January 29, 2014

The Adolescent Brain and Learning

There’s been a recent explosion in talk about learning and the brain. In fact, it’s probably enough to make some people want to walk out of the room the next time NPR mentions neuroscience. There are, however, some valuable tidbits for any of us working or living with adolescents. As an educator who’s been combing the neuroscience literature, I’ve written the following as an attempt to synthesize and simplify the information about adolescent brain development.

When you say that your child’s actions make no sense, you are right. They make no sense, and they might not for a year, so save yourself the energy of trying to make them make sense in your own mind. All adolescents, from Queen Bee to manga master, are feeling destabilized and confused about who they are, in part because their brains are literally disorganizing and reorganizing (Badenoch, 2008). Researcher Jay Giedd made the surprising discovery that there is a sharp increase in brain activity (essentially connections between brain cells) during adolescence, which greatly expands adolescent capacity for learning (Badenoch, 2008). The increased activity is exciting, but like a dry plant that’s watered too fast, the brain simply can’t make use of all the new connections immediately. Thus it temporarily becomes outwardly overwhelmed while it internally sorts through its new connections. During this time, the adolescent brain is less articulate and rational, losing up to 20 percent of its capacity to describe and modulate feelings because its energy is focused elsewhere (Badenoch, 2008). When an adolescent responds “I don’t know” to five questions in a row, there’s a Construction-Zone-Sign-K-9694chance that he really doesn’t know in that moment! The adolescent brain can also lose executive function that it had before adolescence (Casey, 2008), which can help us understand why a student loses everything this year when he seemed very organized last year. Asking an adolescent why she suddenly can’t keep track of her things doesn’t help; her brain was not a construction zone last year.

Neurologically, think of adolescence as a period of “transitional leadership.” The adolescent brain’s natural goal is to focus most of its new activity in developing its prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for executive functioning. As the prefrontal cortex develops, it increases its control over the emotional hub of the brain – the amygdala – but the transition is slow and nonlinear. As with any leadership transition, there are bumps along the way as the brain shifts from emotion dominated to executive function dominated.

The good news is that the transitional period is temporary, and with the right influences, the end result is a new and improved brain: a brain wherein the prefrontal cortex is in charge, providing greater capacity for abstract thinking, emotion regulation, and executive function. These improvements will, to some degree, happen naturally. But the more we can intervene during adolescence to steer the course of the new leadership, the better off a student will be. Because the adolescent brain is disorganized naturally, this is a crucial time to focus on executive functioning skills, in order to point them down the most efficient path of reorganization. The impact of our efforts isn’t always immediately apparent – precisely because their brains are so disorganized – but if we persist, we will usually see that our efforts in skills like chunking, routinizing, organizing, planning have paid off once the adolescent brain settles into its new connections and rhythms.

Rather than sideline ourselves to wait out this process, here are a few things that we can do as adults to maintain and strengthen our relationships through the adolescent years, while simultaneously helping to mold their neurological development:

  • Approach adolescents as construction zones. They will be inconsistent and frustrating. Anticipate it and take a deep breath.
  • Be persistent and consistent. They are listening and watching, especially when we least expect it. Ask to see their planner when they get home every day, even though it’s been empty for the last three weeks. Calmly repeat why it’s beneficial to them to write down their homework, and then move on.
  • Applaud incremental changes. When they write one subject’s homework down in their planner one time, focus on that and ask what allowed them to be successful in that moment. Remind yourself that you’re working with a construction zone. This is progress.
  • Involve yourself in homework. Repetition – of information and habits – is what forms lasting habits and connections in the brain. A parent repeating what a teacher or tutor has already said that day (e.g. “you need to write an outline before starting the paper”) sends the message that the adults are on the same page. If you put in the time to create a routine and check in about homework, you’ll help form good habits that will minimize the times that you run to Staples for poster board the night before a project is due. You are influencing the brain’s new leadership, but it might take a few months before you have any indication that you’ve been influential.
  • Avoid dual social screen and homework screen time. Our brains cannot multi-task as well as they can singularly focus, no matter how convincing an argument your child makes. Encourage your child to do one thing at a time, and explain why (here’s why: all of our brains work better when not dividing attention, and ideally we adults would do a better job modeling this!).

Working with adolescents is hard work for everyone involved, including the adolescent. Approaching them with the empathic awareness that their brains are reorganizing beyond their control can help us as adults remain patient when screaming “you make no sense!” is what we want to do. Keep in mind that adolescents are more susceptible to positive adult influence than they’ll ever let on (or know), and keep the faith. Your consistent encouragement to get organized, to plan ahead and to get sleep are not falling on deaf ears, much as you might think they are. Hang in there, and don’t expect any thank you’s for a few more years.


Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111-126.

About the author:

After surviving adolescence herself, Molly O’Connor has been teaching Spanish and leading outdoor education, service, and leadership programs with adolescents for over a decade. After graduating from Amherst College, she earned a master’s in educational leadership from Columbia University’s Klingenstein Center and is completing her master’s in clinical social work at Boston College. Whether working in her role as a certified ESL teacher in Guatemala or editing a Harvard application essay in her role as a college admissions consultant, Molly sees emotional well-being as being at the heart of everyone’s ability to learn. She is particularly interested in strengthening the relationship between the fields of education and mental health.