The Teenage Brain


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What is different about the teenage brain? Brain development happens over time and generally occurs back to front. This means that the frontal lobe, and pre-frontal cortex, which control executive functions, and are critical to decision making, are some of the last areas of the brain to fully develop.

Other parts of the brain, including those involved with thrill-seeking behavior, reward mechanisms, and intense emotion, come online earlier in the process.

Just as a toddler is able to walk before he or she has the judgment to stay away from dangerous situations (such as the top of a flight of stairs), teenagers can also find themselves in precarious situations for which they are not adequately prepared, from a brain development point of view.

This partly explains some of the risk-taking behavior and poor decision making that is often associated with teens.

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The Teenage Brain

  1. 1. The Teenage Brain Presented by Daniel Ascher, M.Ed. President, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring March 19, 2011
  2. 2. “The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it.” Frances E. Jensen, Professor of Neurology, Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School
  3. 3. The Teenage Brain 1.Brain Development 2.Social Factors 3.Hormonal Changes 4.Sleep Needs 5.Developmental Hallmarks 6.Risk of Stressors 7.Implications for Teaching and Learning 8.Parenting and Communicating with Teens
  4. 4. 1. Brain Development What's up with those teenagers? •Brain development begins prior to birth and lasts into the mid-twenties. •Development happens gradually. •Just prior to puberty, brain growth spurt creates many new connections.
  5. 5. 1. Brain Development What's up with those teenagers? •Some new connections are useful, others are not. Useful connections are myelinated. Others wither slowly but in the meantime can create inefficiencies. •Teen brains are "immature" in a number of ways. •This immaturity causes teens to feel and behave very differently from adults.
  6. 6. Keys Areas of the Brain Affecting Teen Behavior •Pre-frontal cortex: home of executive function •Amygdala: Seat of raw emotion •Nucleus Accumbens: Reward Seeker
  7. 7. Pre-frontal Cortex •CEO; Home of Executive Function -- control and coordination of thoughts and behaviors •Slowest region of brain to develop; usually develops by age 20 (but not in all cases)
  8. 8. Pre-frontal Cortex •In adults it essentially delegates to other regions of brain •In teens it is: oNot as well connected to the rest of the brain oOverly taxed and not up to the task oProne to error/ bad decisions
  9. 9. Amydala •Seat of raw emotion •In adults frontal lobe gathers info from amydala and other parts of the brain in order to make decisions. •In adolescents the amydala is accessed directly (instead of by pre-frontal cortex) when making decisions. Therefore many decisions are based upon “gut” feelings.
  10. 10. Amygdala •In adolescents the amygdala is accessed directly (instead of by pre-frontal cortex) when making decisions. Therefore many decisions are based upon “gut” feelings.
  11. 11. Nucleus Accumbens •While the control centers linked to the prefrontal cortex take their time to mature, the pleasure-seeking systems of other regions get a kick start in puberty and go into overdrive4.
  12. 12. Nucleus Accumbens •The combination of the underdeveloped frontal lobe, weaker connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain, and the early development of the "reward centers" of the brain makes teens more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
  13. 13. Nucleus Accumbens •Teens are much more prone to risk-taking/thrill seeking behavior. •Teens are more sensitive to dopamine, although this process but it isn't completely understood yet. •One theory is that, from an evolutionary standpoint, teens need to be willing to take some risks in order to "leave the nest."
  14. 14. 2. Social Factors •Gender Differences -- The portion of the brain that processes information matures about two years earlier in girls than boys. •Interaction -- Teens are more likely to say hurtful things due to lack of inhibition (amydala active instead of pre-frontal cortex). i.e. lack of 'censor.'
  15. 15. 2. Social Factors Teens are focused on friends more than parents/family for relationships. •Positive aspect -- builds relationship skills •Negative aspect -- at risk for peer pressure/bad decisions
  16. 16. 3. Hormonal Changes In both genders an increase in sex hormones affects behavior •Estrogen affects mood and can be explosive •Testosterone – in boys there is a 20-fold increase from age 8 to age 15. Boys can’t control sexual thoughts (every six seconds), and are unable to shut this off (mostly in mid- adolescence).
  17. 17. 4. Sleep Teens have the 2nd highest need for sleep (after infancy) oNeed 9.25 hours of sleep a day but typically only get 6 or 7 hours. oTry to make it up on weekends, but....  Keep cellphones and laptops out of bedrooms so they won’t be tempted to respond. oCircadian rhythms change so that students want to be awake later in the day.
  18. 18. 5. Developmental Hallmarks •Individuation: The very task of adolescence. Therefore they need non-familial role-models (tutors can help with this!). •Inclusion: Teens feel the need to be in the “in” crowd. Peers are central to their lives. •Abstract Thinking: Very newly developed at this time.
  19. 19. 5. Developmental Hallmarks •Personal Fable: Teens feel they are special and unique. They have thoughts like: “All experiences are unique, nothing happens to anyone else like does to me.” And “My experiences are special, no one can understand what I go through.” •Imaginary Audience: Teens often feel that everyone else is constantly watching them (they are the center of the universe).
  20. 20. 6. Risk of Stressors •Some studies have found that adolescents who experience high levels of stress, and consequently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, are more susceptible to problems in adulthood such as depression and anxiety. (This may be the same mechanism causing PTSD). •Binge drinking (not drinking in moderation) may put teens at risk for future addiction. Note that drinking with parents (and learning to do so responsibly) may prevent addiction.
  21. 21. 7. Implications for Teaching and Learning
  22. 22. 7. Implications for Teaching and Learning •Due to brain plasticity and the rapid growth of new brain connections--teens are more easily able to learn languages and musical instruments due to expansion of neural networks (compared to adults). •Emotion can help students remember (or inhibit memory) •Make it Social (Think/Pair/Share)7
  23. 23. 8. Parenting and Communicating with Teens •Want to be respected •Want to be heard/validated •Hungry for a real connection, but much more difficult to do with parents than with friends at this stage. •Often works better if you ask teens to think up their own consequences rather than providing them from the top.
  24. 24. Sources 1. Vitone, E. (2007, Fall). What Possessed You? PITTMED University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Magazine, 19-23. 2. Firth, Ryan (2006) "What is Going on Inside Their Heads.", Adolescent Shorts, Childrens Mercy Hospital, K.C., MO. Volume 9, Number 2, March/April 2007. 3. 4. Monastersky, Richard. Who's Minding the Teenage Brain? The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 12, 2007. 5. Coalition for Juvenile Justice. ADOLESCENT BRAIN DEVELOPMENT & JUVENILE JUSTICE FACT SHEET 6. The Kids Can’t Help It. What new research reveals about the adolescent brain—from why kids bully to how the teen years shape the rest of your life. NEWSWEEK Magazine, 12/16/10 7. The Adolescent Brain –Learning Strategies & Teaching Tips. 8. Think-Pair-Share