The understanding that adolescence is a time of profound brain growth and change is contrary to long-held ideas that the brain was mostly fully “formed” by the end of childhood.
BRAIN CHANGES THAT OCCUR DURING ADOLESCENTS
- Between childhood and adulthood the brain’s “wiring diagram” becomes more complex and more efficient, especially in the brain’s prefrontal cortex or frontal outer mantle.
- An important part of the front lobes—and one of the last areas of the brain to fully mature—is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for such skills as setting priorities, organising plans and ideas, forming strategies, controlling impulses, and allocating attention.
How such changes take place
- Like a computer, the maturing brain grows “circuits”—neural connections—that can perform several tasks simultaneously and with ever-greater efficiency.
- Dopamine inputs to the PFC—a chemical messenger critical for focusing attention when necessary to choose between conflicting options— grow dramatically during adolescence.
Why understanding brain changes during adolescence matters
- Impulse control, planning, and decision- making are largely prefrontal cortex functions that are still maturing during adolescence.
- Adult response to stimuli tends to be more intellectual, while teens’ is often more “from the gut.” This suggests that while the changeability of the adolescent brain is well suited to meet the demands of teen life, guidance from adults are essential while this decision-making circuitry is being formed.
- The ability for the brain to plan, adapt to the social environment, and to imagine possible future consequences of action or to appropriately gauge their emotional significance, is still developing throughout adolescence.
- Brain functions that enhance teens’ ability to connect gut feelings with their ability to help retrieve memories, to put situations into context, and to remember past details about a situation that might be important, are also under major construction during adolescence.
- Neurobiological factors should be one part of a wider universe of factors that are considered when trying to understand teen decision-making and behaviour.
- Teens need to be surrounded by caring parents, adults, and institutions that help them learn specific skills and appropriate adult behaviour.
- Teens themselves may be able to shape their own brain development. For example, neuroanatomical evidence suggests that learning and positive experiences help build complex, adaptive brains.
- More research is needed to fully understand the brain development, including the relative influence of genetic and environmental factors and how much of the brain’s developing “wiring diagram” process is automatic versus how much is susceptible to manipulation and intervention.
It is important for educators, parents of adolescents and adolescents themselves to be aware of the changes that the brain undergoes during puberty, and understand how this influences the behavioural choices and thinking patterns of the teenager. Secondary School curriculum needs to include subjects to teach adolescent students ‘how’ to learn; this could include note taking strategies, organisational strategies, stress management, study skills and time management strategies.
Schools also need to respect and support adolescent students by ‘giving them a voice’; listening to and valuing their opinions and ideas, whilst supporting and guiding them.
It is also important for schools to develop a variety of teaching approaches that will engage and motivate their adolescent students. Planned learning experiences and teaching strategies need to be carried out within a framework, underpinned by neurological facts that are based on research and brain compatible principles.
Australian schools need to fully commit to providing brain compatible learning environments and experiences for their students, to optimise their academic and emotional development.