Understanding the Teenage Brain

August 26, 2021 
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Many of us may have preconceived ideas about why teens think and act the way they do. Common misconceptions range from assuming there isn’t much of a difference between teen brains and adult brains to attributing teens’ impulsive and rebellious behavior to raging hormones. Advances in brain research in recent decades reveal that the teenage brain is a work in progress with developmental changes and their effects continuing into a person’s mid-twenties. By understanding how the brain changes during adolescence, teens will not only be able to understand themselves better, but the adults in their lives will be better able to offer empathy and support.

Biological Basics

The teenage brain is going through a remarkable period of transformation. The maturation process occurs from back to front and is primarily the result of an increase in connections between regions of the brain rather than a significant increase in its size. Specifically, the front of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, and self-control (the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe) develops more slowly than the parts of the brain responsible for processing risks and rewards (nucleus accumbens in the left and right hemispheres) and raw emotions (the amygdala in the base of the brain). Key to the development of the teenage brain is what scientists call myelination. As Alexandra Sifferlin reports for Time magazine’s article “Why Teenage Brains Are So Hard to Understand,” myelin is a “fatty substance” that acts “like insulation on an electrical wire.” Myelination essentially sorts through the many connections created at the onset of puberty and ultimately strengthens only those deemed most useful.

The development of the teenage brain is further affected by changes in a teen’s hormonal balance. As Dr. John Coleman explains in his book The Teacher and the Teenage Brain, there is more daily variation in hormones in the teenage brain compared to other age groups. Such fluctuations, according to Coleman, help explain many of the stereotypical hallmarks of adolescence: moodiness, irritability, problems with emotional regulation, difficulty with sleep, push for novelty and rewards, and possibly more risk-taking.

How Brain Development Affects Teens

As the brain develops and hormones fluctuate, teenagers’ brains are characterized by greater plasticity (adaptability) and inefficiency, which has significant implications for teens’ intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. 

Implications for Learning

Among some of the positive changes resulting from teenage brain development are the expansion of teens’ intellectual skills and increased connectivity, both of which enhance language skills, memory, and abstract thinking. However, according to Dr. John Coleman, perhaps the most significant way the development of the teenage brain affects learning is its impact on executive function. Executive function encompasses four features of cognition that contribute to the learning process: working memory, inhibition, flexibility, and resistance to interference. As the brain matures, teens can retain more information, screen out irrelevant information, adjust their thinking, and sort through contradictory stimuli. 

To better understand the intellectual development and potential of teens, studies have tracked IQ test results from early to late adolescence and, as Time reports, “discovered that IQ change[s] over time,” confirming the plasticity of the teenage brain and suggesting it is wise not to rush to judge a teens’ potential. For a more accessible and efficient way of evaluating a teen’s cognitive abilities over time than a formal IQ test, parents and educators can use Mindprint, a one hour online assessment of a student’s complex reasoning, executive functions, memory, and processing efficiency that A+ offers.

Hormonal changes in the brain also have implications for learning, particularly in terms of motivation. Teens are especially sensitive to rewards, so Coleman recommends positive feedback in the form of praise to motivate students to learn. Punishment and criticism, on the other hand, will be less effective. Moreover, instead of demonizing a teen’s emotional and social intensity, use it. Help teens learn better with more social instructional activities and activate their emotions which can enhance or inhibit memory.

Sleep

Complicating a teen’s academic performance are the changes occurring in sleep due to what’s called sleep-phase delay, which is when a teen’s “biological clock shifts forward” to make it harder to fall asleep “before 11 p.m.” and wake up “before 8 a.m,” according to Time. Recently, there has been a push to delay school start times to address teens’ sleep demands, but few school districts have made such modifications. Fortunately, there are resources available to help one better understand teen sleep and avoid the negative effects of poor sleep habits (e.g. obesity, diabetes, poor grades, etc.).

Social and Emotional Considerations

Changes in the teenage brain also affect a teen’s social and emotional well-being. Teenagers experience stress in many forms throughout adolescence; however, teens’ capacity to regulate their emotions is still immature and developing slowly, leading to difficulties responding to stressors emerging from academic responsibilities and social pressures. When teens experience high levels of stress, their bodies respond by producing high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with depression and anxiety. According to Time magazine, “About 70% of mental illnesses, including anxiety, mood and eating disorders, and psychosis, first appear in the teen years and early adulthood.”

The developing teenage brain, with its more mature reward center and less mature frontal lobe, also leaves teens especially vulnerable to addiction. Addictive substances, such as alcohol, stimulate the reward-seeking part of the brain, building connections analogous to learning. Fortunately, learning can also help prevent addiction. Consuming alcohol with parents, for example, can reduce the risk of addiction by modeling responsible behaviors. 

Even though adult role models are important to developing teens, adolescence is also a time when teens crave connection and validation from those outside the family. Not only do teens begin to develop a greater sense of their own identity in a process referred to as individuation, but they also rely on their peers more. As a result, parenting approaches may need to be modified, such as collaborating with teens to set new rules and consequences instead of dictating them.

Ways to Support Teens

Since the prefrontal cortex is the primary focus of brain development during adolescence, you can encourage it to mature by supporting your teen’s curiosity, establishing routines, and practicing decision-making. Although much of the support teens need will come from adults either at home or at school, there are ways that tutoring services can help. In addition to introducing teens to another adult role model with whom they can develop a positive relationship, A+ offers several tutoring programs tailored to teens’ needs. Executive function coaching, for example, helps address the root causes of why a student is struggling and create strategies and routines for ultimate success. Students preparing to take the SAT and ACT can take advantage of test prep tutoring, a structured program that supports teens’ developing executive function skills while also giving them much needed feedback. 

A+ also links parents and teens with information and resources in the form of regularly scheduled podcasts and webinars as well as a blog and newsletter. Our next webinar, Independent School Admissions: Navigating the New Landscape will be held on 

Tuesday, September 21st, 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM. Click here to register.

Ultimately, the most important things you can do to support teens during this critical period of brain development is to understand how their brains are changing, how this affects behavior and emotions, and to help them understand these things themselves. 

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.

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