does not get prioritized.
Some studies show that only 15 % of teens are getting the hours of rest that their brains and bodies need.
So many important things happen in the brain during sleep, such as strengthening neurons and memory. Keep this in mind when you notice a student in the back drifting off during class. Have a little chat to help him/her understand the importance of getting rest at home.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (mentioned above) gives a fascinating TED Talk, The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain. She talks about how teens’ prefrontal cortex is going through dramatic development; this area of the brain is involved with planning, social interactions, and stopping yourself from saying something unpleasant.
Teens have less gray matter in their brains. “Decline in gray matter volume during adolescence is thought to correspond to synaptic pruning.” Synaptic pruning is the elimination of unwanted synapses. This is important because it effectively fine-tunes brain tissue.
It turns out that this synaptic pruning process does not slow down until partway through your 20s! (source) It’s important to explain to young students that even physically, as far as brain development, they may be adjusting all the way until they are 25 or 28 years old, depending on the individual.
Teaching teens requires some creativity and resourcefulness! I've set up an email series to send you some ideas, inspiration, info, and materials that will help:
Teachers should be aware that these skills are still very much developing in students’ brains when they don’t behave in ways you think they should.
How are these insights going to inform your teaching? Let us know in a comment below!
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