Teenage Brain Development

By Jennifer Walsh-Rurak, Ed.D.

Adolescence is a unique phase characterized by rapid physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth. Parents and educators alike can help teens to capitalize on this “prime time” phase of brain development by providing and supporting enriching experiences for teens and exposing them to new things during this distinctive developmental phase.

“Under major construction” is how Dr. JoAnn Deak (2013) characterizes the adolescent brain in her book, The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain. She explains that each new experience whether academic, social, emotional or exploratory helps to strengthen and develop the brains of teenagers. Deak (2013) describes adolescence as the perfect developmental period for engaging in complex tasks such as learning to play an instrument or honing multifaceted mathematical reasoning skills. Neuroscientists contend that by learning new things, partaking in complex reasoning and attempting difficult tasks adolescents will establish a robust foundation (Deak, 2013).

Teachers and school administrators working with adolescents must recognize and capitalize on the tremendous opportunity for brain development during the teen years. This recognition should shape curriculum design to ensure that students have ample opportunities for building upon previously learned skills and concepts, as well as abundant prospects for exploring new and enriching experiences.

In addition to engaging and multi-modal instruction, adolescence is a remarkable time for students to explore art, music, yoga and other hobbies and interests. When adolescence is characterized by exposure to a multitude of experiences, brain development is enhanced. Given ample exposure to a variety of experiences, teens have an opportunity to determine the hobbies and interests that they are most impassioned by and choose to explore them more deeply. Schools that are well suited to meet the unique needs of adolescents recognize the importance of developing a rigorous, diverse and balanced program focused on both rich academics and stimulating extracurricular opportunities.

Parents and educators working with adolescents should consider encouraging:

• Moving beyond a singular focus. For instance, if a teen loves soccer also consider encouraging him or her to take a photography or music class. Adolescents should be encouraged to explore a variety of interests and activities rather than focusing solely on just one.

• Balancing physical and intellectual activities. Teens should be encouraged to participate in both kinesthetic activities such as dancing or horseback riding, as well as intellectual tasks such as writing poetry or joining the school newspaper

• Exploring options for organization and time management and establishing a preferred approach. Teens may choose a day-planner or electronic calendar to track their school assignments, sporting event schedules, and social commitments. During this phase of development, teens should find a system of tracking events that works best for them in terms of organizing their busy schedules. Doing so will reduce stress and promote time management skills.

• Limiting the number of activities. While allowing teens to explore a variety of activities is important, ensuring that teens are not engaged in too many activities simultaneously will help to prevent stress and feeling overwhelmed.

• Promoting adequate sleep and physical wellness. Given the busy schedules of active teens, it is paramount that adolescents develop and maintain healthy sleep patterns, balanced diets and positive outlets for stress relief such as exercise, yoga or meditation.

Adolescence is an exciting and inspiring developmental period characterized by rapid brain development. Most importantly, when given opportunities to explore a variety of activities and experiences teens will develop a strong sense of who they are and what they love.

(Deak, J. A. M., Deak, T., & Harrison, F. (2013). The owner’s manual for driving your adolescent brain.)