Surviving the Teenage Brain: What Educators Should Know

TechnologyWhy are so many of our high school and college students so, so smart, and yet, at the same time so, so… foolish? It turns out they can’t help it. The adolescent brain is a work in progress, “a puzzle waiting completion,” says Dr. Frances Jensen, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and the co-author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (Harper), with Amy Ellis Nutt. Recently, Jensen spoke with NEA Today about how the mysteries of the teenage brain can be better understood by parents and educators.

In the book you describe the many things that are happening — or not yet happening — in the teenage brain. Can you explain what you mean when you say it’s like a Ferrari that’s all revved up…

FJ: But doesn’t have any brakes!

There are a few basic points about brain development that I always try to make: First of all, the brain is the last organ in the body to mature, and it isn’t done until the mid- to late-20s. So when you’re in college, it’s not done, and it’s certainly not done in high school.

Young people have some hidden strengths that we don’t have as adults. Learning is about building circuits in your brain, or making connections between brain synapses – this is called “synaptic plasticity.” All of the machinery that makes your synapses bigger, and the number of synapses themselves, are set at higher levels in children. That gives them a great ability to learn but it’s also a hidden vulnerability. They can imprint — on good things and bad things. For instance, addiction, which is a form of learning, is stronger, faster, and longer in younger people.

That heightened synaptic plasticity is the “revved up” part. But the “brakes,” or the way they regulate themselves is more limited. It turns out that our brain regions connect to each other, front to back, side to side, and we use tracks to do that. They’re kind of like wires, conducting electrical signals. The problem is we have hundreds of miles of these connecting fibers in our brain and it takes a very long time to connect and insulate all of them. It starts in the front of the brain and moves forward. The last place to connect is the frontal lobe, the seat of our executive function, our empathy, our judgment, our risk control…

Interestingly, on average, males are a couple of years behind females in making these kinds of connections, although there are always individual variations. That’s why we often see more risk-taking behavior in boys than girls.

So what can teachers and other educators do with this new information about brains?

FJ: Teenagers are learning machines. Our society puts them in a special place where their primary purpose is to learn — and this is excellent because they’re extremely well-equipped to do that. The hope is that teachers can remind their students, good and bad students, how to help their brains function optimally.

teenage_brain_jensenSleep is a big part of it. Their sleep patterns are different, and there is real biology to explain why. Their circadian clock is 2-3 hours off from adults, and their melatonin does not get released until 2-3 hours after adults’ release. All juvenile mammalian species do this, it’s not unique to humans. The problem is, if you’re sleep deprived, your learning is going to be affected. When we wake them up at 6 a.m., it’s like up waking up an adult at 3 a.m. And yet, we ask them to be at that SAT testing center with pencils sharpened at 7:30! That’s not a great time for their brain to perform.

It does beg the question of how the school day should be structured. The world can’t shift itself, but you might think about what topics to put at the beginning of the day. The ones requiring rigorous brain activity — and that includes our exams — probably should be placed no later than late morning.

In the book, you explain how stress affects teenage brains more acutely than adult brains, and that the hormone usually released in response to stress to modulate anxiety has a reverse effect in adolescents, making them even more anxious! But much of what happens in high school and college is stressful, with high-stakes testing, increased enrollment in Advanced Placement testing… 

FJ: And, of course, social networking is so competitive too! It is distractingly stressful for these kids, and it means their brains are not going to be functioning at their optimum. And there also is addiction to consider. They will get addicted to the Internet, more than adults. Gaming actually turns on the same areas of the brain as cocaine. How do we remind them of that vulnerability? How do we teach them to manage these competing influences? Mindfulness should be a big part of their education: being mindful of the effects of stress or social networking on their brains. We need to teach kids to be sensitive to their brain health. They should know that downtime is really important. We should get it explicitly on the table: ’you should know, the emotional parts of your brain are running the show, you have a paradoxical reaction to stress…’ When I’ve given Brain 101 talks to kids, they have been fascinated. They love learning this cool stuff about themselves!

Do the differences between boys’ and girls’ brain development make a case for single-sex education?

 FJ: I’m a product of single-sex education — although I didn’t necessarily like it at the time! Girls hit a sweet spot, when the myelin (the fatty substance that insulates brain circuits) is increasing and the synapses are coming down, about two years before boys. That generally is happening at ages 12-14 for girls, and 16-18 for boys. There are studies where they teach subjects like calculus to 12- to 14-year-old girls and they do very well! The data would say that it’s probably worth studying… It’s an interesting topic and should be looked at.

There are sometimes very serious consequences for students who violate discipline codes: suspensions and expulsions that lead to increased chances of dropping out, or entering what we call the school-to-prison pipeline. Does what we know about the brain mean we should be turning our attention to more restorative approaches?

FJ: This is a huge issue, and I actually contributed to two amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court about the inappropriate life sentencing without parole for children in the criminal justice system.

Adolescence can be a very rehabilitative time. Rehab or intervention strategies are most effective in this age window because their brains really are plastic. You also can change your IQ in this window, significantly, which brings up the issue of the late bloomer. Young people need to know that they have many more years to remap themselves, to reconfigure who they are. It’s actually a very positive message!

Most kids do not get real learning assessments that show their relative strengths and weaknesses. Should educators be doing those for all kids, or do you think they’re not necessary for students meeting educational goals?

FJ: Instead of assessing the bottom 10-20 percent who are performing at the bottom of the class, I believe everybody needs a little screening. Wouldn’t it be great to know at age 13 that I’m a verbal learner, and my calculations are a little weaker? You have the best shot at actually changing that during this period of heightened plasticity. We have the computational ability to do this — even if it’s a 45-minute screening at the end of 8th grade.