Middle and High School Transitions: Brain Development
What You Need to Know
Brain research, using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, allow scientists to observe and measure brain activity and changes that occur during different tasks as well as map out the structure of the brain. Researchers have learned that although 95 percent of the brain structures form by age 5 or 6, many changes in the structure of the brain occur much later—just before puberty and even during adolescence.
Recent studies by scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), as well as McGill University, have discovered that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is also called the frontal lobe, finishes developing later than other parts. This is the part of the brain that is in charge of planning, working memory, organizing and controlling moods; moreover, it is responsible for our decision-making skills and controlling impulses. Knowing the frontal lobe is in the process of maturing throughout adolescence, researchers have new insight in understanding the teenage brain.
Further research by Dr. Deborah Yurgelin-Todd, the director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., shows that teenagers use more of the emotional regions of their brains in their general responses to the world. Her studies also showed that teenagers do not consistently interpret emotional expressions from others correctly. This study suggests that teens do not always consider the consequences of their actions and can misinterpret external visual cues.
Scientists do warn us that research in this area is young and we should not jump to conclusions about understanding teenage behavior based only on knowledge of brain development. External influences and other factors have to be considered in addition to brain structure and development.
What You Can Do
Experts agree that even though these latest studies do not provide definitive information on teenage behavior, they do offer us some guidance in approaching teenage and preadolescent learning.
- Find ways to communicate clearly. Do not depend on a facial expression to convey information; use carefully selected words and seek clarification of understanding. Ask a young person to repeat the instructions or tell you what he/she is thinking—and really listen to the answer.
- Set clear boundaries, limits and rules and make sure everyone understands them the same way.
- Provide opportunities to discuss certain behaviors and their consequences. Finding teachable moments in a day can be as easy as reflecting on news of the day.
- Find ways to teach and model planning skills.
- Provide opportunities to learn appropriate social behaviors and time to reflect on them.
- Never assume the message you intended was the message received—seek clarification and a statement of understanding.
More Helpful Information and Resources
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