The teenage brain: what we as teachers need to know.

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The Teenage Brain ELTCampus

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The teenage brain: why it's important for teachers to understand it.

During adolescence, the teenage brain and particularly the prefrontal cortex are undergoing massive development. Picture a massive and busy building site with cables and wires being trimmed, discarded, or re-routed. Reason, empathy, examining consequences, analytical thought - it's "under construction".

Teens and Teaching for English Exams

It makes me reflect on the abilities I expected a lot of my early teens to have when they were preparing for exams such as the Cambridge exams for B2. A lot of exam material requires a more adult brain, yet more and more early adolescents are preparing for these exams. Apart from the world knowledge we need to deal with the content of the exams, the kinds of skills that we need are also a challenge for the teen brain.

For reading and listening, we need skills in analysis, selection, and filtering. We need to be able to skim and scan and make logical and reasonable connections. For exam speaking and writing we need observation skills, practice in pulling out ideas, organising them, and reasoning. However, our teens are still developing their thinking faculties and at different rates and this informs their ability to develop these skills. They need a lot more help and support.

We're going to look at what is happening in our pre-teen and teenage language students' brains so we, as teachers, can adjust our expectations and lessons accordingly.


Video Transcript

What are the Main Neurological Changes Happening in Adolescence?

By about the age of eleven, instead of the brain making more and more connections through genetics and experience, something changes. It’s now all about energy.

"Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows." Siegal 2016

Whether we like it or not, we start to specialise. We can’t hang on to everything. The brain is now working in an entirely different and specialised way. Synaptic connections are physically being shaved off. The brain is pruning itself and this is a necessary process to hone skills. Our brains start to focus on the things we put our attention and energy into - for bad or for worse.

The Caterpillar in the Chrysalis

In the late teens and early twenties, the brain is also laying down myelin over connections to improve speed and coordination. This brain remodelling is happening during the adolescent period. It’s like a caterpillar remodelling itself inside a chrysalis. Think of it all as a massive construction site. This is where we as teachers can help enormously.

In adolescence, here are some areas that are beginning to change:

Self-awareness begins to change. The limbic area works with the brain stem to create motivation. The limbic area is responsible for evaluating things. It decides what is important, good (want more) or bad (want less). There are a lot of emotional and physical responses happening as a result of this area of the brain. Adolescents are also beginning to have a richer sense of who they are.

They begin to ask existential questions. They establish their places of security, which also extends now to their friendships:  adolescents now start to turn to friends rather than parents for help on some matters. This is a natural part of socialisation.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

Meanwhile in another part of the brain, right at the front behind our foreheads, the prefrontal cortex deals with map making, important moral issues, and reasoning. This is a part of the brain we need to work with as teachers.

The prefrontal cortex receives info from everywhere. Information comes to the prefrontal cortex from the cortex, the limbic area, the brain stem body, and the social world. It coordinates and balances all of this. It’s important to work on this part of the brain because it deals with:

  • regulation of the body
  • coordinating inter and intrapersonal states – communication
  • emotional balance
  • response flexibility – pause, consider options and choose the optimal response
  • the ability to soothe fear and not be driven to act on fear
  • insight – self-knowing awareness. Mental time travel (where have I come from, and where would I like to go?
  • empathy, evaluating perspectives
  • morality – “we” I have a responsibility to others and the planet
  • intuition – the wisdom of the body. The heart and gut brains that send messages up to the head are important to listen to.

More reading about teaching adolescents

Clara and the Reflecting Night Emma Louise Pratt for ELTCampus The Teenage Brain