As educators, we need to understand how the social and emotional changes that occur in adolescents affect the learning experience. The fact that teenagers want much more autonomy over their learning than younger students directly influences the culture of the classroom and teaching. Social and emotional changes affect learning and teaching, but also have a strong influence on a teen’s relationship with their friends and parents. Cognitive growth – changes to the functioning and structure of the brain – is a significant factor in how teens learn and interact socially.
One of the major developments in this age group is in the functioning and structure of the brain. While neurological changes are directly related to how we learn, they also form the basis for the social and emotional development of adolescents. Executive functioning becomes more complex during this growth period, and young people develop the ability to engage in more abstract thought. Furthermore, the decision making and planning centers of the brain are developed during this time.
1. Concrete to Abstract Thinking
When it comes to abstract thinking, teens develop the ability to consider hypothetical situations as well as multiple options and solutions to a problem. As relationships become suddenly more complex, social interactions are affected. For example, instead of “who is my friend?” a more complex consideration is required that involves degrees of friendship and loyalty. Communication among peers via social media often exacerbates the more complex social networks. This can be unnerving for an adolescent who is used to a world visible in black and white. The ability to classify everything as right or wrong, friend or enemy, ethical or unethical has disappeared. Without these clear-cut definitions, some adolescents struggle socially and emotionally. And without the ability to separate emotional trials from the rest of their day, some adolescents are challenged to try to make sense of it all.
Experiential learning strategies have proven to support the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. As teens develop a more complex view of the world, learning by doing or through experience - take community service or summer jobs, for example - opens the door to taking risks. It also provides scaffolding to help students determine their own belief systems and presents opportunities for growth in a learning environment. With guidance from a supportive teacher in a structured environment, adolescents have the opportunity to safely make mistakes, learn from them, and generally grow as individuals.
2. Reasoning Skills
Reasoning skills of adolescents are also developed during this time. Teens often respond to the newly acquired ability to reason by wanting to exert more control over decision-making. They may also feel that they need to work through logical sequences on their own. Parents and teachers may see decision-making that is anything but logical. However, it is important to note that developing the ability to think logically and make decisions is an important part of brain growth during this period.
3. Impulse Control
Brain maturation causes adolescents to “shed” synapses that they have been building since birth. In doing this, they are also creating new synapses, including those that develop abstract and logical sequencing skills. During this time, the prefrontal cortex goes through many changes, one of which is developing the ability to manage impulses. This skill is one that also must be honed and can be supported by both experiential learning and group learning. Actively engaging in the learning process and engaging with peers supports the ability to manage impulses and behave as a member of a team.
Beyond their changing brains, teens are also developing the ability to feel and express complex emotions during their teen years. Two significant emotional developments occur during these adolescent years – the development of friendship and the ability to understand complex emotions.
Self Identity and Friendship
Younger adolescents are often worried about fitting in, while older teens, with the appropriate guidance, become more secure in their own identity. The key is to allow the younger adolescent the space and time to develop their own interests and identity. This is an area where a good school with strong role models and a robust curriculum can help teens develop their sense of self. Additionally, providing teens with opportunities to explore interests allows them to understand themselves and their uniqueness. This ability to identify with the self can stave off issues with peer pressure and group think in later adolescence.
Because adolescents are no longer existing in a black and white world of ethics and decision- making, they begin to understand more emotions. They recognize emotions more readily within themselves, and they begin to be able to recognize emotions in their peers. This can be troublesome as, ultimately, most teens will desire to feel happy. So, decision-making can be geared toward immediate gratification. The key is to again channel this need and desire to manage complex emotions into learning experiences. For instance, learning in groups and engaging in community service can help adolescents begin to develop empathy and value inclusion which serves to prevent bullying.
Developing a growth mindset helps students to gain a stronger sense of self, engage in more positive self-talk, and interact more positively with their peers. Self-image encouraged by a growth mindset serves adolescents well inside and outside of the classroom.
The teen years are some of the most volatile years of our lives. With so many changes occurring in the brains of adolescents, they are in a constant state of growth. This growth, while necessary to becoming a functioning member of society, is difficult. And these difficulties can affect the classroom. To support adolescents in social and emotional growth, we need to understand the reason for the changes. In doing so, we only serve to help our teens grow even more fully into adults.
Implications for Education
For many educators the task of considering the cognitive and emotional stages of their adolescent students requires an added layer of innovation. Successful classroom models focus on the student-teacher relationship, which is extremely important in creating valuable learning experiences for adolescents. The teacher who promotes a positive sense of community in the classroom, both through actions and instruction, is better able to engage all students in learning. Moreover, teachers who embrace a culture of student voice are setting the foundation for teen learners to take responsibility for their own education. When students trust their own emotions and thoughts and can trust that these emotions and thoughts are safe, they are more motivated and better able to learn. In addition to a foundation of trust among all students and students and their teachers, it is important that learning activities be designed with students’ cognitive and emotional growth in mind. For example:
- Self-Awareness techniques can be taught in any subject. One of the most common ways to do this is to provide students with the opportunity to analyze their own work. This self-reflection helps students to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and may encourage them to seek help.
- Self-Management skills can also be taught in project-based learning environments as students set and maintain progress towards the completion of a project. This autonomy over project completion allows students to practice and strengthen their decision-making and reasoning skills.
- Social Awareness and Decision-Making skills may be developed in classrooms that consistently use flexible grouping strategies and cooperative learning. Modeling effective group work can help students to develop their decision-making abilities while learning to collaborate with their peers. Both of these skills develop cognitive abilities.
Blyth-Templeton Academy, a micro school in Washington DC, offers an innovative program that encourages and equips students to become self-directed learners. This means they are able, at times, to study subjects and topics of their own interest. High-level cognitive skills, including analysis and inquiry, are developed through student led seminars and Socratic discussions. Students partner with faculty on personalized learning paths so their cognitive development is taken into account when curriculum is developed. And finally, teachers are encouraged to engage actively with their students and to support them in the creation and achievement of multidisciplinary projects.
Teaching the growing brain is a challenge, but strong schools routinely step up that challenge, developing innovative and constructive ways to meet students at their cognitive and emotional level while setting the stage for them to develop a growth mindset. Moreover, developing a growth mindset helps students to gain a stronger sense of self, engage in more positive self-talk, and interact more positively with their peers.