Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain by Charles Debelak

Harnessing the Learning Potential of the adolescent brain

International Future Problem Solving qualifier and Co-Founder of Birchwood, Helen Debelak

A View from History and Research:  Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain

It is widely accepted that parenting adolescents in America is a challenge. These young adults, dealing with changes in their body, seeking to find their personal identity, and attempting to locate their place among peers, can be challenging for parents. Adolescents are often withdrawn, more interested in social media and their peer groups than the family, and filled with enough sass to stir ire in any mom or dad.

But this negative perception has inadvertently clouded an important truth about the adolescent. In fact, the adolescent years are an incredible time to shape their brains and positively affect future life outcomes. Laurence Steinberg, neuroscientist at Temple University has spent his entire career studying how the adolescent brain develops. (In an earlier blog, I shared his findings from a ten-year research project that identified “engagement” as the most important factor for academic achievement.)

While recognizing the social and emotional challenges adolescents face, Steinberg notes that the brain is still developing during adolescence; it has incredible plasticity. It’s akin to the first five years of life, when a child’s brain is growing and developing new pathways all the time in response to experiences. Steinberg has concluded that adolescence is a stage of life when children can thrive and flourish. But parents and educators need to take advantage of the opportunity.

Steinberg contends that there is a fundamental disconnect between the popular characterizations of adolescents and what’s really going on in their brains. Adult brains are somewhat plastic as well — otherwise they wouldn’t be able to learn new things — but “brain plasticity in adulthood involves minor changes to existing circuits, not the wholesale development of new ones or the elimination of others,” Steinberg said. Adolescence is the last time in a person’s life that the brain can be so dramatically overhauled.

Steinberg’s research has given words and scientific rationale to what we at Birchwood have observed for years. The adolescent’s capacity for learning is astounding, that is, if you give them the chance to excel. My wife and I have stood amazed at the interest, drive and energy of adolescent students. It is not uncommon at Birchwood that after a rigorous homework load, middle school students also take on extensive research projects in National History Day, participate in demanding futuristic studies that accompany the Future Problem Solving program, dedicate their Saturday mornings to study for MATHCOUNTS competitions, or further their science research from an in-house science project to compete in state and national science contests.

I don’t know how many times parents of these flourishing middle schoolers would tell me, “She is doing too much. She is working all the time. I am worried. How will this kind of work affect her?”

At these times, I have learned to ask a question in return, “Does she appear pressured? Is she unhappy due to the work load?” Without exception, parents have responded, albeit reluctantly and sometimes sheepishly, “Well, no they are not pressured, and yes, they do enjoy it.” I just smile and shrug my shoulders.

Steinberg’s research gives credence to our observations. In fact, now I have learned to respond to doubting parents, “That’s just the way the adolescent’s brain is wired. They crave opportunity and growth at this time in their life. Isn’t it far better that they invest their boundless time and energy in growing the power of their brain rather than squandering it?”

Other Blogs on a View from Research and History:

The Need for Engagement by Charles Debelak

William James on Habit and Character by Charles Debelak

Leave a Comment