California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Adolescent Development

Recommendation 9—Leadership

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

With a better understanding of young adolescents, school leaders are better able to develop a school climate suitable for positive development. In this type of climate, students can succeed academically as well as socially, emotionally, and physically. Schools are about learning, and the whole child needs to be considered as part of that learning process.

Rigor: Because adolescence is a time of brain growth, leaders need to monitor the curriculum to know that students are challenged and given as many opportunities as possible to be exposed to new experiences. Even though middle grades students appear to be preoccupied with their social life, this period is an important time to be using higher-order thinking skills.

Instruction, Assessment, and Intervention: The place where most learning takes place is in the classroom. Young adolescents are making major growth steps in cognitive development. They are going from a child’s concrete way of thinking to abstract thinking as an adult. The brain growth is opening up areas for development, such as problem solving, reasoning, and organization. It is a time in which young adolescents can easily learn from experience new ideas, knowledge, and skills. School leaders need to enrich the classroom environment with teaching aids that will spark the young adolescent’s curiosity and interest. Leaders also need to know that the teachers are aware of how the brain learns and to use techniques that will keep a young adolescent interested in the subject matter.

Time: Leaders need to be aware that as young adolescents get further and further into puberty, their biological clock will shift. Some middle grades student will not be tired until late and then want to sleep in longer in the morning. As this practice conflicts with school hours, those students will suffer from lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation has become a topic of concern for psychologists. Leaders also need to be aware how much time it takes the brain to learn something. Even though there appears not to be enough time to cover the curriculum, young adolescents must have time for repetition so that the information goes into long-term memory.

Relevance: As young adolescents come out of the fog of childhood, they realize that there is a big world out there and they are curious about it. They want to know how they are going to fit into this adult world. School leaders need to know that by making the lessons being taught relevant to the real world, students are more likely to be motivated to learn. They are also more likely to be motivated to learn if the subject matter is relevant, which is to say, has meaning. Leaders need to challenge teachers to present the material so that it connects to past experiences for the school’s diverse population. Leaders need to be aware of how vast those differences are in the school population and to promote multicultural awareness among staff members so that they can make the school experiences more relevant to students’ interest.

Relationship: Young adolescents are not just big elementary students. They are unique because of the rapid changes taking place throughout their minds and bodies. However, nurturing and caring for middle grades students is still very important. Leaders need to create a caring culture in the school; without it the student will be less motivated to do well academically. Even though young adolescents appear to be very attached to their peers, they do want to be accepted by adults. They need guidance, limits, and role models, especially at this age. Because of the brain development taking place, young adolescents tend to think emotionally and less with reason. They tend to be impulsive and less rational. Leaders need to ensure that students have at least one adult with whom they have a positive relationship.

Transition: For many young adolescents, they are making the transition from a feeder school to a middle grades school. Whether they stay at the same school or move to a middle school, they are all making the transition from childhood to adulthood. The challenge for adults is that the students are all making that transition at different times. Some are maturing early, and some mature late. This maturation process has a profound effect on young adolescents. They can become self-conscious because as they are trying to blend in, they may be standing out as being “too mature” or very immature. Leaders need to be aware that each young adolescent is waging his or her own battle as their bodies mature by fits and starts. Leaders who provide support programs for this fragile group make this transition period a much smoother one. Additionally, leaders can provide health and sciences classes to explain the physical changes that are happening.

Access: School leaders need to realize that the students at a middle grades school are not a collective group as in elementary or high school. Here, one size does not fit all. Leaders need to ensure that each student, no matter what stage of development he or she is in, has access to challenging curriculum in exciting classes. The leader needs to offer as many interesting core classes, electives, clubs, and sports activities as possible because this is the window of opportunity to give students a chance of fulfilling potential skills and abilities. Leaders need to provide young adolescents with experiences that give them an independent voice to build confidence and motivation.

This is also an important time for leaders to guide staff members in developing cultural and socioeconomic sensitivity to student and family issues that might interfere with—or enhance—learning. For example, by building multicultural awareness into the school climate and classroom lessons, middle grades leaders can help to ensure that students feel valued and connected to the school community.

Safety, Resilience, and Heath: School leaders need to be aware that young adolescents are at risk and vulnerable to negative influences more than at any other age. The part of the brain that is least developed is the part that enables the person to plan, reason, anticipate consequences, make sound decisions, and put the brakes on impulsive behavior. The part that is most developed is the body. Young adolescents are going through puberty five years earlier than they did in the last century. Unique to this age is a more fully developed body with the least mature brain. Leaders can create a school climate so that the school is a safe haven and not a place that creates stress and anxiety.

Similarly, leaders can guide staff members in learning about and developing the positive assets that help students succeed in school and in life. By focusing on youth development during staff meetings, members of the school’s professional learning communities can help students develop the assets that lead to healthy, caring, and responsible behaviors.

Building resiliency for those students who are at risk can be accomplished by building relationships of acceptance. Young adolescents are surprised, frightened, or confused about the transition to adulthood. Leaders can ensure that all staff members of a school accept responsibility for having a stabilizing effect as hormones surge through their students’ brains. Caring, supportive programs that provide boundaries and activities to tap into their energy are needed.

Leadership: School leaders can build trust, promote intellectual safety, and help students deal with anger fear, hurt, and tension.1 Leaders are great role models for young adolescents. Interacting with students on a daily basis and personally rewarding them for good deeds is part of creating a positive climate.

In addition, leaders can guide teaching teams in designing and implementing a wide variety of programs that will help students develop their own leadership potential. See Recommendation 9 section Student leadership for more detail.

Professional Learning: The greatest gift a school leader can give to educators is a set of tools to perfect the art and science of teaching. Educators need to know how the brain learns so that teaching can be effective. To be successful at teaching, middle grades educators need to know how young adolescents learn. Teachers need to know how students think and feel, and why they act the way they do. Young adolescents are a unique group of children. It is very difficult to walk into a middle grades classroom without knowing how to reach and teach young adolescents. Leaders need to equip teachers with the understanding needed for this age group so that teachers can be successful. Yes, young adolescent can be “squirrelly,” but they are a fun group. Being able to make a difference by setting them on the right path to success in high school and beyond is very rewarding.

Accountability: For teachers to be accountable for results, they must hold their students accountable to certain norms and rules that are consistent across the school. Leaders help to ensure that the structure, routine, and consistently applied rules bring order to the school climate and help young adolescents feel secure. Leaders hold all staff members are accountable for the success of each student.

Partnerships: Middle grades leaders often play the lead role in providing real-world experiences through partnerships with the community. Then partnerships can engage students who would not otherwise be motivated and help young adolescents feel that they are part of the adult world. Students are seeking to identify with adults, and partners can be role models for them. Giving students responsibilities beyond classroom academics can build self-esteem, confidence, and competency.

Adolescent Development Index

Recommendation 9—Leadership Contents

1Raleigh Philp, Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007, p. 99.

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