The Teens - A Time for Specific Change
This Newsletter follows on from the last posting ‘Tips for Teaching Teenagers’ where the specific changes in the brain structural formation and the consequences of these changes influences the way adolescent students learn and behave. This essay expands on this work outlining the more particular arrangement of these changes and what motivates this change of intent of future behaviour.
As mentioned, the onset of puberty marks an explosion of neural activity where excess myaline and supportive neural materials focuses on a particular part of the brain to produce conditions that support a specific brain location that will service a particular cognitive capability. This occurs predominantly in the prefrontal lobes but also in the limbic system but the manner in which the changes occur over the period of about age ten to sixteen is quite different and this explains some of the peculiarity of the teenage behaviour.
The prefrontal lobes mature gradually slowly tiptoeing toward the desired skills such as the ability to show good judgement; to critically analyse information that is exposed to them. This is the work of what is referred to as the executive part of the brain, that part where our working memory operates to examine what we have learned and applies this to a problem to be solved.
The other part of the brain under renovation is the limbic system. This is where the social/emotional part of the brain is organised. This is where we are conscious of our position and acceptance in our social group as being very important and rejection becomes so painful. This is a time when we develop our social synapses that deal with our mutual interactions and these exchanges go a long way to establishing our status and self-respect which is our important sense of self. The problem is the changes in the limbic system is not gradual but is in spurts. You can see this when you look at the behaviour of Year 7 and compare this with Year 10 and make a further appraisal of Year 12. The advances are more in steps rather than gradual.
Another consideration is that the maturity of the brain’s connectomes is under construction. In 2009 the US National Institute of Health commissioned a project to identify the memory centres, our schemas in the brain, The Human Connection Project to understand the interconnectedness across all the memories held in the brain. The resulting network is referred to as our connectome. They identified 180 areas, hubs if you like that were connected, 97 more than previously known. Each area has a dense internal array of neural connections. Each hub has access to the others via connections of axonal pathways allowing them to share their information. This sharing process is our working memory in action.
In adults these connections may vary across their life as their experiences and beliefs adjust to their environmental circumstances but at any given time they are relatively distinctive, they have a consistency in how they interpret their environment. In children these connections are less distinct and so the inconsistency leads to the confusions so typical of children and adolescents. This ordering between hubs takes place in concert with the prefrontal lobes.
A characteristic about this maturity of the connectome is that this occurs on average a year to eighteen months earlier in females than males and this confirms the attitudes of girls and boys that any secondary teacher will have experienced.
This time of transition is about becoming a functioning adult. Like all things about being an adult the skills needed are many and varied however, the following illustration contains the broad categories that define an effective adult.
Down the left column are the deficits with which children come into the world. They make the change by acquiring the skills that make them effective in dealing with the challenges in life. These are as follows:
- Relating Skills – At birth, human babies are the most dependent of all mammals. They also take the most time to accumulate the self-awareness and confidence to stand on their own two feet.
- Comprehension – Children have to be taught how things work especially the social skills so important in negotiating within a community.
- Decision Making – Like relating skills children need to have the confidence to make decisions and stick to them when they think they are right. Of course, they need to be flexible and accept an alternate view if they are wrong.
- Social Skills – This is also similar to relating skills but this is the ability to recognise how the ‘others’ feel in a given situation and take their standpoint into consideration. Sometimes it is necessary to put the group’s needs first.
- Interested – This is a critical skill that is most ‘at threat’ in the teenage years. Curiosity enhances all parts of a person’s life decisions and makes things very interesting.
Developing these skills in adolescents is not a simple matter of just telling them what to do! One of the worst things you can do is come across as the expert ‘just do this because I know best’. This is a time when teenagers are moving away from the control of adults and this is healthy and necessary however, if you engage them and say things like ‘this is what I think about the task’ you give the advice without threatening their emerging independence.
Creating a supportive classroom also assists in this transition. Previous Newsletters (The Tribal Classroom – 1 August 2018 and The Tribal Teacher – 29 July 2019) give excellent summaries about how to create strong group cohesion and attachment where the conditions of equity, fairness and trust underpin the classroom environment.
So many children miss out on supportive conditions in their first three years. Our work focusses on these abused and neglected students. A supportive teacher in a caring school can make such a difference for these kids – it is never the last chance but it is the next best chance after the early years to create new behaviours. If they miss out change is still possible but for those children in low socioeconomic areas, access to mental health professional is rare.