Holly Ballard MS/CCCslp
Crystal Hutchins MS/CCCslp
Sherrie Susser MA/CCCslp
Randi Weinberg MA/CCCslp

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Learning and the Adolescent Brain

I truly love working with adolescents – their energy, enthusiasm, creativity and their rapid ability to learn and change make them an exciting group of students to work with.  That being said, as both a parent and teacher of teens and pre-teens, I will be the first to admit that it is often no picnic.

“She didn’t used to forget everything!  She was my dependable one!”

“She never would have done something so irresponsible last year….”

“I only made a suggestion and he just exploded on me.”

“He loses every piece of homework.”

“She cries about everything!”

This kind of input I have heard from parents of teens (or said about my own) across the board.  So why does this period of child development feel like such a hurricane?

One important thing to understand about adolescents is that their brain is still very much under construction.  While many of their functions are mature like an adult, especially in the lower parts of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex is still in development.  This part of the brain is responsible for planning and organizing, inhibiting impulses, and prioritizing.  It is not fully developed in males until approximately age 23 and in females at about 21.   Yet this is the part of the brain we access to prevent blurting a random opinion, decide the steps to solve a problem, or avoid a risky situation.  Can this lead to problems in middle and high school?   It sure can!

Interestingly, when adult brains are scanned as they view pictures of people who are frowning or upset, they use the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking, planning, judging part of the brain) to interpret it.  When teens are shown pictures of the same people, they are scanned and are using the amygdala, part of the limbic system, which is the ‘emotional response and fight-or-flight part of the brain’.  This can explain their responses that seem extreme to a minor incident (ex. “Why didn’t you take out the trash like I asked you to?”).  They are processing that information in the part of the brain we use to survive danger rather than using judgment and weighing the relative importance of the problem.

Adolescents tend more to use a trial-and-error method of problem solving because they are not using their pre-frontal cortex as efficiently as adults.  This can look impulsive and somewhat risky to adults.  However, it is this willingness to embrace risks which also enables teens to try many more new things in a short period of time when compared to their fully adult counterparts (ex. “This term I want to do field hockey…..No, now I like theater”).  What seems like a rapid shift to us reflects the way their brains are developing.  They are also able to rapidly acquire information compared to adults, which comes in handy because they have so many subjects to learn in a day!

It helps to realize that they are developing exactly as they should, even when it can be frustrating from the adult viewpoint.  They are in process and the organizational skills, ability to inhibit an impulse rather than act on it, and ability to prioritize and make sound judgments will continue to develop throughout their remaining time at school.  This hurricane of the middle and high school experience is blessedly normal.

Holly Ballard, M.S., CCC-SLP
Littleton Middle and High School

P.S. In the next blog update, I will provide suggestions for creating structure and organization at home to help them as they work on acquiring these skills in the meantime.