Specific research into the adolescent brain is a fairly new area of study, in relation to the wider knowledge of the brain collected over all the years of clinical research. But it is already telling us important things about our teenagers that will help us understand them better, not only personally, but educationally as well.
We have long identified that teenagers have strange, often illogical, and challenging behaviours. And parents often take it personally, feeling that these are deliberate attempts to test those parental boundaries!
However research has now identified that teenagers cannot help themselves. A part of their brain which is developing rapidly during those adolescent years, the pre-frontal cortex, controls these behaviours, affecting their ability to make rational decisions, their susceptibility to social pressure, and brings dramatic changes to their sleep patterns affecting irritability, tolerance and performance. These changes are the real reasons for that teen behaviour we sometimes find hard to comprehend.
More importantly this adolescent growing period affects their educational development and performance and researchers are questioning whether education should be changed in accordance.
One neuroscientist, Sarah Jayne Blakemore, even challenges whether teens should be put through the gruelling practice of exams at 16, just when they would find it most difficult, inhibiting results and possibly their chances in the future.
Blakemore explains the research into teenage brain function in her Ted talk.
But more recently, during her speech at the Hay festival, she asks the question why, when students now have to stay in education till they’re 18, we even have GCSEs at the most dramatically challenging time of adolescence, a time when they are also at their most susceptible to mental health issues relating to social interaction, self esteem and body image.
She says that it makes no sense to add this excessive stress to those teen years, but it is a subject rarely given due attention.
Another important aspect of teen development is an acknowledgement of the fact that all teens are different, says Lucy Foulkes in the conversation UK, which seems obvious, yet is often overlooked when we generalise about teen behaviour.
However, it has important implications for how we advance educational provision and develop resources to support mental wellbeing. Home life, social and financial status, catchment area and parental influence all have individual impact on teens and how they develop through that period of their lives.
Understanding these influences and how they affect behaviour can help us steer through those adolescent years with as little disruption as possible. And will hopefully encourage those who make decisions about educational provision to develop something that suits the young people better than the highly pressurised time of their life they currently have to navigate.