Teaching the Teen Brain.

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By Bobbie Dunn

Teenagers! How do you teach them? How do they learn best? How much can I teach at one time? What do you do when they seem so lazy that they won’t work for any amount of time? These are all questions that I asked over and over again in my first year of teaching.  I had accepted a job as a 7th grade language arts teacher, and I was ecstatic to have a job where I could share my love for reading.  However, I had no idea how to best teach these early adolescents who everyone seemed to be scared of.  I had heard so many horror stories of lazy, mean, impossible-to-work-with teenagers that I knew I’d have to do things in a far different way than any lesson I had yet taught to elementary students.  I survived my first year, and ended up really enjoying my days with these teenage students.  Not only were they brutally honest quite often, but many of them even seemed to still want to learn, though they would NEVER admit that out loud.

After I knew that middle school was truly where I belonged, I realized that I still had a lot to learn.  I had many students that made great breakthroughs throughout their first year, and non-readers that all of a sudden brought books with them on a daily basis and actually read them!  Many of them, however, seemed to make little progress, and there were others that seemed to just go through the motions to complete my class at a high enough level to pass, but made no attempts to really explore and get any real meaning out of the class.

I did what I could throughout my first couple of years, but I knew that I was doing what many teachers fall into the habit of doing.  I was teaching to about half of the kids who fall somewhere in the middle of the learning curve, leaving the higher-level kids with nothing new to learn, while keeping the lower and “average” students doing enough to get by, though there wasn’t much learning happening.  There were quite a few students scoring double their improvement goals on the MAPS test at the end of the year, but others were scoring lower than their original score from the beginning of the year.  After my second year of experiencing this, I knew I couldn’t settle with the idea that helping some students was “good enough.”  Because of this, I knew I had to figure out the best way to teach ALL of my middle school learners.  But how???

The adolescent brain…

The good news is that brain research is becoming so established that it is now full of information to help middle school teachers learn about the adolescents they call students.  There are reasons that explain why teens act the way they do, and because we can better understand their brains, there are strategies that we can use to help our teenage learners learn better.

According to Brownlee, Hotinski, Pailthorp, Ragan, and Wong (1999), the authors of “Inside the Teen Brain,” the adolescent brain is still creating “the connections between neurons that affect not only emotional skills but also physical and mental abilities.”  Kelly Graham and Elsbeth Prigmore (2009), authors of “Order in the Classroom,” elaborated on that idea by saying, “Adolescents are supposed to test limits as an age-appropriate response to their environment. Conflict is an essential part of growing up.”  These statements are reassuring and help me see that these kids aren’t choosing to be difficult; it’s natural for their brains to work on finding the limits of their environments.

Since it’s natural for students to experience conflict, does this make it ok for students to goof around, not follow rules, and pick fights?  Of course not!  But it does mean that it’s natural for them to create, and be a part of, conflict.  It is something we should expect, and develop ways to best handle the different types of conflict.

Because of this, I know that my classroom environment needs to start each year with clear guidelines, and I need to stick to them throughout the entire school year, which is the hardest part for me.  Graham and Prigmore (2009) make the connection that giving students expectations on the first day of school and then expecting them to remember and follow those rules throughout the entire year is like teaching them the operation of long division once and expecting them to remember it forever without ever re-teaching it or covering it again.  This is unfair to the students, and makes the whole year a little harder for them.  By frequently addressing classroom rules and confronting those that break them on the first offense, students will know the boundaries of their classroom environment and will behave more accordingly.

Adolescents are very capable of learning and behaving, as long as we keep our expectations clear and enforce them consistently.  This consistent enforcement will teach their brains what they can and can’t get away with.  Consequently, if we choose to ignore their behavior, thinking that they will stop if they don’t receive attention, their brains take this information in, and realize that in this environment, they can continue with this behavior without receiving punishment.  One example that occurs in my classroom is when kids talk when they should be working independently.  I will usually let it go at least once or twice before saying something; however, by doing this, I’m showing those students that it is ok for them to chat a little bit, even when I say that it is “silent time.”  By confronting the problem immediately, every time, students will learn that going against the rules won’t be tolerated, and they will behave much more often like I ask them to.  Confrontations do not have to be aggressive, forceful events – one method that I have used and plan on altering to suit this idea is a participation grade.  If someone is misbehaving, I will tap that student on the shoulder, say that their behavior cost them an X, and I hope they can keep the rest of their Xs.  At the end of the week, each X represents a point lost for their participation for the week.  By knowing that they did not get away with their behavior, students will see that it pays to stay on task and not misbehave.

Adolescent brains are still growing and maturing at an incredible rate, and have not yet developed enough to always allow teens to function like the young adults we expect them to act like. Brownlee et al. (1999), explain the adolescent brain by first approaching the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls other parts of the brain, including “the ability to handle ambiguous information and make decisions…his prefrontal cortex…is practically asleep at the wheel. At the same time, his limbic system, where raw emotions such as anger are generated, is entering a stage of development in which it goes into hyperdrive.”

They continue to explain that while adult brains can use many different parts of their brain efficiently to tackle a problem, adolescents struggle with using just one part of their brain in a much more inefficient way to tackle that same problem.  This makes many decisions that we see so simply to be quite complex for teenagers.  One example that I know we all see too often is the problem of prioritizing.  When many teens get home after a long day, they have homework, dinner, possibly chores, friends to call or text, and their favorite show to watch.  While adults realize the order that those tasks should be done in, teenagers’ brains can’t seem to do so as effectively.

I remember specifically one day that that happened to me in school – I was so upset when I realized that I had forgotten to do the work, but it had honestly slipped my mind with all of the other things that I had to do the night before.  However, if we help students learn how to organize their priorities, we are helping them “exercise their brains” (Brownlee et. al, 1999).  By helping students exercise their brains, Brownlee et al. (1999) say, “many higher mental skills will become automatic, just the way playing tennis and driving do.”

Brownlee et al. (1999) continue by saying, “An unfinished prefrontal cortex also means that young teenagers may also have trouble organizing several tasks, deciding, for example, which to do first: call a friend, wash the dishes, or read the book for a report that’s due in the morning.”

Sound familiar?  Most teens struggle with this problem, and we just continue to push and expect them to find a way to get their work done.  So while we’re trying to cram their brains full of new information, their brains are still working on growing and developing, and many can’t handle and organize the plethora of information that they receive each day.  Because of all of this information, it is very important to work WITH adolescent brains, instead of continually expecting them to succeed with worksheets, vocabulary lists, and long-term assignments with no short-term goals, which can tend to work AGAINST their brains, overwhelming them and causing them to struggle with prioritizing.

One strategy that I currently use is a daily schedule written on the board.  I tell students each little step that they will need to participate in before getting to the end of the hour.  Instead of giving them a long-term assignment with no deadlines or smaller steps, it is most helpful to give students more short-term expectations during instruction, so that they see what needs to be done at the time, and what does not have to be done before the next class.

It is important for me to point out that some people disagree with these ideas of teen brains working differently than adult brains.  Leslie Sabbagh (2007), Robert Epstein, a psychologist and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, believes that the idea of a “teen brain” is a hoax.  From his research, he has found that many cultures “do not even have a word for adolescence and that most teens spend much of their time with adults, not segregated with only their peers.”

Though Epstein argues that there is no such thing as a teen brain, he believes that the environment we put teens in –with one adult and up to 25 other adolescents – creates “a recipe for trouble,” because they have few adults to learn from, and are instead learning behaviors from each other.  Though this is a very valid argument, I feel that this only strengthens the fact that though other countries may not see the troublesome, conflict-ridden teens that we do, our teens are what we have to work with.

Since our culture won’t be creating environments where teens are constantly working with adults instead of other teens, our American teenagers have developed this kind of brain that has been described in the above paragraphs.  This is what we have to work with, and though the adolescent brain may be different in other parts of the world, there is still a lot of research that shows that American teenage brains are working at this different level when compared to American adults.

When I’m in my classroom, I see the students that explode out of anger, but when I ask them why they do it, they honestly don’t know.  I see the teens that have such high spirits in the classroom, but can’t seem to ever remember to bring all of their work home.  Though some, such as Epstein, may blame these problems on laziness or American society, I think it’s reassuring that some people are finding parts of the teen brain that can show that these kids will grow out of these problems as their brain develops (hopefully).

So how do I teach students that have brains programmed for conflict, high raw emotions, and little control of organization? After reading “The Teen Brain, Hard at Work,” I found that one of the keys to helping teens learn is to keep their stress level more controlled. “The brain is a vulnerable system and that in an environment with many stresses it is more difficult for adolescents to show self-control as compared with adults…yet when adolescents are in situations with few competing demands, they do indeed behave like adults” (Sabbagh, 2007).

So if we give students the information they need during instruction, then also help them organize it and make connections, they will be able to behave appropriately and work more in the way that we expect.  By simply giving enough time to accomplish tasks, providing a visual of the schedule, and giving them a chance to document any upcoming due dates or homework assignments, their brains will better be able to process what is needed of them and will better be able to accomplish our expectations.

While one group of researchers are learning why adolescent brains work the way they do, others are exploring ways that we teachers can use this new information to enhance teaching and learning.

In Parts 2-6 of this series,  we’ll explore five practical pathways we can all use in our classrooms to better engage the teenage brains in our charge.


  1. Dr. Sanford Aranoff says:

    What is important is to understand and communicate basic principles. Teachers must understand the principles. Teachers must know how students think and build from there using the basic principles and logic. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

    • phiri Dori ca says:

      Yes teachers need to have a broader understanding of adolescent behaviour..this is a cricual stage yet important.

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  3. Love this series, Bobbie! Thanks so much for sharing your research with us.

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