What neuroscience reveals about our students and how we should respond
In This We Believe, the Association for Middle Level Education stresses the importance of understanding the unique developmental needs of our middle level students in designing appropriate learning environments and for understanding how those environments can contribute to or interfere with our students’ learning. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health suggest that in terms of sheer intellectual power, the adolescent brain matches the adult brain, and the capacity to learn will never be greater than during adolescence. However, there are clear differences in how efficiently adolescents and adults carry out mental tasks.
Recent developments in brain research have revealed that these differences are directly related to developmental changes in the adolescent brain. Understanding where and how the adolescent’s brain is changing and how these changes are reflected in the cognitive skills, behaviors, and emotional responses we see in our students is key to designing environments that accentuate and maximize the positive aspects of our students’ developmental changes while minimizing potential difficulties.
The “Plastic” Adolescent Brain
We all know that the ages from birth to about age three are considered the most important for brain development. During this time, babies’ brains are malleable, or plastic, and are shaped by experiences. Recent research has revealed a similar period of plasticity during adolescence. In his book, The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg (2014) reveals that adolescence is a remarkable period of brain reorganization and developmental plasticity—although the areas being reorganized and shaped during adolescence are different from those in childhood. The brain areas being reshaped during adolescence are the reward systems, the regulatory systems, and the relationship systems—what Steinberg refers to as the three Rs. This reorganization is rapid, accompanied by extensive modifications, and presents educators with exciting opportunities as well as reasons for concern. Knowing more about the changes occurring during this time helps us understand the abilities and vulnerabilities of the middle school learner and raises our awareness of the profound effect we can have on our students now and for the rest of their lives.
Implications for Teachers
Two areas of the brain are of particular interest in understanding adolescents’ responses and behaviors in relation to rewards, regulation, and relationships. First, at the onset of puberty, changes in a number of hormones in the brain affect the limbic system, a group of structures deep inside the brain that work together and comprise the emotional center of the brain. Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institutes of Health, as cited in the 2008 New York Times article, “The Child’s Developing Brain,” explains that these centers become hypersensitive and the capacity for creating emotion increases dramatically. Adolescents’ desire for novelty and exciting experiences increases. Their sensitivity to opinions and evaluations by others (especially peers) increases. The nature and intensity of their relationships with peers, parents, and other adults—such as teachers—changes. As Steinberg notes, preadolescents experience and display higher “highs” and lower “lows” than older adolescents and adults. Quarrels and arguments are commonplace and only begin to subside as the adolescent nears physical maturity—which is likely well past the middle school years!
The adolescent brain is much more responsive to stress. The limbic system is important in helping us detect rewards and threats in the environment. Increased sensitivity in these areas results in adolescents’ motivation to avoid threat and either fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze response, first proposed by Peter Levine, a medical biophysicist and psychologist, is a defensive response when the fight or flight responses are not possible. How often do we see our middle school students freeze in the classroom when they are embarrassed or when they make a mistake?
Other researchers have found that adolescents’ brains process emotional information from external stimuli differently than the brains of adults. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd found that adolescents have difficulty reading the emotions on adult faces. The most dramatic age-dependent differences were with earlier teen years starting at age 11. When shown a series of pictures of adult faces expressing a range of emotions, all the adult volunteers accurately identified the emotion of fear whereas the adolescents saw shock or anger on the face of the adult in the picture. Knowing that our students may not be reading our faces correctly is such powerful information and can help us understand why our students sometimes respond in otherwise unexplainable ways.
Researchers have found that mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and most impulse control disorders such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorders first appear in adolescence. With the limbic system hypersensitized during adolescence, the reward centers are highly sensitive as well. Specifically, they are highly sensitive to the hormone dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure and delight and increases pleasure-seeking behavior. As Steinberg states, “Things that feel good, feel better during adolescence … Because things feel especially pleasurable during the first half of adolescence—between puberty and age sixteen or so—kids this age go out of their ways to seek rewarding experiences” (p. 73–74).
The second area of the brain that undergoes significant change during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex. While the emotional areas of the adolescent brain become hypersensitive, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control, problem-solving, making long-term plans, and judging risks, is still developing. Certainly, middle school students demonstrate thoughtful problem-solving and abstract reasoning. Yet, they also frequently exhibit difficulties with self-control and evaluating consequences of their actions.
The prefrontal cortex lags behind in development at a time when the emotional centers of the brain are hypersensitive and easily aroused. During early adolescence the prefrontal cortex is not very efficient. When adolescents are confronted with decisions, problem-solving, or need to self-regulate, many areas of the prefrontal cortex are activated, not necessarily the appropriate areas. Steinberg likens this process to turning on all of the lights in a room instead of just using a reading light beside the chair. Because of this inefficiency, the young adolescent must exert more effort and energy to exercise self-control and to problem-solve. Their boisterous behavior and loud and overly dramatic responses to seemingly mundane or common encounters may be attributed to this inefficiency of the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, disruptions, distractions, fatigue, emotional upset, stress, and boredom increase the likelihood that they will have more difficulty problem-solving and exercising self-control.
Experience Changes the Brain
Scientists emphasize that the fact that the teen brain is changing and is in transition does not mean it is somehow not up to par. The capacity for learning at this age and a taste for exploration and limit-testing present educators with opportunities to create environments in which middle school learners can explore and experiment while helping them avoid behavior that is destructive to themselves and others. Because of heightened plasticity, the adolescent brain is predisposed to being shaped by experiences and these experiences are more impactful than previously thought. As teachers, we truly do have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities during the middle school years. Steinberg states, “Exposure to novel and challenging experiences during periods of heightened brain plasticity—like adolescence—actually may keep the window of plasticity open longer…this is how the brain maintains its ability to profit from future enriching experiences” (p. 36).
Our understandings of developmentally appropriate learning environments must change as our understanding of the uniqueness and needs of our students change. We should be mindful of new discoveries about adolescent brain development. They should compel us to design more supportive, yet challenging, learning environments. We cannot assume that all our students are getting the skills at home that are necessary to help them make more appropriate decisions or to be more discriminating in how they respond to others.
Armed with the information gleaned from our new understandings of the adolescent brain, we must act. We demonstrate our value and advocacy for our students by acting. We must be deliberate in how we structure learning experiences—making them engaging and challenging. We must be deliberate in how we interact with other adults and our students—modeling supportive, caring, and inclusive relationships. We must always be aware that our students may misinterpret our words and our actions. We should therefore seek to clarify our intent and to de-escalate situations that could be confrontational. When we act on new knowledge, we demonstrate our value and advocacy for our students.
Steinberg, L. (2014). The age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Interview with Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Frontline: Inside the teenage brain. PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/todd.html