Understanding the teenage brain

How can neuroscience help us explain teenage behaviour?

Teenagers face life-changing decisions at a time when their brain is developing rapidly Teenagers face life-changing decisions at a time when their brain is developing rapidly

I recently watched the latest episode of Child of Our Time, a landmark BBC documentary which follows the development of 25 children born in 2000. If you have been an expat teacher for a while, you may be surprised to realise that those babies turn 17 this year. 

Remember painfully shy, anxious Matt? He is now an extreme sports enthusiast. Megan has transformed from dishevelled farmer’s daughter to image-conscious Gatsby girl. And, compliant, careful Jamie defies his mother and risks a diabetic coma for a night out drinking with friends. 

What causes such dramatic behavioural changes during adolescence? Over the past decade, advances in neuroscience have provided us with an answer: scans of teenage brains show significant differences when compared with adult brains. These biological differences impact upon the way that our students learn, communicate and interact.

According to cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for conscious decision-making and self-control, is still developing in teenagers. This can result in them engaging in more risky, pleasure-seeking and impulsive behaviours. In a learning context, teenagers often find it difficult to avoid distractions, manage their time effectively and plan ahead. 

Also associated with the prefrontal cortex, self-consciousness peaks in the teenage years, meaning that teens often avoid taking risks in classroom settings where they may be judged by their peers. Other neuroscientific studies have shown teenage brains to be more prone to making irrational decisions, and less able to identify errors in their own decision-making.

Furthermore, teenagers rely on the more primitive limbic system, as opposed to the rational prefrontal cortex, for recognising emotional responses in others. This makes them more likely to misread emotions and miss subtle cues provided by a teacher. Teenagers, therefore, require more explicit and clear instructions than adults do. 

Our students face life-changing exams and decisions at a time when their brains are developing more rapidly than at any other time since early childhood. They must also overcome unique learning challenges due to their brain architecture. So, next time you feel infuriated by your disorganised, distracted students, remember they are not deliberately frustrating you: their brains are just wired a little differently.