California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Adolescent Characteristics

Young adolescents are 10 to 14 years old and are in the uneven transitional period between childhood and young adulthood.

The majority of young adolescents are still concrete thinkers who need to touch, feel, and manipulate objects to understand them. Students at this age learn more by doing than by just seeing or hearing. Since much of the curriculum in middle school is symbolic and abstract, middle school educators teach abstract content through physical activity as much as possible.1

Planning and delivering effective learning experiences to middle grades students is easier when educators understand the developmental characteristics and needs of their clients—adolescents. For example, research consistently demonstrates that most adolescents learn best when they experience success and are engaged in learning about things that matter to them. Research also shows that teachers can and do influence students' perceptions about their abilities.2

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and inconsistent change that varies widely among individuals. In general, the approximate ages of 10 through 14 are characterized by:

  • Physical growth and hormonal development: bone, muscle, brain, sexual characteristics, stature.
  • A growing ability to use abstract thought.
  • Social and emotional growth, including awareness of others, sense of fairness, social consciousness, sense of purpose, personal identity (who am I?), peer bonding, separation from family, and sudden, intense emotions.

Recent brain research explains more about how adolescents learn. One recent finding shows that the human brain does not finish maturing until about age 25.3 Related studies indicate that the adolescent prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. This section of the brain is responsible for complex thinking. The prefrontal cortex allows the mind to organize, perform abstract thinking, prioritize, anticipate consequences, control impulses, and adjust behavior accordingly.

The prefrontal cortex is the largest and slowest part of the brain to develop and undergoes the most drastic changes during adolescence. Because the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, the adolescent brain relies heavily on another area called the amygdala, which is linked to both fear and pleasure responses. Researchers believe that reliance on the amygdala creates a tendency for adolescents to react on instincts. These findings suggest that adolescents do not biologically have the same abilities as adults to control impulses, anticipate consequences, and make fully reasoned decisions.4

Another hypothesis arising from brain research appears to support the call for high expectations for all adolescents. Dr. Jay Giedd is a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health and one of the pioneers in brain research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). After noting that there is exuberant growth of brain cells during the prepuberty years and then a pruning time during adolescence, Dr. Giedd and others hypothesize that stimulating brain activity during these years is critical.

The capacity to be skilled in many different areas is building up during those times. But the pruning-down phase is perhaps even more interesting, because our leading hypothesis for that is the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die. So if a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they're lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going [to] survive.5

In short, for students to learn to think critically, solve complex problems, and be successful with a wide variety of tasks, schools must challenge them to practice complex tasks and strengthen the brain’s capacity to engage in those thinking activities. In response to students who complain that they will not need algebra later in life, teachers can reply that brain research shows that solving complex algebraic problems will help students’ brains retain the cells needed to solve complex problems later in life.

Related Links

Making the Middle Grades Relevant and Engaging

Adolescent needs

1Rick Wormeli, “Misleading in the Middle: A Rebuttal to Cheri Pierson Yecke,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 63 (Summer 2006).
2Lucinda M. Wilson and Deborah A. Corpus, “
The Effects of Reward Systems on Academic Performance” (Outside Source), Middle School Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1 (September 2001), 56-60.
3Ken C. Winters,
Adolescent Brain Development and Drug Abuse (PDF; Outside Source). United Kingdom: The Mentor Foundation, 2008.
4Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability (PDF; Outside Source), Washington, D.C.: Juvenile Justice Center, American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section, January 2004.
Inside the Teenage Brain; An Interview with Jay Giedd (Outside Source). Frontline; PBS Online.
6Caught in the Middle. Sacramento: California Department of Education
, 1989.

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