Spoiler alert: the teen brain isn't like the adult brain.
Sure, it's pink and squishy, and it bears a passing resemblance to a giant wad of chewed-up bubblegum. In those ways it's pretty similar. But as teens navigate their daily lives, their brains light up differently from the brains of adults.
In part, that's because their brains aren't done developing. Of course, evidence suggests that human brains are never totally done growing and changing, and that "brain development in various forms goes on throughout the lifespan".
Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.
But teen brains are unique in a few specific ways, and these differences have a big effect on the way they think, act, and process information every day. And that, in turn, has a big effect on how teachers can give the best instruction, interaction, and—we'll just come out and say it—inspiration to teens in their classes.
It's Science: Teens are Irrational.
Teens are totally kooky.
Okay, fine. Maybe a bit of an overstatement. But still. The truth is that the planning, reasoning, and judgment center of the brain—the prefrontal cortex—is not fully developed in adolescents.
And that makes them less capable of doing things like, say, planning ahead, considering the consequences of their actions, accurately interpreting information without jumping to conclusions, or making decisions based on rational, rather than emotional, responses to stimuli.
So when teens make risky choices, fail to see how their actions affect others, or wait till the last possible minute to write those college app essays, you have to remember: it's not completely their fault. Some of these annoying (sorry, teens) attributes are honestly born of biology.
The Order of Operations
Just as all mathletes know that items in parentheses have to be tackled before dealing with exponents, multiplication and division, and the rest of the equation, the human brain develops in a particular order. Take a look at this simple illustration of the teen brain to see the areas that change most during adolescence.
The biggest part of the brain, the cortex, is divided into sections that develop from back to front. That means, as we mentioned above, that the part of the brain that helps with sound judgment—the prefrontal cortex—develops last, not reaching maturity until somewhere between ages 25 and 30.
Meanwhile, according to the actual science behind all this, the neural pathways in the teen brain are firing at a rate that will never be reached again after adolescence. This is what makes it easier for children and teens to learn languages and master musical instruments: the level of plasticity in a young brain allows connections to be made more quickly and easily. Of course, that also means that young brains are, in essence, more sensitive to all of the information coming at them and more susceptible to any stressors that come firing in from the outside.
Without a fully developed prefrontal cortex to help them interpret information, teens tend to respond to situations using the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. So yes, they even come by their flair for drama honestly.
So, teen brains are highly emotional, hyper-stimulated, and not so good at making decisions. Adolescence (and we're talking all the way from 12 to 24 here) is an overly dramatic period of life during which we have access to heightened physical and intellectual capacities, with not a ton of ability to use either of them wisely.
There's a reason so few adults think it would be fun to be a teenager again. You feel like everyone is against you, when really it's just your overactive, self-sabotaging brain.
Of course, all this isn't to say teens should be let off the hook for poor behavior or allowed to act however they choose at all times without consequence. But it is to say that the behaviors that irk many adults may not exactly be intentional. Or personal.
Parents and Teachers Take Note
The big idea here is that due to the stage of their brain development, teens take in and process information differently from adults. And make no mistake: this is a big idea.
Why? Because of its implications for every interaction adults have with teenagers, from asking them to take out the trash to giving them homework assignments.
As brain researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd says, "whatever communication, whatever conversation you have with [teens], if you're assuming they understood everything you said—they may not have. Or they may have understood it differently" (source).
So on Tuesday night, when you ask your teen to take out the trash, and then a half-hour later you see that it still hasn't been done—you need to realize that they may not actually be intentionally dismissing you or trying to be difficult. Same deal in English class, when you tell your students to finish their term papers, and at the end of the class they say, "Oh, you wanted us to work on those now?" In either case they may, sincerely, have misunderstood the request, or the importance of the request, or the timeline associated with the request.
So before you take a trip to exasperationville, remember the words of Ms. Yurgelun-Todd. As she puts it, "They somehow have reorganized that information, so they're not really trying to disappoint you or frustrate you. It's just that they saw it in a different light" (And a word to the wise: try to see that light before you see stars. It could save you a quarrel with a teen, and who knows where that could end up.)
For a great TED talk on the teen brain, check out Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's presentation, "The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain." Yep, the mysteries work even deeper. And we can't solve them for you—we can just give you the info, push you into the quagmire, and wish you luck.
Off you go.
Oh yeah: good luck.
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