Changing teenage brains and the implications for the classroom


Continuing her series on the biological changes our students face and how they can affect their education, Dr Stephanie Thornton discusses the brain changes that occur during puberty.

It seems that our brains change in fairly impressive ways as we pass through puberty. Given the drama of hormonal change at this time, it would be most extraordinary were it not so! Although we are still in the early stages of research in this area, with many questions yet to be answered, a number of interesting phenomena are already emerging. 

Changing socio-emotional processes

New methods have given us, for the first time, the extraordinary ability to see the brain in action. Of course, we can’t see thoughts or feelings – but we can see the areas of the brain that are active when an individual is engaged in a given type of activity. Research of this kind has revealed marked changes in the brain systems that process both social and emotional phenomena during adolescence. 

For example, MRI scans of the brain in action show that teenage brains react differently to emotional stimuli than is the case for either children’s or adult brains. Adolescent brains react to such stimuli both faster, and more powerfully than do either adult or children’s brains: teenagers genuinely do experience more dramatically intense emotions than the rest of us. 

More surprising is the discovery that there are changes in the adolescent brain in areas associated with understanding what other people are thinking. Until recently it was generally believed that development in this area of the brain was more or less complete by mid-childhood – and that teenagers had more or less the same capacity to infer what other people are thinking as does an adult.

The discovery of changes in the brain areas relevant to understanding others led to new studies of those capacities – which confirm that, indeed, young teenagers are not as adept as adults in figuring out what another person might intend. The ability to understand other perspectives develops through the teenage years, as these brain systems mature. 

Although it would be premature to conclude that all those misunderstandings are just the result of an immature brain, the science suggests that there may be more going on here than we previously thought!

A growing capacity to process the information needed to infer what others are thinking changes a lot of things. We become more aware of what may be going on in any situation – which can be a major advantage in all sorts of ways. But we also become more aware of what others may be thinking about us. 

Coupled with hormonal changes which make social bonding more urgent in adolescence, this may well contribute to the teenager’s growing self-consciousness and social sensitivity, even social anxiety. 

As we become more able to see ourselves as others may see us, flaws and weaknesses that in childhood we imagined to be invisible suddenly seem to be under a spotlight. 

Practical implications?

In sum: discoveries in neuroscience seem to back up what we have all long known: teenagers can be self-conscious, emotional creatures who often completely misunderstand what we’re saying. What the science is adding to this is the discovery of the physiological processes associated with these things.

Do changes in the adolescent brain cause the behavioural effects and sensitivities of the teenage years? Experts caution against taking a simplistic view. On the one hand, as one expert puts it, it is a reasonable bet that if a particular brain structure is immature then the functions that it governs will show immaturity. On the other hand, there is no simple connection between brain maturity and behaviour: some adults are as difficult as teenagers, and in the same ways, though their brain systems have presumably passed through the adolescent changes.

We do not yet know exactly how changes in the adolescent brain contribute to teenage behaviour – after all, a great many factors besides neurology are changing at this time.

But even bearing these cautions in mind, discoveries from recent research do have a few practical implications in the classroom:

Handling emotional outbursts 

Of course, tolerating displays of violent emotion is not acceptable – and there is nothing in the recent discoveries of science to suggest otherwise. However, our deeper understanding of the changes to emotional systems in the brain highlights the fact that teenagers may be dealing with more powerful reactions than ever before – and may not yet have had time to learn to handle such powerful feelings. 

There is also the more general point that the triggers for strong emotion are changing as an individual leaves childhood and enters adolescence – and again, he or she may be taken by surprise by this. 

What the science does is underline the need for awareness of the challenge such powerful new emotions pose – and the need to offer the young constructive techniques for gaining self-control as well as simply demanding it. 

Managing misunderstanding

As a species, we humans are very far from adept at understanding one another – even in adult life, when (presumably) brain systems supporting our efforts in this area are mature. 

In fact, failure of communication is a (lifelong) major problem in relationships, whether between parent and teenager, teacher and pupil, peer and peer (colleague and colleague, husband and wife). 

The surprise discovery that the brain systems involved in interpreting other people’s behaviour are still maturing suggests that we should be taking the problems of drawing such inferences more seriously than we do, in the teenage years. 

Practice improves skill and helps to build the brain structures needed for that skill. Perhaps we should be using the inevitable misunderstandings of life as opportunities to directly foster the skills of “mind-reading”, rather than passing swiftly over them? 

Helping the young to realise that there has been a misunderstanding (and that such things are common) is a key part of this process (if I don’t know what you meant, how could I possibly realise that it isn’t what I thought you meant?). 

Directly encouraging activities involving taking another’s perspective, and discussing strategies for drawing better inferences would help to develop skills in this area.

Taking social sensitivities seriously 

Of course, any good teacher is already sensitive to teenage self-consciousness and social anxiety. In describing the physiological processes involved in these things, science is not making new discoveries so much as underlining the power of the emotions and processes behind these things – and emphasising that processing in these areas is still immature in the teenage years. 

But that emphasis is in itself useful, if only to increase our tolerance for what can often seem narcissistic or neurotic in the young. As yet, neuroscience has nothing to say as to specifically how we should handle these sensitivities. 

But we do not need brain scans to know how to provide a compassionate and constructive environment in which the young can learn to handle these things for themselves – that is what good teaching is about.

Using the social sensitivities 

We have long known that it is easier to learn, to persist in tackling a challenge, to develop new skills in a social context: it is known as the “social facilitation” effect.

Recent research in neuroscience is endorsing this phenomenon, suggesting that brain systems work differently when we engage in social interactions than when we work alone, or in interaction with the internet and so on. The practical implications for the classroom are obvious.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.



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