The Teenage Brain

Neuroscience is revealing more and more about the ways in which teenagers’ brains are different to ours. Understanding how this impacts on their thinking, mood and behaviour can be very helpful and sometimes quite reassuring for those of us that work with them. With that in mind I hope that you’ll find the following facts interesting:

  • Teenagers feel stress more acutely than adults. In adults, the hormone THP is
    released in response to stress and it has a calming effect. In teenagers THP
    actually has the reverse effect meaning that they are left feeling even more
  • The teenage brain is about 80% developed, the 20% ‘gap’ is at the front of the
    brain. As the front of the brain deals with executive functions teenagers will
    take longer, and find it more difficult to weigh up actions, judge situations and
    make decisions
  • Girls’ oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate with their menstrual cycle. These
    hormones are connected to mood
  • During adolescence a boy can have 30 times the levels of testosterone that
    he had before. Testosterone has a significant impact on the amygdala, the
    part of the brain which controls our flight or fight responses. A teenager whose
    flight or fight responses have been triggered may become withdrawn or
  • Teenagers’ prospective memory (the ability to remember to do something)
    isn’t keeping up with the rest of their brain’s growth and development so they
    really benefit from reminders
  • Studies have shown that between the ages of 13 and 17, a third of teenagers’
    IQ scores will remain the same, a third will increase significantly and a third
    will decrease
  • Multitasking (including using a mobile phone and or watching television while
    studying) has been shown to result in a 25% – 400% increase in the time that
    teenagers need to complete a piece of work
  • Teenagers learn faster and remember things for longer than adults. However,
    many other study skills are inefficient – attention, self-discipline and task
    completion (again, these are controlled by the front of the brain)
  • Teenagers need 9-10 hours of sleep a night. However, they are biologically
    programmed to go to bed late and get up late. As their school day makes this
    impossible many teenagers are sleep deprived. In addition, the LED light in
    mobiles, tablets and laptops suppresses melatonin by approximately 22%. As
    melatonin helps to control the natural rhythms of sleeping and waking
    teenagers who are using such devices right before bed are likely to struggle to
    get to sleep

Helping our teenagers (little actions can help in a big way!)

The good thing is that you’re probably doing much of this already:

  • Help students them to think more calmly and rationally as they can find it
    difficult to do this on their own. Ask them questions that will encourage them
    to use reason and judgement: ‘Why…?’, ‘What if…?’, ‘How…?’, ‘Is there
    another possibility…?’
  • As a rule of thumb try to remember that the more emotional your teenager is,
    the calmer they need you to be. It might be appropriate to ‘press pause’ and
    return to an issue when your student is calmer.
  • If you need your students to remember something important remind them
    again, and again, and again. And try not to take it too personally if they still
    manage to forget the key text for the exam!
  • Keep an open mind with regards to academic potential. It is likely that some of
    the students in your class will be able to make great leaps in their
    performance during their time at secondary school, regardless of where they
    started off in year 7.
  • Encourage your students to do things ‘one-thing-at-a-time’. Lists, calendars,
    schedules and written instructions will also help them.
  • Accept that your students may look bleary-eyed during period one and that it’s
    no reflection on your teaching! Chunking up the lesson into smaller parts will
    help them to maintain focus.

If you are interested in finding out more about the teenage brain you might want to
Jensen, F., Nutt, A. (2014). The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to
Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. New York: Harper Books