Adolescence, a time for second, third… as many chances as it takes
EIGHTY-PLUS adolescent brains are walked into my classroom each day by their legs. The following 80 minutes working with each brain can be interesting, or just plain confusing, or maddeningly frustrating. On the whole it’s fun.
Then each evening plus weekends there are the two teenage brains that sometimes I find wandering my home. They slump by and crash through a door complete with a surgically-sprouting phone, or, they rush up and give me a hug and lift me off the floor. I’m ok with that.
So, when I found a copy of Why are they so Weird? What’s really going in a teenager’s brain in Portland’s famed Powells I was intrigued.
Its theme is that it is not just raging hormones that make many adolescents such joyful hard work to be around… new neurological research indicates that major changes in the growth of the brain during the teenage years may also be having a much bigger affect than previously thought.
As author Barbara Strauch reports, “most scientists working in this area today think that changes taking place in the brain during adolescence are so profound that they may rival early childhood as a critical period of development”.
She concludes: “Indeed, the remodelling of the adolescent brain — a brain that science had considered largely finished — spreads over such a wide range of systems we should rethink how we think of teenagers altogether.”
Since the late ’90s the advent of the MRI scanner has helped scientists peer into the adolescent brain, for the first time in terms of serious research. The pioneer of this research, Dr Jay Giedd, concludes, “we shouldn’t give up any teenager, there is hope.”
There are serious implications for education in this research. Perhaps the teenage years are too early for us to be labelling our young people as successes and failures. Probably these are the years for second, third… as many chances as are needed.
Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes for Health, started scanning teenage brains in the late 1990s. Hundreds of them. He detected major changes in areas of the brain associated with logic, spatial reasoning, problem solving, language… and most importantly in the frontal lobes behind our foreheads.
It is the frontal lobes that guide our reasoning, decision-making, our judgement, our motivation, that help us plan ahead, that say stop that impulse isn’t the best idea. The frontal lobes are the chief executive and the police wrapped up in one. Developed frontal lobes are what make us grown up. As neuroscientist Chuck Nelson summed it up: “This is the part that tells you to count to ten before you call your mother old and stupid.”
Giedd found the frontal lobes — the very area that makes adults do the right thing — “are one of the last areas of the brain to reach a stable grown-up state”. He adds:”… perhaps not reaching full development and refinement until well past age 20″. It can be as late as 25 in boys. 25!
The teenage brain remains far from finished, says Strauch, “it remains a teeming ball of possibilities, raw material waiting to be synaptically shaped.”
Says Giedd: “If that teenage brain is still changing so much, we have to think about what kinds of experiences we want that growing brain to have.”
Yet the teenage brain seems to be growing in an ever-confined space. One Washington DC school counsellor told author Strauch: “We’ve simply made schools impossible for the regular kid. There are not enough options for how to be a successful teenager.”
A 16-year-old told Strauch the world was too black-and-white, with academic success the only barometer for success. “It seems you have to go to Harvard — or you will be a druggie and drop out.
“There don’t seem to be any in-between choices. People just talk about getting into a good college all the time; they pound that into you. They never talk about being a nice person or having a good marriage or a nice family.
“It’s all about grades. And there isn’t any room for mistakes.”
Giedd is unsure what influence we can have on the developing brain. “We may find out that all we can do is tinker around the edges…
“But we might find out that there are things we can do to improve things. My guess is that, if that is so, it’s going to turn out to be something we already know about.
“And we could find out that the way to make a better brain is not through four hours of homework.” Knowing what he does about the teenage brain, Giedd often lets his own four children decide for themselves how to use their own free time.
“What we might find out, in the end, what the brain wants is play… what if the brain grows best when it’s allowed to play?”
Bob Blum, professor at of the University of Minnesota, who has analyzed much of the data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health concludes of the neural development of the teenage brain: “Ten years ago there was nothing. Now, I think it will be the frontier of the field for the next ten years. It will change the whole debate about adolescents. It will have huge implications for policy, for laws.
“It will change the whole way we think about kids. Forever.”