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The adolescent brain – working with it, not against it

Stereotyping stops us seeing what is really going on for young people

In the 15 years that I’ve been working with adolescents I have seen the best and the worst of them. There is no doubt that many can be challenging to both live and work with, and the young offenders that I’ve worked with are frequently described by others in stereotypical ‘teenage rebellion’ terms. For example being described as hostile, selfish, lazy and unmotivated.

To sigh with despair at ‘typical’ teenage behaviours without a closer look at what is going on, is, in my opinion a big mistake. Teenagers are a complex species and there is a growing body of evidence which explains that the reason their personalities can seem to change so profoundly is all to do with the mysteries of the adolescent brain.

Research findings ably communicated by authors such as Nicola Morgan (1) and very recently, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (2) does not make mainstream discussion nearly as much as the stereotypical challenges faced by and reportedly caused by teenagers does.

The adolescent brain – a powerhouse for learning

Rarely does a typical adolescent present as ‘a power-house for learning’, but scientific research is proving that their neural connectivity-essentially, the processing power of their brains- replicates the speed and efficiency of brain development in the first 2-3 years of life; a period of time when a child’s brain literally doubles in size!
Significant changes occur in the structure of the brain as it prepares itself for independence, while exponential growth of synaptic connections makes this brain an extremely good learner, as it makes the journey towards adulthood.

These insights go against much of the confusing and challenging reality of living or work with adolescents, making them, in my opinion, a hugely misunderstood group in society.

Adolescents can appear to ‘unlearn’ former competencies

The downside of these changes is that; to make way for this new growth; quite literally, the teenage brain goes through a lengthy process known as ‘pruning’, which does exactly what is says on the tin… In much the same way as one would with a garden plant, the brain facilitates new growth by literally clipping away whole areas of itself.

An unfortunate design in this process is that pruning typically occurs in a part of the brain known as the ‘pre-frontal cortex’; the area responsible for ‘executive functions’; tasks like anticipating consequences, social decoding and problem-solving, meaning that their brains do not follow the same trajectory as their rapidly maturing bodies, which we assume to mean they are ‘growing up’.

These neurological changes ultimately mean that, in many respects they are ‘growing down’, with many appearing to ‘unlearn’ competencies such as empathy, decision-making, planning ahead etc.

These skills need to be re-learned; this time with the greater complexity that comes with the adult brain; but until then, the adolescent brain is simultaneously both very vulnerable, and very strong.

When I ask my trainees about their own adolescence, many reflect that they ‘thought they knew everything’ (More likely, we ‘felt’ we knew everything though, because our ‘thinking brains’ were offline for much of the time). Many of us remember our former teenage selves as cringeworthy, largely because that person is such a poor and inaccurate reflection of the adults we’ve become. And that presents another interesting question… When do we become adult?!
Another significant discovery is just how long adolescence goes on for… It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to work out that perhaps 14 is not the optimal age to ask children to make decisions about the rest of their life, but what is expected between the ages of 15-18 (i.e. re; educational attainment) is not much better, especially when we consider that they’ll spend their whole adulthoods being judged on that.

When do we really become adult?

So when do we become adult?! I ask this question a lot and my favourite answer was given to me years ago; ’When I 28 and stopped going clubbing’. And this is not too far from the truth. Although it begins to get more stable towards the late teens, it does not fully mature until around the age of 30, and many of my trainees (although some are not yet ‘fully mature’!) report that they found their purpose around that age.

It is with this knowledge that many of us; especially educators; can appreciate the magnitude of our task; helping our learners to ‘fulfil their potential’ at the stage in life when they are just not neurobiologically designed to do that.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Of course, the typical adolescent issues have a habit of hijacking our attention and ensuring we spend our energies ‘firefighting’ instead of understanding and dealing with the root of their difficulties, but we have to hold on to the fact that; beneath all of this; there is a huge strength and learning capacity in this rapidly developing brain.

The impact of experiences during adolescence is pivotal

What we must first appreciate is the role of a young person’s experiences in shaping what these brains learn, making those of us who support their journey into adulthood hugely influential in the people these young people become-whether we wish to be or not…

I have been working with a particular group of young people for over 5 years, one of which illustrates both the potential for harm and hope in equal measure with regard to how we nurture our learners as they make this transition.

“Cindy” (not real name) is, like many, a young person who would typically be described as vulnerable. She has experienced family problems, been in care and experienced a range of challenges around behaviour and learning. At 25, she is still struggling with some of the same core issues.

It is not simply a case of ‘she’s got to grow up’, as she has often been told. All of us only ever learn from our experiences, and these are hers. During her time in school and FE, her already fragile brain-unsurprisingly-failed to meet the expectations placed upon it (arguably these are unfairly placed on all young people and educators). Yet the exponential growth of neural connections occurring in her brain at the time enabled her to learn, and she certainly did. She ‘learned’ was that she was incompetent and stupid, and that she would never amount to anything.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support learners in their weaker areas, but the true gifts our adolescents need from us is; wherever and whenever we can are ‘strengths-based approaches’.

Strengthening strengths manages weakness

Counter-intuitive as it may feel, in my experience, ‘Strengthening strengths manages weakness’ is a mantra for all of us working with children of all ages. Because the truth is, no one thrives in a deficit-based environment.

What our young people learn about themselves; their competence, qualities, and abilities; as their brain comes back together is pivotal. It is slow-going with Cindy but-with a very conscious and sustained effort across her support network-she is gradually developing a stronger sense of self, autonomy and source of power in her own life.

I know there is perhaps a degree of idealism here, but perhaps far fewer young people may end up in institutions and intervention programmes if they were rightfully recognised as some of our most vulnerable and misunderstood individuals in society.

Re-growing and shaping a brain takes a long time and there is a reality check for all of us here. In truth, we may never appreciate the positive changes that we help to create in our young people’s heads, but; simply by tapping into the enormous strengths of the adolescent brains; we are potentially having a profoundly important impact on the adults that our adolescents become.