The Power of the Adolescent Brain
(This information is based on material
from my book
The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for
Teaching Middle and High School Students, published by ASCD).
As late as the 1990’s, it was thought by scientists
that brain development was mostly completed by the end of childhood.
Over the past twenty years, however, neuroscientists have transformed
the way we think about how the brain develops between the ages of twelve
and twenty. Here are eight key facts regarding what we’ve learned so
far about the radical changes going on inside the teen brain:
- Gray matter (consisting of the neurons or brain cell bodies,
their branches [dendrites], and their axons) is decreasing as a
result of ‘’pruning’’ of brain connections (a process that results
in a brain that is more adaptive to its unique environment);
- The insulation of brain connections with white matter or myelin
(a process called myelination) is increasing, creating faster and
more efficient transmission of nerve impulses;
- New brain cells are being created (a process called neurogenesis);
- Maturation of the brain proceeds from back to front, so that
the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) is the last region of
the brain develop;
- The limbic system or ‘’emotional brain’’ develops at puberty,
while the ‘’reasoning brain’’ (prefrontal cortex) doesn’t fully
mature until the early to mid-twenties; thus, to use an automotive
metaphor, the gas pedal is fully functioning at puberty while the
‘’brakes’’ aren’t fully installed by the early twenties, thus accounting
for many traits of adolescence including bad decision-making, hyper-emotionality,
a propensity for risk-taking, and a hunger for sensations and peer
- The adolescent brain is ‘’neuroplastic,’’ meaning that it wires
itself in part based upon environmental stimuli (including parenting
and education influences);
- The adolescent brain evolved over tens of thousands of years
to take risks, seek rewards, affiliate with peers, and crave sensations
because these traits were adaptive to leaving the parental nest
and going out into the wild to find food, mates, shelter, and other
things necessary for survival;
- The adolescent brain is extraordinarily sensitive to its surroundings
and more susceptible to stress than the brains of either children
This sensitivity of the adolescent brain means that teens are vulnerable
to a wide range of risks in the contemporary world including, traffic
accidents, suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, violence, sleep
difficulties, and sexually transmitted diseases. The bright side of
this vulnerability, however, is that teens are primed to be positively
influenced by role models, dynamic classroom strategies, schoolwide
innovations, and a rich learning environment at home. Here are eight
key ‘’adolescent brain friendly’’ interventions that educators and parents
can use to develop the teen brain and help adolescents thrive in the
Eight Adolescent Brain-Friendly Interventions
- Opportunities to Choose: teens need frequent occasions
to make significant choices to help develop the decision-making
regions in the ‘’reasoning brain’’ (the prefrontal cortex); strategies
- At School: provide homework options, involve students
in school governance, let students choose their own learning projects;
offer more school electives;
- At Home: let teens choose their own study methods, give
teens a bigger say in household management, listen more carefully
to a teen’s opinions regarding a broad range of topics.
- Self-Awareness Activities: teens experience an acute
sense of self-consciousness and are actively building an inner core
identity during adolescence (another prefrontal cortex function):
- At School: let students keep reflection journals, have
them write or create their own autobiographies, connect learning
content directly to students’ lives;
- At Home: do mindfulness meditation with your teen, respect
his need for privacy, encourage personal exploration through writing,
photography or another medium.
- Peer Learning Connections: adolescents prefer the company
of their friends to being with adults (e.g. parents, teachers, or
other authority figures); areas of the brain associated with emotional
distress light up in brain scan studies if teens are socially rejected:
- At School: use peer teaching and collaborative learning,
allow peers to critique each other’s school work, establish a peer
governance system to deal with school infractions;
- At Home: let your teen study with his friends, make your
home a peer-friendly place to hang out, avoid being critical of
your teenagers choice of friends.
- Affective Learning: the ‘’emotional brain’’ (limbic system)
is going full throttle by early adolescence while the ‘’reasoning
brain’’ (prefrontal cortex) is still being installed; the teen learns
more effectively when there is emotional content to accompany a
lesson or other learning topic:
- At School: be emotionally supportive of students (e.g.
ask them how their day has been going), teach controversial issues,
teach with feeling, use novel teaching strategies, engage students’
- At Home: help your teen regulate his own feelings (through
reflection, stress reduction tools etc.); provide a safe space within
which your teen can experience a wide range of emotions without
being judged, integrate laughter and fun into your daily family
- Learning Through the Body: teens’ bodies are going through
dramatic changes from puberty until the early twenties; the cerebellum
or ‘’little brain’’ is highly susceptible to environmental influence
and involves both body movement as well as higher cognitive functions
such as reading and mathematics:
- At School: use hands-on learning (e.g. makerspaces),
teach through role play, provide exercise breaks;
- At Home: exercise as a family, provide frequent family
recreational activities, do things as a family that involve the
body (e.g. put on plays, engage in sports, make furniture etc.).
- Metacognitive Learning: this refers to ‘’thinking about
thinking’’ or the capacity to use the mind to regulate its own processes
through planning, goal-setting, reflecting on one’s past experience,
and other self-regulating mental activities; this area is developing
throughout adolescence as a prefrontal cortex function:
- At School: teach critical thinking, introduce graphic
organizers like mind-mapping, teach students how their brains work;
- At Home: ask open-ended questions, help your teen learn
how to set realistic goals for himself, engage in family discussions
about philosophy, religion, cosmology, or other existential issues.
- Expressive Arts Activities: the highly developed ‘’emotional
brain’’ is primed to creatively express itself, while the still-developing
prefrontal cortex function of ‘’inhibition’’ is not censoring these
creative ideas as much as it will in adulthood, so this is a critical
period for creative and artistic activities:
- At School: use creative writing, allow students to create
their own multimedia projects, use drama to teach history, math,
science, and literature;
- At Home: provide a space in the home where your teen
can create things via her favorite media, don’t judge or criticize
your teen’s creative productions, encourage (but don’t push) involvement
with a creative group at school or in the community (e.g. theater,
dance, music etc.).
- Real Life Experiences: teens can reason like adults by
age sixteen but only if there are no emotional or peer influences
(a condition called ‘’cold cognition’’); real life learning provides
an appropriate setting within which teens can be challenged to make
good decisions in the midst of social or emotional pressures (a
condition termed ‘’hot cognition’’):
- At School: provide internship programs, apprenticeship
programs, job shadowing days, community or service-based learning,
theme-based, magnet, or career academy programs;
- At Home: encourage your teen to volunteer
with a community-based organization, look for opportunities
where your teen can study abroad, permit your teen to hold a job
(even if you’re concerned it may interfere with his studies
How Secondary Schools Are
Failing Our Adolescents
Unfortunately, many middle and high schools engage in educational
practices that are contrary to the findings of neuroscience concerning the adolescent
- Instead of providing opportunities to choose, secondary schools
pile on academic requirements for college-bound students.
- Instead of engaging students in wide-ranging discussions on
topics of great interest to them, schools too often focus on a largely
emotionless curriculum sometimes delivered in deadpan intonations
by humorless lecturers.
- Instead of engaging students in peer interactions, students
spend much of their time working alone at their desks.
- Instead of helping students decrease their high stress levels,
secondary schools often add to student stress through high-stakes
standardized testing and emphasis on getting high grade point averages.
- Instead of helping students use their bodies in learning activities,
many secondary schools are cutting back on PE programs and recess
and keeping students sitting at their desks without exercise breaks
or kinesthetically-based instruction.
The Challenge for Parents and Educators
- Instead of providing students with learning out in the real
world, secondary schools restrict student learning to artificial
classroom environments that hardly resemble anything students are
likely to encounter in their future adult lives.
The challenge for schools,
and parents, is to recognize the tremendous changes that are going on
in the brains of our teenagers, and to make substantial reforms in our
educational and parenting practices that will allow adolescents to make
good choices in life. For example,
- to seek peer affiliation by choosing to join volunteer service
organizations rather than joining a gang;
- to get their thrills and kicks from student-initiated projects
rather than from a marijuana cigarette or alcohol binge,
- to take risks by performing at a poetry slam rather than by
racing their cars at high speeds.
As parents and educators, we have to make a choice. We can choose to
ignore these scientific findings and keep heaping pressure on our teenagers
with high-stakes tests, college requirements, and criticisms of their
lifestyle, or we can choose instead to use adolescent brain-friendly
strategies that will help teens develop the skills, habits of mind,
and passions they’ll need to be successful for the rest of their lives.
Adolescent brain-building is a high-stakes enterprise with huge implications
for their future and ours.
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For more information about these issues, see my book
of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School
To learn about Dr. Armstrong’s presentations on teaching
to the adolescent brain, go to the
Workshops & Keynotes