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The Adolescent Brain

By Middle School Head Colleen A. O'Boyle
Last year, Head of School Gary Krahn invited Jay N. Giedd, MD, division head of child and adolescent psychiatry and professor at UC San Diego, to speak with faculty and staff about the adolescent brain. Giedd’s work focuses on neuroimaging, genetics and psychological testing to explore the path and influences on the developing brain in health and illness.

In the 2002 article Adolescent Brains Are Works in Progress, FRONTLINE Producer Sarah Spinks’ shares “Giedd hypothesizes that the growth in gray matter followed by the pruning of connections is a particularly important stage of brain development in which what teens do or do not do can affect them for the rest of their lives. He calls this the ‘use it or lose it principle…’”

The miracle of adolescent neuroplasticity allows us to exhale knowing that there is plenty of time to get it right—that is the primary role of an educator. According to both Giedd and educator/psychologist Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., our students’ brains between the ages of 11 and 18 will wire itself both structurally and functionally for the remainder of their lives. However, this fixed state does not limit future growth given what we know about the brain’s neuroplasticity and the effect of the environment we create for our children. Think: La Jolla Country Day School.

There are three main topographies of neuroplasticity: neurogenesis, synaptic pruning and myelination. What does this mean for an educator? We will focus primarily on how the environment plays an important role in generating new neurons during adolescence, and the role that we play as educators.

8 “Brain-Friendly” Practices for Adolescents:

Recommended Practice
Rationale for Practice
  1. Opportunities to choose
Helps adolescents make less risky and more sensible decisions in life
  1. Self-awareness activities
Assists adolescents in defining their still-developing sense of identity
  1. Peer learning connections
Capitalizes on adolescents’ preference for hanging out with peers
  1. Affective learning
Integrates the emotional brain (limbic system) with the rational areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex)
  1. Learning through the body
Capitalizes on the highly plastic cerebellum by providing physical learning that teaches higher-order skills
  1. Metacognitive strategies
Takes advantage of the adolescent’s emerging capacity for formal operational thinking (“thinking about thinking”)
  1. Expressive arts activities
Channels burgeoning adolescent emotional energies into thoughtful and socially appropriate artistic products and processes
  1. Real-world experiences
Gives adolescents an opportunity to practice executive functions under conditions of “hot” cognition

Opportunities to Choose
The more opportunities we provide our students to make decisions in lieu of the adults in their lives, the more we contribute to the fine tuning of the prefrontal cortex or the “seat of decision making.” Students need multiple and frequent opportunities to experience how they learn, how fast they learn, and other matters connected with the curriculum and school life. Whether we do this by giving options for homework or group work, opportunities to pick their own books, voice and choice in projects, learning at their rate, or involving them in decision making, all of these experiences equip them to take ownership of their learning.

Self-awareness Activities
In concert with providing students with an opportunity to choose, students are navigating two distinct forces: who they are in the constructs of their world and the pressures to become someone else (e.g. “role confusion” or the emerging self in a larger world). Carol Dweck’s literature on mindset suggests that how a student perceives oneself—intelligence and capability—have a direct impact on the level of student engagement and attainment in an academic setting.

How is this Research Applied at LJCDS
Last year, all Middle School students participated in the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA), an evidence-based, research-tested assessment that provided us with quantitative data about our students’ noncognitive skills. As a school, this data helps us identify the area our students are thriving and also the gaps that we need to fill. For example, we know that when students are engaged in the process of identity, or self-identity, then they take ownership and are less likely to give up and more likely to persevere, show empathy, and make connections to what they are learning in their classes, and the connections that can be made in the real world.

Our students possess an immense amount of acumen and qualities that will not only shape their lives but the community at LJCDS. Thoughtful dialogues and workshops take place in our Middle School faculty meetings to discuss how we can best serve our students. Building our curriculum with intention and mindfulness of the emerging adolescent mind is key to preparing them for Upper School, college and beyond. For, life! We have talented kids, now let’s equip them with the skills to identify their strengths and areas of focus. Until our next newsletter on the adolescent brain, be well.

Resources:
Armstrong, Thomas. "2." The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. Alexandria: ASCD, 2016. 33. Print.

Sebastian, C..Burnett, S. & Blakemore, S-J. (2008, November). Development of the self-concept during adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (11), 441-446. Print.

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