We think of the teen years as a worrisome period when some kids can spiral downward, developing anxieties and addictions. But Ron Dahl, who directs the Institute for Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that adolescence is actually a second opportunity to invest in children because of the enormous brain development during this period.
“It’s a perfect storm of change,” said Dahl, speaking at a Feb. 27, 2020 seminar of the Education Writers Association on adolescent learning and well-being in Berkeley, California.
Given the right support, teens can develop intrinsic motivation and passions, he said. “You don’t just like poetry; you’re a poet,” he said. “You don’t just like soccer; you’d have to be kept from kicking the soccer ball.”
Dahl describes himself as a developmental scientist, practicing in a field that combines many subjects such as neuroscience, psychology and medicine. He says the adolescent learning spurt is second only to the rapid brain development of the first five years of early childhood. Adolescents are not just going through the physical changes of puberty but also making neural connections between different parts of their brain, wiring it for the rest of their lives.
Dahl and three other developmental scientists reviewed the research on the adolescent brain and made an argument for investing as much in this period as we do in early childhood in the article “Importance of investing in adolescence from a developmental science perspective” in the journal Nature in 2018. In August 2019, many of these ideas were reiterated in a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report “The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth”.
The dramatic learning isn’t necessarily cognitive in the sense of remembering facts and figures. It’s more about social development and forming an identity. Kids learn to calibrate their feelings and navigate uncertain social situations. They are preoccupied with figuring out what they enjoy, social interactions, their status within a group and feeling like they are contributing to the community. They learn a lot of this through trial and error, just as a baby falls down but keeps getting up when learning to walk.
For educators and parents, the opportunity to intervene is at the front end of this learning spurt during early adolescence. Many interventions are mistakenly directed to teens when their problems have already manifested. Self-inflicted injuries and violent crime peak in the late teen years, around 17. But Dahl says the window to make a difference is from 9 to 11 years old.
This is a time when behaviors, habits and proclivities with long-term health and education outcomes are being shaped, said Dahl.
The brain’s physical structures are set around age 6. But during adolescence, different parts of the brain form hundreds of millions of connections. This is the “human connectome” and each person’s is unique, like a fingerprint. Dahl pointed to research that found that these circuitry brain maps for younger children, ages 8 to 10, are fairly similar. But soon after, circuits diverge. As adolescents compete and interact with each other and experience different stimuli, they’re creating patterns in their brains and reinforcing them over and over again. Between the ages of 12 to 15, there are more differences than similarities in each person’s connectome.
Dahl shared an anecdote of how in a Tibetan Buddhist village, teens compete with each other to be more kind and empathic because that’s the social value of the community. “Kids are wiring their brains to do those things,” Dahl said. “Culture is shaping it.”
A big myth is that teens don’t have a fully formed prefrontal cortex and that they don’t have the ability to exercise executive function or will power.”There’s this idea that somehow kids have an inadequate brain that they …don’t have a prefrontal cortex that’s sufficiently developed to do the things they need to do,” said Dahl. “That is the wrong way to think. They have a remarkable prefrontal cortex. They have an amazing capacity to use it when they’re highly motivated.”
Social recognition is very motivating. For an adolescent, “it’s a thrill when an adult takes you seriously and says, ‘what a great idea.’” Dahl said. The emotional signals are “intensified.”
Teens like to contribute to the community or larger society. “It’s not just about feeling like you belong but that you can contribute to solutions to the world’s problems,” said Dahl. Greta Thunberg and the Parkland students who protested against gun violence are role models.
Group work takes advantage of adolescents’ desire to interact with each other. It’s boring for many teens to work alone on homework at a desk. Often they don’t see the relevancy of it, Dahl said. “If they have to solve an algebra problem by working together as a group, that’s much more engaging and exciting because that’s what they naturally want to be doing,” Dahl said.
What doesn’t work that well with teens is simply giving them information. Dahl said that efforts to improve eating habits by giving adolescents information on exercise or which food is nutritious haven’t worked. “We know information processing…has almost no effect on behavior,” said Dahl.
Research into the adolescent brain, Dahl said, is 20 years behind the research into early brain development but there have been a lot of advances in the last five to 10 years. I’ll be watching for more.
This story about adolescent brain development was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.