California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II
A summary of young adolescent development, including brain research, as it pertains to the California Department of Education's Recommendation on Safety, Resilience, and Health.
Note: Following each essay, the Teaching Tips..and .Parenting Tips demonstrate how to put the developmental-based strategies into action in the classroom and at home.
Middle grades school becomes a crossroad for young adolescents. They are faced with decisions to do or not to do things that put them at risk. Even the most diligent, obedient student in elementary school can do an about-face and leave teachers and parents shaking their heads with, “What was he or she thinking?” Parents say, “He has never done that before,” or, “She was taught over and over not to do that.” Why is there now an impulse for risk taking? A look inside the young adolescent’s brain may help adults understand.
Two things are happening in the brain as a child enters puberty. First, hormones help trigger impulsive behavior; second, the impulsive behavior control center is under construction. The part of the brain that is responsible for controlling impulsive behavior (the prefrontal cortex) undergoes reorganization as puberty begins. This part of the brain also helps people to think before they do something they will later regret. At the same time, the part of the brain that is responsible for impulsive, emotional activity (the amygdala) is being overly activated by hormones.1 In essence, there is a role reversal so the amygdala becomes dominant and the prefrontal cortex takes a back seat.2
With hormones surging through the brain and activating the amygdala and with the prefrontal cortex too immature to put on the brakes, young adolescents are at the mercy of extreme impulses that they are not always capable of controlling.
For boys this impulsive behavior can be aggressive and angry. For girls it can show up as amplification of a wide range of emotions. For many boys and girls, the intensity of their feelings—of the impulses firing in their brains, whether angry, sad, sexual, or territorial—is often surprising. Many of them have not felt such strong impulses during childhood.3
Until recently, the brain was thought to be fully mature by the time a child starts puberty. It is now known that the prefrontal cortex does not mature until the early twenties. Ironically, the bodies of adolescents are maturing five years faster than they did a century ago—from 17 to 12 years of age.4 That means that there is a bigger discrepancy between the maturing brain and the maturing body. Therefore, at a younger age, adolescents are facing responsibility for sexual behavior before they are emotionally and socially mature.5 In addition, there is a drug culture that young adolescents may encounter that did not exist 40 years ago. Gangs may force young adolescents to make decisions about joining. There are many adult decisions that young adolescents need to make with their immature brain, and this may put them under a lot of stress.
Prolonged stress interferes with memory and with planning and judgment.6 The response to stress because of danger at school or home sends chemicals throughout the body and brain. This response can also happen when a person anticipates danger, such as threats from a bully.7 Constant release of stress chemicals over a long period of time will become toxic to the body. Students may find it difficult to concentrate or recall information in class. Schools can be a safe haven for students whose homes are in chaos. When schools are perceived to be dangerous by students, student success is compromised.
The California Department of Education's Recommendation on Safety, Resilience, and Health includes sections on how to help build the strengths or assets of young adolescents, as well as sections that cover other critical health issues such as fitness and nutrition. Link to the following sections to see how to build the strengths of young adolescents so they are ready for a productive life:
Adolescent Development Index
Recommendation 8—Safety, Resilience, and Health Contents
1Raleigh Philp, Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007, p. 65.
2Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 28.
3David Walsh, Why Do They Act That Way? New York: Free Press, 2004, p. 65.
5Caught in the Middle: Educational Reform for Young Adolescents in California Public Schools. Sacramento: California Dept. of Education, 1987, p. 145.
6Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Third edition). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004, p. 213-215.
8Raleigh Philp, Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007, p. 113.
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California Department of Education
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Sacramento, CA 95814