Topic 4: Adolescence

What do I need to know?

  • Adolescence is defined as the period starting at the onset of puberty and ending when the individual has a stable role in society.
  • Brain development continues during adolescence, approximately until the age of 25, which impacts adolescent behaviour. (It is worth noting that behaviour, in turn, also has an effect on the brain).

Changes in the brain

  • Different brain regions mature at different rates.
  • When we talk about brain maturation, we are talking about three different processes:
    • Pruning: a reduction in the number of neural connections – connections that are not used are pruned.
    • Increased myelination. A fatty substance called myelin insulates neurons to make signals travel faster.
    • Remodelling. Brain regions involved in feeling emotion (the limbic system) typically reach adult levels of development by adolescence while those involved with reasoning and planning (the prefrontal and parietal cortices) are still maturing.

Changes in behaviour

  • Adolescence is a dynamic period of learning and adaptation.
  • Adolescents feel peer influence and seek peer approval more than children or adults. Adolescents who feel excluded from their peers experience low mood and anxiety more so than adults. This increased peer influence is thought to reflect the fact that adolescents are figuring out their role in society as they become independent from the family.
  • Although adolescents may conform to negative peer influence, they are equally likely to conform to positive peer influence.
  • Compared to young adults in their twenties, adolescents are happier with small immediate rewards than large future rewards. Adolescents are less able to plan for the future or anticipate the consequences of an action.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Respect adolescents’ sensitivity to social status and desire for autonomy.
  • Help students to see the long-term effect of their actions as this can be challenging for adolescents. For example, discuss the impact of choosing to socialise over revision.
  • Capitalise on peer influence and increasing emotional awareness by introducing initiatives to reduce bullying, and increase  positive peer influence and peer support.
  • Use classroom activities where peer involvement fosters engagement, to ensure that peers are not a distraction, for example in team games.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

What should I be aware of?

  • Adolescents are considered to be risk-takers, in terms of drug taking, unsafe sex, dangerous driving, and other risky activities. But scientists are beginning to question whether or not these behaviours should really be called risky in the context of adolescence. As explained by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, sometimes the risky thing for an adolescent might be to not smoke a cigarette when all their friends are smoking: if they say “no”, perhaps they will lose their friendship group. In this case the adolescent is risk-averse in accepting a cigarette. Similarly, consider a student who does not raise their hand in class to answer a question. It may look like the student does not know the answer, but it may be that they are risk-averse and do not want to look silly in front of their peers if they get the answer wrong.

Where can I find out more?

  • Watch adolescent brain expert Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s TED talk ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’, and read Professor Blakemore’s new book ‘Inventing ourselves: The secret life of the teenage brain’.
  • Listen to The Infinite Monkey Cage episode on the Teenage Brain.
  • Watch an online film called Braintime from Professor Eveline Crone in The Netherlands summarises the results of a longitudinal study investigating the development of the teenage brain.
  • Read more about the development of the adolescent brain on the Brain Facts site.