The Power of the Adolescent Brain

human brain with lightnings

(This information is based on material from my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.

As late as the 1990’s, it was thought by scientists that brain development was mostly completed by the end of childhood. Over the past twenty years, however, neuroscientists have transformed the way we think about how the brain develops between the ages of twelve and twenty. Here are eight key facts regarding what we’ve learned so far about the radical changes going on inside the teen brain:

  1. Gray matter (consisting of the neurons or brain cell bodies, their branches [dendrites], and their axons) is decreasing as a result of ‘’pruning’’ of brain connections (a process that results in a brain that is more adaptive to its unique environment);
  1. The insulation of brain connections with white matter or myelin (a process called myelination) is increasing, creating faster and more efficient transmission of nerve impulses;
  1. New brain cells are being created (a process called neurogenesis);
  1. Maturation of the brain proceeds from back to front, so that the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) is the last region of the brain develop;
  1. The limbic system or ‘’emotional brain’’ develops at puberty, while the ‘’reasoning brain’’ (prefrontal cortex) doesn’t fully mature until the early to mid-twenties; thus, to use an automotive metaphor, the gas pedal is fully functioning at puberty while the ‘’brakes’’ aren’t fully installed by the early twenties, thus accounting for many traits of adolescence including bad decision-making, hyper-emotionality, a propensity for risk-taking, and a hunger for sensations and peer affiliations;
  1. The adolescent brain is ‘’neuroplastic,’’ meaning that it wires itself in part based upon environmental stimuli (including parenting and education influences);
  1. The adolescent brain evolved over tens of thousands of years to take risks, seek rewards, affiliate with peers, and crave sensations because these traits were adaptive to leaving the parental nest and going out into the wild to find food, mates, shelter, and other things necessary for survival;
  1. The adolescent brain is extraordinarily sensitive to its surroundings and more susceptible to stress than the brains of either children or adults.

This sensitivity of the adolescent brain means that teens are vulnerable to a wide range of risks in the contemporary world including, traffic accidents, suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, violence, sleep difficulties, and sexually transmitted diseases. The bright side of this vulnerability, however, is that teens are primed to be positively influenced by role models, dynamic classroom strategies, schoolwide innovations, and a rich learning environment at home. Here are eight key ‘’adolescent brain friendly’’ interventions that educators and parents can use to develop the teen brain and help adolescents thrive in the world:

Eight Adolescent Brain-Friendly Interventions

  1. Opportunities to Choose: teens need frequent occasions to make significant choices to help develop the decision-making regions in the ‘’reasoning brain’’ (the prefrontal cortex); strategies include:
  • At School: provide homework options, involve students in school governance, let students choose their own learning projects; offer more school electives;
  • At Home: let teens choose their own study methods, give teens a bigger say in household management, listen more carefully to a teen’s opinions regarding a broad range of topics.
  1. Self-Awareness Activities: teens experience an acute sense of self-consciousness and are actively building an inner core identity during adolescence (another prefrontal cortex function):
  • At School: let students keep reflection journals, have them write or create their own autobiographies, connect learning content directly to students’ lives;
  • At Home: do mindfulness meditation with your teen, respect his need for privacy, encourage personal exploration through writing, photography or another medium.
  1. Peer Learning Connections: adolescents prefer the company of their friends to being with adults (e.g. parents, teachers, or other authority figures); areas of the brain associated with emotional distress light up in brain scan studies if teens are socially rejected:
  • At School: use peer teaching and collaborative learning, allow peers to critique each other’s school work, establish a peer governance system to deal with school infractions;
  • At Home: let your teen study with his friends, make your home a peer-friendly place to hang out, avoid being critical of your teenagers choice of friends.
  1. Affective Learning: the ‘’emotional brain’’ (limbic system) is going full throttle by early adolescence while the ‘’reasoning brain’’ (prefrontal cortex) is still being installed; the teen learns more effectively when there is emotional content to accompany a lesson or other learning topic:
  • At School: be emotionally supportive of students (e.g. ask them how their day has been going), teach controversial issues, teach with feeling, use novel teaching strategies, engage students’ imaginations;
  • At Home: help your teen regulate his own feelings (through reflection, stress reduction tools etc.); provide a safe space within which your teen can experience a wide range of emotions without being judged, integrate laughter and fun into your daily family routines.
  1. Learning Through the Body: teens’ bodies are going through dramatic changes from puberty until the early twenties; the cerebellum or ‘’little brain’’ is highly susceptible to environmental influence and involves both body movement as well as higher cognitive functions such as reading and mathematics:
  • At School: use hands-on learning (e.g. makerspaces), teach through role play, provide exercise breaks;
  • At Home: exercise as a family, provide frequent family recreational activities, do things as a family that involve the body (e.g. put on plays, engage in sports, make furniture etc.).
  1. Metacognitive Learning: this refers to ‘’thinking about thinking’’ or the capacity to use the mind to regulate its own processes through planning, goal-setting, reflecting on one’s past experience, and other self-regulating mental activities; this area is developing throughout adolescence as a prefrontal cortex function:
  • At School: teach critical thinking, introduce graphic organizers like mind-mapping, teach students how their brains work;
  • At Home: ask open-ended questions, help your teen learn how to set realistic goals for himself, engage in family discussions about philosophy, religion, cosmology, or other existential issues.
  1. Expressive Arts Activities: the highly developed ‘’emotional brain’’ is primed to creatively express itself, while the still-developing prefrontal cortex function of ‘’inhibition’’ is not censoring these creative ideas as much as it will in adulthood, so this is a critical period for creative and artistic activities:
  • At School: use creative writing, allow students to create their own multimedia projects, use drama to teach history, math, science, and literature;
  • At Home: provide a space in the home where your teen can create things via her favorite media, don’t judge or criticize your teen’s creative productions, encourage (but don’t push) involvement with a creative group at school or in the community (e.g. theater, dance, music etc.).
  1. Real Life Experiences: teens can reason like adults by age sixteen but only if there are no emotional or peer influences (a condition called ‘’cold cognition’’); real life learning provides an appropriate setting within which teens can be challenged to make good decisions in the midst of social or emotional pressures (a condition termed ‘’hot cognition’’):
  • At School: provide internship programs, apprenticeship programs, job shadowing days, community or service-based learning, theme-based, magnet, or career academy programs;
  • At Home: encourage your teen to volunteer with a community-based organization, look for opportunities where your teen can study abroad, permit your teen to hold a job (even if you’re concerned it may interfere with his studies

How Secondary Schools Are Failing Our Adolescents

Unfortunately, many middle and high schools engage in educational practices that are contrary to the findings of neuroscience concerning the adolescent brain.

  • Instead of providing opportunities to choose, secondary schools pile on academic requirements for college-bound students.
  • Instead of engaging students in wide-ranging discussions on topics of great interest to them, schools too often focus on a largely emotionless curriculum sometimes delivered in deadpan intonations by humorless lecturers.
  • Instead of engaging students in peer interactions, students spend much of their time working alone at their desks.
  • Instead of helping students decrease their high stress levels, secondary schools often add to student stress through high-stakes standardized testing and emphasis on getting high grade point averages.
  • Instead of helping students use their bodies in learning activities, many secondary schools are cutting back on PE programs and recess and keeping students sitting at their desks without exercise breaks or kinesthetically-based instruction.
  • Instead of providing students with learning out in the real world, secondary schools restrict student learning to artificial classroom environments that hardly resemble anything students are likely to encounter in their future adult lives.

The Challenge for Parents and Educators

The challenge for schools, and parents, is to recognize the tremendous changes that are going on in the brains of our teenagers, and to make substantial reforms in our educational and parenting practices that will allow adolescents to make good choices in life. For example,

  • to seek peer affiliation by choosing to join volunteer service organizations rather than joining a gang;
  • to get their thrills and kicks from student-initiated projects rather than from a marijuana cigarette or alcohol binge,
  • to take risks by performing at a poetry slam rather than by racing their cars at high speeds.

As parents and educators, we have to make a choice. We can choose to ignore these scientific findings and keep heaping pressure on our teenagers with high-stakes tests, college requirements, and criticisms of their lifestyle, or we can choose instead to use adolescent brain-friendly strategies that will help teens develop the skills, habits of mind, and passions they’ll need to be successful for the rest of their lives. Adolescent brain-building is a high-stakes enterprise with huge implications for their future and ours.


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For more information about these issues, see my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.

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