Leveraging the Science Behind the Middle School Brain in your Teaching Strategies

Young adolescence is recognized as the developmental period our students undergo between the ages of 10-15. This is the age where students develop the ability to expand their concrete knowledge to a more abstract way of thinking.  The connections in the brain are occurring often, and the skills learned become hard-wired.  Because there is so much change happening in the brain during these years, the material teenagers focus on is the information that survives.  For example, if students are athletes in middle school, these cells and connections remain the focus and stay strong in adulthood.  The same is true for the connections made when students are lying on the sofa and playing video games.  As educators, we do not see all of these invisible changes that are occur as a result of puberty.  By appreciating the science of brain development during adolescence, we can create classroom atmospheres that engage and motivate middle school students.

Nature vs. Nurture

Some functions of the brain are hereditary, while other parts are developed more environmentally.  Research has shown that the corpus callosum, (which divides the cerebral cortex lobes into hemispheres), is a part of the brain responsible for creativity and higher order thinking.  The similarity in twins is undeniable, leading to the conclusion that this part of the brain’s function is a result of genetics.  However, the cerebellum, the back of the brain, is quite different in both identical and fraternal twins.  This cerebellum is responsible for fine motor skills, balance, coordinating movements, and some cognitive functions such as language acquisition.  This leads scientists to the conclusion that environmental factors are influential.    Interestingly, this part of the brain changes the most during adolescent years.  Giedd says the teenage brain is flexible, meaning that impulse control and ability to make long term decisions has not been fully developed yet.  This is one of the reasons why children do not live on their own at ages 12 or 13; they simply do not have the brain maturity to handle the types of real decisions that living alone would require.  However, this flexibility makes this age group much better at learning new technology easily, because the brain is constantly changing and acclimating.

Maximizing Students’ Brain Potential

There are several ways teachers can maximize the potential of the adolescent brain.  One way is to understand that the typical teenager cannot retain more than five to seven bits of information at one time.  If we give them too much information at once, they will become disinterested because their brains simply are not able to absorb it.  Teachers can present small amounts of information to keep lessons interesting and teach to the short-term memory.  By using strategies like turn and talk, for example, students are converting new information from short term to long term memory.  Other strategies for engaging the brain are using technology in a purposeful way to promote critical thinking and problem solving in ways that are engaging to the digital learner.


Some do’s and don’ts of working with young adolescents:


Do’s Don’t’s
Have students work collaboratively Have students work alone for the entire period
Allow purposeful use of technology Have students listen to a lecture/”play” on computers for just busywork.
Have students communicate with each other to explain their thinking Overload students with too much information in one period
Have students find answers to higher level questions Give answers to questions they could have found on their own
Allow creativity/give choices Give one type of assessment
Continually assess and provide feedback Give late feedback or forget to give feedback


Student Choice and the Developing Brain: Remember the Why, What, and How of your Lessons

The students we teach now are considered digital natives, meaning that they have grown up with technology that most of us had to learn as adults.  Because of this, they are very comfortable when completing computer-based work.  Educators should incorporate digital assignments, not only because the kids like it, but because providing choices gives students control over their learning.  We want students to want to come to class and be excited to learn.  By giving them choices, engagement and motivation build since they have power in how they will be assessed.  Ideally, we want students to do work because they genuinely want to learn, and not just care about what grade they are getting.  When students want to learn they bring a different dynamic to the classroom.  To foster this attitude, educators can invite students to help create rubrics and assessments, making them truly part of the assignment.

Initially created by David Rose and Anne Meyer, the universal design for learning incorporates research from neuroscience to explain how the brain categorizes learning.  There are three networks in the brain that work together to process information: the affective, recognition, and strategic networks.  The affective network is in charge of the “why.”  Students are always eager to understand why they need to know something, and if teachers can introduce the lesson by creating meaning for the lesson, students will be more motivated to learn.  When students do not see the benefit of what they are learning, then getting them to be motivated is an additional struggle.  One way to help students see the value is to ask a question at the start of the lesson about a real-world context; something that they have experience with, and this way, they are already hooked by the time you introduce the concept.

The recognition network is the part of the brain dealing with the “what” of the lesson.  It is the way that students gather facts.  It is important to let students find meanings as opposed to rattling off the vocabulary words with teacher created definitions.  The middle school child is inquisitive, and will enjoy searching for meanings related to the new vocabulary.  Make a game out of it.  Have them search for envelopes or cards hidden around the room (or plastic eggs at Easter time), and make the learning fun.  Giving choices can be done by having some students use digital sources to create images, create word or language walls, or use interactive websites.  Always allow some time for students to be collaborative and communicate with each other.  Color coded notes and other structural strategies are useful as well, especially helpful to students who are English language learners or struggling readers.

The “how” of learning is the strategic network.  Teachers can reach this part of the brain by providing multiple methods to teach the same content.  Students have various learning styles, and on top of that, they all bring a unique skill set to the classroom, so it is important to offer a variety of learning methods to teach a concept.  For some students, it may be hard to show what they know on a traditional test.  Allow them to use pictures, oral presentations, or digital formats to show mastery.

Understanding that the brain, while fully developed in size, is not fully developed on all levels in an adolescent.  We know that middle school students are interested in being social, and classroom instruction may be low priority for some.  Using strategies to motivate students based on the science of what we know, allows teachers to develop lessons that helps students turn instruction and practice into long term retention.  In this way, educators can use the research to guide instruction in the 21st century for middle school success.



Boness, L. (2012).Teenage brains in the digital world. Science Illustrated

Cast (2000). About Universal Design for Learning.

Lorrain, P. (2002). Brain development in young adolescents.  Good news for middle school teachers.

Spinks, Sarah. (2000). Adolescent brains are works in progress. Frontline. Nature, Volume 404.


Kathy Kansky is a Middle School Teacher at Red Bank Middle School in New Jersey. She can be reached at Kanskyk@rbb.k12.nj.us



  1. The do’s and dont’s list really helped me visualize things that could potentially work in a classroom. I’ve seen examples of teachers using the “dont’s” and how they don’t work well for students.

  2. I feel that us, middle level educators, have a very important role in our students life. We are huge role models to most of them, during a time in their lives in which they need someone the most. We also must remember to stay patient with our students, due to the fact that they simply do not have the brain maturity to handle certain decisions and situations.

  3. I really enjoyed that you mentioned how adolescent development impacts student engagement. I feel often teachers overlook student development when trying to engage students, when in reality, understanding how our students function socially, cognitively, physically and emotionally is key to creating engaging lessons that fit the needs of these students.

  4. I like how we are offered the do’s and don’ts of teaching as it really ties the reading together. It let’s us know as educators what works well with teaching and what does not.