Teenage risk-taking and the role of teachers

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Continuing her series on the changing teenage brain and how it affects their education, Dr Stephanie Thornton discusses teenage risk-taking and poses some questions for teachers.

It is now generally accepted: adolescent brains are different – different from children’s brains and different from adult brains too.

Puberty, it seems, reshapes not only the body but also the brain so that adolescent brains undergo a period of both structural and functional development, with some systems apparently maturing faster than others.

Take the areas of the brain associated with self-regulation: in other words, with focusing attention, planning, assessing risk and inhibiting inappropriate responses. It seems that these areas are still immature at the start of adolescence, and undergo a clear growth spurt just before and through the teenage years. 

Could immaturity in these areas of the brain contribute to the impulsive, irresponsible and risky behaviour so common in adolescence? What implications might this have for education and society?

A decade ago the media were full of reports suggesting that the discovery of these brain immaturities had two important practical implications. 

The first of these was said to be that we should not hold teenagers responsible for their delinquent actions as we presently do – as this risky and anti-social behaviour is the result of a physiological immaturity.

The second was that we should not “waste time” trying to teach teenagers to regulate their behaviour better (in other words, to be more planful, to assess and avoid risk better) until their brains had matured. These views still pop up in the popular press – but they are largely discredited in science.

The chicken and the egg

Which needs to come first: brain maturity or the attempt to regulate behaviour better? Does it make sense to wait for a brain system to mature before asking it to do any work? The consensus now is that that is a naïve interpretation of the research.

We know from other areas of development that how you behave shapes how you develop. Male muscle strength increases at puberty, for example, but you do not develop large muscles if you sit on a couch and wait for them to appear. Likewise, experiments with chick embryos show that, if the embryo can’t move its legs in the egg, the bones and joints do not develop as they should.

One of the clear messages from neuroscience over the past decade is that how we use our brains also shapes what develops – even in adult life (even in later life).

Areas of the brain associated with spatial skills develop markedly, for example, in adults who train as London taxi drivers and master “the knowledge” of the streets and routes through the city.

Try to plan, to assess risk, to regulate behaviour, and the areas of the brain associated with those functions shape up. Avoid all of that responsibility and those systems will not develop so well. 

The general view among experts today is that while neuroscience may have revealed immaturities in brain centres involved in self-regulation and hence responsible behaviour, this does not imply that we should avoid giving adolescents responsibilities, nor that we should not hold them responsible for their behaviour.

On the contrary: the implication of the discoveries in neuroscience is that we should actively encourage teenagers to shoulder responsibilities if we want the associated areas of the brain to develop.

Practical implications?

What implications do the new discoveries in neuroscience have in the classroom? After all, we already know that adolescents are impulsive and prone to taking risks. What does the discovery of brain immaturities add?

There are those who argue that we are far from ready to use discoveries in neuroscience to shape practice in education. Proponents of this view argue that we do not know enough, and do not yet understand the practical and ethical implications of discoveries in neuroscience well enough to offer advice to teachers.

Other researchers take the opposite view, arguing that, although there is obviously much still to be discovered – research is only just starting – neuroscience already has a great deal to offer educators.

For example, the new research raises a few practical questions that may be worth considering in relation to adolescent problems in self-control:

Skill not a trait

Should we treat responsibility/self-regulation less as a personality trait and more as an indication of underdeveloped skill? When a teenager is irresponsible, we tend to see that as a trait, a reflection of the individual’s character, values and attitudes rather than as a skill – and judge accordingly (and pejoratively). If we take the science seriously, then such behaviour may be better viewed as an indication of immaturity and as an indication for remedial intervention.

Assigning responsibility?

Should we make different choices about assigning responsibility? There is a natural tendency, in schools (and in life at large) to put individuals who are already trustworthy into positions of responsibility – and to exclude the less reliable and the downright unreliable from such positions.

The implication of the neuroscience may be that this is an unfortunate (if perfectly understandable) strategy: those already stretching their brains to develop self-regulatory skills are given more opportunity to grow in these areas, and those not already stretching those areas are not stimulated to start. 

Of course, putting the unreliable in charge of anything carries risks, which obviously need to be managed sensibly. But if a teenager can be motivated to try, then would giving the less reliable a little more responsibility foster development in this area?

Scaffold the task better? 

Vygotsky pointed out, nearly a century ago, that the young learn new skills better in partnership with a skilled supporter than they do alone – and that they master new skills better step-by-step than if simply thrown in the deep end.

The best way to impart any skill is to offer the learner a “scaffold”, supporting small steps and withdrawing that support as it becomes unnecessary. This insight applies to every skill, every aspect of development. Life being what it is, some families are effective in scaffolding the development of responsibility, and others are not.

The result is that there are teenagers in our schools who have neither been given real responsibilities, nor in any way helped to manage the complexities of planning, risk-assessment and so forth. Could offering not only the opportunity to exercise responsibility but also more explicit tuition and support in doing so foster better development for the less adept in these areas?

Part of the curriculum

Should we treat responsibility more explicitly as part of the curriculum? In effect, if we treat responsibility as a skill, if we more systematically offer opportunities to develop this skill to those most in need, if we also support their early steps, we are explicitly teaching responsibility, and so directly fostering mature brain development.

Such efforts will often be focused at an individual level. But there are also collective classroom activities that foster planning and risk-analysis – not least in the form of various highly motivating educational games. 

In addition, some experts have suggested that it may be valuable to discuss brain changes with the young: would knowing more about how brains work alter self-perceptions, and perceptions of the possible, in advantageous ways?


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