California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Adolescent Development

Recommendation 10—Professional Learning

A summary of young adolescent development, including brain research, as it pertains to the California Department of Education's Recommendation on Professional Learning.

It is critical that middle grades educators be provided with their own education on adolescent development as outlined in each of the previous sections. Young adolescents are going through a very peculiar time because of the rapid growth in the brain and body. These growth changes affect their moral, social, psychological, intellectual, and physical development. In terms of closing the achievement gap, these developmental changes impact the way middle grades educators must teach to engage the adolescent learner. In an era where test scores are extremely important, educators should be more intent on understanding who they are teaching and how their brains learn. Dr. David Sousa states:

The human brain is an amazing structure—a universe of infinite possibilities and mystery. It constantly shapes and reshapes itself as a result of experience, yet it can take off on its own without input from the outside world. How does it form a human mind, capture experience, or stop time in memory? Although it does not generate enough energy to light a simple bulb, its capabilities make it the most powerful force on Earth.1

The most dramatic discovery about young adolescent brains is that part of the brain is under reconstruction and does not become fully mature until the early twenties. This discovery has answered a lot of questions as to why adolescents act the way they do. The area under reconstruction is called the prefrontal cortex. It is responsible for making sound decisions, putting the brakes on impulses, giving appropriate attention, organizing, and thinking ahead and planning.2 When adults look at a middle grades student’s backpack, it could be like looking inside the prefrontal cortex. Why is this child looking more like an adult and yet seemingly more disorganized and confused than before? Thanks to brain research, the answer becomes clear. This does not mean that adults should ignore the backpack and hope for the day when the light turns on and the child is magically organized and controlled. Rather, it gives the middle grades educator a better understanding of what his or her role must be to help young adolescents succeed.

In teams—often known as “professional learning communities”—teachers can develop a collective mindset in learning about and nurturing positive adolescent development. For example, teams can set aside the first ten minutes of each meeting to discuss students who appear to be emotionally or academically at risk and brainstorm positive solutions. They can also mentor new teachers in understanding how to apply adolescent development research to the design and delivery of lessons.

There must be a concern for subject matter in addition to an emphasis on helping the student perform in the areas that are challenging for them: how to organize, plan, strategize, and sustain attention. Getting young adolescents to think about how their choices lead to certain consequences is another challenging area for him. Supporting brain growth is a support to learning the curriculum. Middle grades educators need to understand the development of young adolescents in every area of growth. Without this knowledge, teachers will be less effective and the achievement gap will widen. Young adolescents can be a very difficult group to work with, but with the knowledge of who they are and what makes them tick, adults can see them to be a delight. Teaching young adolescents has the potential of being rewarding with the right understanding.

Adolescent Development Index

Recommendation 10—Professional Learning Contents

1David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns (Third edition). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2006, p. 1.
2David Walsh, Why Do They Act That Way? New York: Free Press, 2004, p. 44.

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