Understanding the Middle School Brain

I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can still recite my lines from a seventh grade production of Joan of Arc. This is a common phenomenon says neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg, author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.”

“The adolescent brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience,” said Steinberg at a recent conference. “It is like the recording device is turned up to a different level of sensitivity.” This is why our teenage years remain vivid in our memory – and it’s why adolescence is “an extremely important window for learning that sticks.”

Adolescence – which begins between the ages of 10 and 12 – is characterized by incredible brain development. In many ways, it mirrors the cognitive growth that occurs during the first three years of a child’s life. Babies’ brains grow by overproducing synapses (connections) and then pruning them back starting around the age of three.

Well, it turns out that the brain has a *second* growth spurt just before puberty – and spends the rest of adolescence “cutting back weak branches” and allowing others to flourish (to read more about this research, click here).

This is extraordinary when you think about it. Remember how dramatically your kids grew and changed in their first three years? My son recently turned two. Six months ago, he could say six words. Now, he knows he’s speaking in full sentences – from “I love Mickey Mouse” to “I want ice cream, please!”

That’s how fast these young middle school brains are growing – not with language acquisition, but with conceptual understanding. No wonder our middle schoolers constantly astound us with their new abilities, their deep thoughts, their energy, and their newfound maturity. And no wonder this can also be a time marked by intensity, boundary testing, and strong emotions! If there was ever an age that kids needed to be both challenged and supported by a strong community, it’s the middle school years.

Steinberg also offered this amazing observation: Adolescence is the last time in a person’s life that the brain can be dramatically overhauled. Adults can learn and grow, of course, but the teenage brain has tremendous plasticity, and the habits we learn during these years tend to stick with us.

Because of this, middle school is a pivotal time to help kids make good choices and develop self-control –  a character trait that is essential to long-term happiness and success. Self-control can be challenging for middle schoolers because 1) their prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for planning ahead and assessing risks) is still developing and 2) the adolescent brain seeks stimulation, novelty, and excitement.

But Steinberg says parents and teachers can harness teens’ natural desire for excitement. He says that while boredom often drives teens to risky behavior, rich academic and extracurricular opportunities can draw them back: ““When we are not challenging our kids . . . not only are we hindering their academic development, but we also aren’t taking advantage of the plastic prefrontal cortex,” which is strengthened by “challenge and novelty.”

This research reminds me of the types of experiences we provide at TVS Middle School – and why we are constantly looking for ways to enrich our program. Adolescents are hungry, quite literally, to learn and grow. They want to be challenged, and they want the excitement that comes from tackling something new.

At TVS, it’s not just our strong academic program that feeds our students –  it’s the “challenge and novelty” of rappelling a cliff, performing onstage in front of hundreds of people, building an engine or giving a TEDx talk, tagging Monarch butterflies, or scoring a goal.

Our amazing faculty love this age and all of the complexity that comes with it. They are versed in this research, and they are always willing to try something new to reach their students. They know that the rich experiences we provide in middle school will help shape their students’ brains – and character — for years to come.

To learn more about Steinberg’s presentation, click here to read “Harnessing the Incredible Power of the Adolescent Brain.”

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