The Teenage Brain

January 31, 2007 at 10:38 am (children, Education, kids, Parents, school)

Scary Thoughts: The Teenage Brain


          Their large and well-developed forms enter your building. You may have to look up to have eye contact with many of them. It has become difficult for some to be seated comfortably in their desks. Male voices are either squeaky or notably deep. Heavy makeup and trendy hairstyles are commonplace among the girls; their fitted T-shirts and tight jeans reveal mature bodies.

          As you look at these adult-like creatures, you assume that their minds have also matured. You ask them to think.

Big mistake.

           Beneath those funky hairdos and baseball caps lie three pounds of brain tissue looking not nearly as mature as the bodies that house them. Their brains are undergoing some enormous changes that will continue throughout the high school years. At puberty the brain structure called the hypothalamus begins to secrete chemicals to increase appetite in girls. This is nature’s way of preparing the body for childbirth by adding fat. (Liebowitz 1998)  In our society; however, extra pounds may be cause for alarm and many girls become obsessed with their weight. An emotional structure, the amygdala, enlarges at this time due to the release of testosterone. This hormone is more prevalent in males, so their amygdala becomes larger than the females’. At the same time, the hippocampus, which is a strong memory pathway for factual information, swells from the release of estrogen. Estrogen is more prevalent in females, so they have the larger hippocampus. To put the consequences of this simply, we have children beginning adolescence. It can begin as early as age ten. The boys may be overemotional and over-reactive due to the size and sensitivity of the emotional structure, the amygdala. The girls, who may have an easier time remembering factual information, could also be struggling with their body images as their appetites increase.

(Brownlee 1999)

          If that seems overwhelming, there’s more. The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the cerebrum that controls the amygdala. It has not yet fully developed, and may not do so until these students are in their twenties. Consequently, the brain structure that could help these young adults deal with their emotions, may not be physically able to do so. We have to accept the fact that these students may have difficulty making good choices.

          Let’s take a closer look at that very specialized and important brain area, the pre-frontal cortex. Why is it so important? Why does it affect so many skills, talents, and behaviors?


           There are two functions of this brain area to consider. This is the structure that acts as the logical decision-maker in the brain. As the amygdala creates an emotional attitude toward people and events, the prefrontal cortex shapes that attitude or stops that attitude from being displayed. Without the prefrontal cortex, decision-making is relying heavily on a strictly emotional response. The other function of this area is that of working memory. In order for information to be processed, that is, either new information worked with and added to old information, or old information spread out and reworked, there has to be space for this to occur. The prefrontal cortex is working space for these processes.


          Sasha and Rochelle are studying for a final exam in Spanish. They are working at Sasha’s house since her little brother is gone for the evening and Rochelle’s house is always crowded and noisy with all of her siblings and their friends. The girls spread their books and notes out on Sasha’s bed. Rochelle opens her text and begins to compare her notes and the chapter contents. Sasha goes to the radio and turns it on.

          “Could you please turn down that music?” Rochelle asks with some frustration in her voice.


         “Oh, this is the song that was playing when Angelo and I were on our first date!” Sasha declares.

          I don’t care when it was playing — it isn’t playing now!” Rochelle suddenly snaps the radio to off.

          “What’s the matter with you? This is my house and I can listen to whatever I want! Besides, it will be over in a minute and then we’ll study!”

          “You can study by yourself!” With that, Rochelle grabs her books and storms out of the house.

          In this case, Rochelle was reacting emotionally. She may have been stressed about the exam, and then became further irritated by the music while she was trying to concentrate. Her overreaction is evident as it appeared that Sasha would turn the radio off right after the song. Rochelle was having trouble controlling her emotional response to the situation. Her prefrontal cortex was not able to monitor her amygdala’s response to the circumstances.


          Nathan could not sit still. It was only one class period from art class, and he could not wait to get his hands on Michael. If Michael thought for one minute that he could get away with saying that kinda stuff about his baby sister, well, boy, he was gonna get it. Nathan watched the clock as the minutes ticked by. He wanted to jump up and run out of English and go find Michael, but something wouldn’t let him do it. He looked up at Mr. Sterling’s algebra equation, but he had no clue as to what was going on. He tried to concentrate on what his teacher was explaining, but he couldn’t stop thinking about those words Michael had said, “Nathan’s little sister is easy ….” Thinking those words took Nathan’s breath away. He wiggled in his seat and tried to focus on the board again. Finally, the bell rang, and Nathan headed for the door.

          “Oh, Nathan,” Mr. Sterling called to him, “don’t forget that assignment.”

          “Oh, yeah, sure!” Nathan yelled back. But he didn’t know what Mr. Sterling was talking about.

          Nathan was fortunate that his prefrontal cortex was able to control his emotions. As much as he wanted to act on his need to find Michael, he knew he should wait until his next class with him. Unfortunately, because the prefrontal cortex was so busy keeping his amygdala in check, Nathan had no space free for working memory. He couldn’t take any of the information that was offered in his math class and work with it in his brain. He didn’t even realize that he had been given an assignment. Learning cannot take place under those circumstances.

          Another problem many of our adolescents face is common among adults: sleep deprivation. Did you get your eight hours last night? Our young adult students need more — nine hours and fifteen minutes to be exact. Why so much? For the brain to go through the stages of sleep an appropriate number of times, it takes that long. Why aren’t our students getting enough sleep? There are several explanations. It is known that changes in the brain at adolescence change the biological clock, a cluster of neurons that send signals throughout the body and controls fundamentally all of the internal operations. One of those operations is sleep. The time that melatonin, the chemical that is released to induce sleep, is distributed in the brain suddenly becomes about one hour later, so these students are not ready for sleep. Add to that the desire to be more independent, the need to control your own life, and the fact that many of our older teenagers work late hours; a problem exists. What’s more, those chemicals needed for sleep are still in their bodies during first hour class. Edina, Minnesota schools changed their starting time from 7:25 to 8:30 and found better grades, higher test scores, and happier teachers and students. (University of Minnesota 1997) (Have you ever wondered why that difficult class you have never seems to be a problem to the first hour teacher? They’re virtually still sleeping!)

          What makes this information even more alarming are the possible repercussions of sleep deprivation. The first to consider is the negative effect it has on learning and memory. The brain needs sleep to dispose of unimportant information and to practice new information. (Dement 1999) Sleep also appears to be necessary to regulate emotions. Emotions are already a problem for this age group. It has been hypothesized that this may be adding to some of the increased violence. (Carskadon 1995)

          That was the bad news. The good news is that this brain is plastic. It is still growing and changing. It is not too late for positive transformations and eventually most of these students will have the physical ability to perform the operations that are expected of adults.

          As a classroom teacher who has dealt with adolescents since 1971, it amazes me how science is confirming so many of the strategies that have been useful with these students. How do we deal with these learning limitations? First, we must recognize that many of our students handle these situations quite well. However, there are ways to make learning less of a struggle for all.

          Changing starting times would be helpful. Short of that, be aware that your first hour students may not perform as well as your other classes. Repetition and out of class work may be necessary for these students to stay on track. Rotating schedules will help this situation. I was involved in a rotating schedule for several years; both students and teachers loved it. It is simply starting Tuesday with second hour instead of first, Wednesday with third hour, etc. In this way, it takes six or seven days before that first hour class is back in your room first hour. It’s also an excellent way to see how students perform at different times of the day. Let’s face it, last hour classes can be a challenge for teachers and students.

“What about me?”

          I have often felt that students, in their own ways, were always asking this question, so I look at it as an acronym. The m is for  motion and the e for emotion. I find that if I keep students moving and deal with their emotions, the adolescents in my classroom learned more rapidly and easily.

          Provide emotional outlets. Journaling is one way to do this, or five minutes of group conversation at the beginning of class may allow students to calm themselves down and attend to learning. A technique I borrowed from a primary teacher works very well with adolescents. She called it the “backburner.” First, I explain how sometimes we have to put something that is on our mind on the backburner – like your mom might put food on the backburner while she attends to other details in the kitchen. I ask them to write down anything that might be bothering them and that could interfere with their learning. After they write them on small pieces of paper, they fold them, write their names on the back, and deposit them in a box on my desk. I tell them that I need their attention now and these things are on the backburner until the end of class. At that time, I hand them back. The students look at their problem and decide if it is still important and needs some attention. They are offered a few minutes to discuss the issues with me or their classmates.

          Put students in groups or on teams. The older the students are, the smaller the groups should be. Teams provide a feeling of belonging. Becoming a significant part of a relationship allows the brain to release feel-good chemicals (Glenn 1990), and this is one way to promote it. Another plus is that team projects allow for students to physically move in the classroom in appropriate ways.

          Become aware of their emotional states and be prepared to manage them. Look for frustration, anger, fear, and apathy. Of these, frustration is the easiest to change. If students are frustrated with what you are teaching, try a different approach. Have students teach each other. Studies have shown that scores increase with peer teaching. (Ginsberg-Block 1997)  It is also a great state change. As the students begin to drift away from what you are teaching, or if they become frustrated or even bored with the material, teaching it will give a much needed change. It will also reinforce the learning for those who know it and help the student who just doesn’t quite get it the way you presented it.

          Provide ritual. Rituals make room for challenge, novelty, and a little craziness which make the classroom fun. This simply means that at certain times and in certain situations they know what is going to happen. It’s a stimulus/response situation.  Predictability puts students at ease.  I use music to provide ritual. Each day my students enter my classroom with specific music playing. They have grown to expect it and many find it comforting. Other examples are celebrations, openings and closings of class, and test taking rituals.  These provide the security that the brain needs to feel safe enough to transmit messages to higher levels for complex thinking.

        Classroom rules are very important. They also provide security as long as you stick to them. Be sure students understand the rules. It is always good to have the students help you make them. Post them, send them home, and follow them. They become rituals if you follow them consistently.

          Give overviews. Students need to know what they are going to be doing each day. Create a mind map or outline on the board  with the schedule of events. This will help your students de-stress. Knowing what is going to happen, even if it is painful, gives students a feeling of “Okay, I know we are going to write an essay, but I can get through it.” (It’s like going to the dentist. If I know he has another appointment thirty minutes after mine, I can cope knowing it won’t last too long.)

          If those mature bodies are entering your classroom everyday, or the smaller bodies start exhibiting some strange behaviors, understand that many changes are occurring. Teenagers don’t really have such scary thoughts. They are simply at a fascinating time in their development. Understanding the changes that are taking place and providing for some basic needs may keep the classroom running smoothly.


Brownlee, Shannon. (1999, August 9). Inside the teen brain. US News & World Report, 127, 44-54.

Carskadon, Mary A. A prominent sleep researcher says staying awake may be overrated. Q & A (On-line). December 1995. Available: http://www.brown,edu/Administration/Brown_Alumni_Magaxine/96/12-95/elms/qa.html.

Dement, William & C. Vaughan. (1999) The Promise of Sleep. New York: Delacorte Press.

Ginsburg-Block, Marika; and John Fantuzzo. 1997. Reciprocal peer tutoring: An analysis of teacher and student interactions as a function of training and experience. School Psychology Quarterly; Summer; 12(2): 134-149.

Glenn, H. Stephen. (1990). The Greatest Human Need. (Video recording.) Gold River, CA: Capabilities, Inc.

Liebowitz, Sarah. (December 1998). Gray Matters: The Teenage Brain. Charles A. Dana Foundation. Available:

University of Minnesota. (September 1997). The College of Education and Human Development. School Start Time Study. Available:



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