The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains

The Maturing Adolescent Brain
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Edutopia, Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving : Explore how students can become stronger, more independent learners by reflecting on learning, and try out strategies that can facilitate this process. Edutopia, Brain Development and Adolescent Growth Spurts : Understand the forces at work inside a tween brain, and discover several strategies to help adolescents grow their executive-function skills. Edutopia, Putting Working Memory to Work in Learning : Explore techniques like repetition, gamification, visualization, and peer teaching to help activate and, over time, enhance the central executive function of working memory.

Edutopia, Move Your Body, Grow Your Brain : Exercise has physiological and developmental benefits for children's brains; discover ideas for putting a new spin on active learning.

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Edutopia, Meta-Collaboration: Thinking With Another : Explore four strategies for teaching students how their brains work through acts of collaboration. Edutopia, Brains in Pain Cannot Learn! Edutopia, Cracking the Code of Student Emotional Pain : Learn about three collaborative processes that will help reset expectations and rethink outcomes in the face of academic, emotional, or social challenges.

Edutopia, Strengthening Executive Function Development for Students With ADD : Explore targeted mindfulness exercises that will help children with Attention Deficit Disorder to be more aware of reactions and decisions and to practice better emotional regulation and self-control. Edutopia, Cultivating Practical Optimism : Read about an activity that can help promote an attitude about life that relies on taking realistic, positive action. For more information, also see this earlier post on brain breaks and focused-attention practices. Each brings experiences, talents, learning styles, gifts, and challenges.

We are discovering that each of us has a gift to give in the group setting. When we work in groups and collaborate to problem solve, we are very powerful. Public school teachers from every corner of America create classroom project requests, and you can give any amount to the project that inspires you. You're on track to get doubled donations and unlock a reward for the colleague who referred you. Keep up the great work! Take credit for your charitable giving! Check out your tax receipts. Find a classroom project.

Are you a public school teacher in need of funding? Sign in. Please sign in:. Edit classroom photo. These successful teachers' colleagues and administrators found them to be good collaborators who exuded warmth and sincerity in their interactions with students. Their most common concerns were insufficient time for collaboration and the challenges of managing students whose severe behavioral problems disrupted class.

Evaluations have found that the most beneficial supports to successful inclusion teachers are strategic training, support from a team of professionals, and assistance personnel in their classrooms Pryor, The principal goal for all students is to achieve their own highest level of success in supportive classrooms, taught by teachers who give them the tools to overcome obstacles and learn to their fullest potential.

Although success means different things to different people, most people agree on certain common factors as important components of success, including positive family and peer relationships, self-approval, academic success, job satisfaction, physical and mental health, financial comfort, and a sense that one's life has meaning and value. A study tracking LD students over the course of 20 years identified several specific attributes that seem to lead to such successful life outcomes.

These attributes include a positive self-concept, a proactive approach to life, a tendency to set goals, perseverance, effective support systems, and effective emotional coping strategies. A sequence of five critical conditions of brain processing helps promote some of these attributes of success. I have defined the conditions according to the brain structures and functions that neuroimaging research has demonstrated are the basis of processing raw sensory data into retained and accessible memory.

Most of the strategies I describe in this book help promote these five conditions. The strategies aim to empower students' brains to recognize which sensory data are worthy of focus; promote the passage of these data through alerting and affective filters; pattern the data into the coding of brain cell communication; and prepare the data to be successfully stored, maintained, and retrieved. The entire process turns information into the memories that become accumulated knowledge.

The following five steps describe how the sequence of these necessary conditions of learning unfolds. The brain responds to sensory input that engages the attention of sensory processing filters. After the senses register the information, it passes along to the neurons in the amygdala, where it can be moved to memory storage. At this point, the affective filter in the limbic system must be set to accept and not block incoming data. If high stress or negative emotions have overloaded the amygdala, the affective filter will block passage of the data into memory.

On the other hand, pleasurable, positively reinforcing, and intrinsically motivating stimuli unlock the gates of the limbic system to facilitate active information processing. Such information has the best chance of entering long-term memory storage banks Willis, Sensory data that pass through the brain's filters are coded into patterns that can be connected to existing neuronal pathways. Dendrites neuron extensions that conduct electrical impulses to neighboring neurons and the synaptic connections they form build neuronal pathways that cross-connect to multiple storage areas of the brain.

These neuronal pathways are activated through relational, emotional, personally relevant, learner-participatory, and experiential stimuli. The repeated activation of these new circuits by the variety of access stimuli will strengthen the new pathways, limit their susceptibility to pruning a process of eliminating inactive brain cells , and increase the efficiency of memory retrieval.

Repeated multisensory stimulation brings new memories from the brain's data storage areas to its executive function processing centers. When the brain's highest cognitive levels use the facts, processes, sequences, and routines that it has acquired as memory, all learning comes together. At this stage, synapses are firing in brain centers of critical reasoning, prioritizing, judging, and pattern analyzing.

Gray Matter The brain's emotional core is a connection of neural centers in and near the temporal lobes that together are called the limbic system. Composed of the medial temporal lobe, thalamus, hippocampus, amygdala , and parts of the frontal lobes, the limbic system is the core of emotional response, stress reactions, and fear patterns. All information enters the brain as sensory data from what we hear, see, smell, touch, or taste.

This information must pass through the reticular activating system RAS and the limbic system to be acknowledged, recognized, connected with relational memories, patterned, and ultimately stored in long-term memory. The amygdala is often referred to as the center of the limbic system because it is so responsive to threat and fear. This lower metabolic activity suggests that the information is not getting through the hyperactive amygdala's blockade and reaching the secondary processing areas Introini-Collison et al.

The RAS is another critical brain entry pathway that is affected by emotion.

Explaining the challenges of early adolescence

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A major attention-activation switching system located at the brainstem, the RAS receives input from the nerves that converge into the spinal cord from sensory receptors in the arms, legs, trunk, head, and neck. The spinal cord sends these sensory messages up through the RAS to gain entry to the brain.

The RAS sets the state of arousal of the rest of the brain and affects the ability of the higher brain sensory recognition centers to receive and respond to incoming data Eich, Gray Matter Information travels along the nerve cell's axons and dendrites as electrical impulses. However, where these sprouting arms connect to the next neuron in the circuit, the information has to travel across a gap between the end of one nerve and the beginning of the next one.

In these gaps, called synapses , there are no physical structures along which the electric impulses can travel. When crossing synapses, the information impulse must therefore be temporarily converted from an electrical one into a chemical one. Neurotransmitters are the brain proteins that are released when the electrical impulse of transmitted data arrives on one side of the synapse.

The released neurotransmitters then float across the synaptic gap, carrying the information with them to stimulate the next nerve ending in the neural circuit. Once the neurotransmitter is taken up by next nerve ending, it acts as an ignition to activate the electrical impulse once again so that the information can travel along to the next nerve cell.

Teachers can best meet these critical conditions when they have access to professional development—inservice training or conferences, for example—that teaches them about the most valid brain-based teaching strategies. By using these techniques, teachers can successfully engage all students in appropriately challenging yet supported learning. Although experienced teachers have learned how to structure lessons without having to plan every detailed component in advance, the additional complexities of teaching inclusion classes make planning a valuable procedure.

In particular, the process of figuring out which strategies will engage and accommodate students' challenges, developmental levels, interests, gifts, and physical needs will help teachers achieve authentic inclusion for all their students.


Giedd JN. Get useful news and insights right in your inbox. They begin to realize that they can keep up with new information in class if they stay attentive and don't give in to frustration the instant they feel the slightest confusion. It's not a question of intellectual maturity. The generally accepted definition of the term learning disability is a cognitive, neurological, or psychological disorder that impedes the ability to learn, especially one that interferes with a person's communicative capacities and potential to be taught effectively.

I present the following strategies as a menu of options to empower all students to become more successful. Instead of attempting to match specific strategies to each category of LD, I developed most to be of general benefit to the diversity of learning styles and abilities found in inclusion classes.

The goal of these strategies is to enable students in inclusion classrooms to enjoy the experience of school with optimism, motivation, confidence, and the desire to take on challenges while supporting one another in shared adventures in discovery and learning. Individualizing instruction is a daunting task for a single teacher in a class containing up to 35 students. Instead of thinking of the task as all or nothing, the teacher should spend some time each day considering the individualized needs and interests of one or two students.

Within a few weeks, the teacher will have a sense of which students might be responsive to a few specific strategies for one of their academic or social challenges. As time goes on, the teacher will begin to make connections between students' learning differences and the lessons and strategies that are best suited to them. Elementary teacher and Master of Education degree candidate Malana Willis observes that The dynamic process that individual students engage in as they interact with learning is happening all the time with all of our students. It will happen whether teachers notice or not.

What we don't observe, we don't respond to, and those are missed opportunities to gain insight into our students' needs, strengths, and challenges. So as not to lose opportunities to support students' efforts to reach their potential, teachers should stay attuned to the important moments in their students' days. Personal communication, April 12, As teachers glean further information from subsequent observations, assessments, student interest inventories, IEPs, and resource specialists' input, the challenges of inclusion classes will become growth opportunities for teachers and students alike.

There are several factors for teachers to consider when physically setting up their classrooms. Here are some ways to support students' individual physiologies, learning styles, and behavioral characteristics. If students' learning styles or visual limitations benefit from their drawing large graphic organizers, taking notes on big charts, using manipulatives, or using electronic devices for word processing, they may need to have access to larger work areas and electrical outlets.

Students with attention difficulties or high attraction to the natural world may be distracted by sitting near a window. Students who are adjusting to medications that cause drowsiness may need a window's fresh breeze or a front-row seat to remain alert. Front-row seating can benefit withdrawn students who feel more comfortable experiencing what feels like a one-to-one relationship with the teacher at the front of the room. Interpersonal learners who are distracted by classmates with whom they enjoy conversing maintain better academic focus if they sit at the ends of tables or rows.

Neuroimaging confirms that the least-efficient memory strategy is rote memorization of facts and skills taught in isolation Wagner et al. However, when information is embedded with personal relevance from prior experience, interests, goals, or real-world connections, the new data go beyond rote memory into long-term memory Gardner, ; Poldrack et al. Teachers should try to help all students relate to academic information through their experiences, goals, and interests. Students can find personal relevance in all kinds of events in the world around them, from sports to popular films.

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Creating or mimicking real-world experiences through demonstrations, projects, field trips, outside speakers, or student-centered discussions can instill personal relevance into academic content areas and show students why the information is, or could be, personally important to them. However teachers do it, making material authentically meaningful to each learner is crucial. If students can't relate to the new material, their neural networks will be less able to process it and retain it as memory, leading to frustration and discouraging classroom experiences.

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To maximize personal relevance, teachers should consider the following tools and tactics. Many learners benefit from learning from real objects and experiences. When possible, teachers should include realia, objects of interest, and interactive experiences in unit introductions. Children love hearing stories. Their favorites tend to contain tension and challenge and feature a protagonist who, with the support of older family members, magic, or superpowers, perseveres and succeeds in overcoming adversity and achieving goals.

Narrative lessons. Lessons that present material in story or journalistic form make the same connections as stories do. Then they are ready for the more expository material. Educators should never forget that they themselves are personally relevant to students. Teachers are probably the adults with whom elementary school students spend the most focused time every day. Even at the middle and high school levels, teachers are some of the most important people in students' lives.

All parents who hear their children's daily stories about what this or that teacher did or said know how relevant teachers are. When teachers remain passionate about what they teach, students will remain motivated and engaged. If teachers have taught the material dozens of times before and reached the point of boredom, they should punch up the lessons by bringing in connections to their own interests or current world events.

Teachers' enthusiasm will shape the emotional climate and interest level of their students. It has been said that when we relieve students of their struggles, we rob them of opportunities to build self-confidence, along with knowledge. But when we value mistakes as learning opportunities and allow students to experience puzzlement, learning can increase. Imagine molecularly altering an orange by freezing it in liquid nitrogen.

Now imagine dropping the orange on the floor and watching as it shatters into a dozen pieces. In a classroom, this demonstration would be beyond the realm of students' prior experience or understanding of the world. The phenomenon doesn't fit their understanding of the way things work. Phenomena like this one lead to a brain state of disequilibrium , and the curiosity it prompts can be a powerful motivator for learning. When students are aroused by this curiosity, they will be on the lookout for information that can help them solve problems or understand the demonstrations that have piqued their interest.

During this state of disequilibrium, the amygdala is stimulated although not overly so , so it is able to transmit data efficiently from the sensory response centers to the patterning and memory regions of the brain. When teachers foster disequilibrium-prompted curiosity, they will achieve the ideal brain state to engage the interest and focus of all students in inclusion classes. The objective of this strategy is to provide experiences and develop student goals based on individualized realistic challenge , which connects students to knowledge by communicating to them high expectations while confirming that they have the capacity to reach these goals.

Teachers can support this kind of challenge with clearly structured goals, frequent feedback, and positive intrinsic reinforcement, all geared to students' individual intelligences and learning styles. Students develop confidence when they know that they will have access to the tools and support they need to reach the expectations set for them.

Challenging students at reasonable, appropriate levels is one of the most powerful strategies for success, but teachers must carefully monitor the level of challenge. If goals do not provide sufficient challenge to engage students, or if the challenge exceeds students' levels of capability, frustration replaces motivation.

A six-piece wooden puzzle would be as exasperating for an average 3rd grader as a piece puzzle. Teachers should also keep in mind that LD students as well as gifted learners need to be challenged. Without reasonable challenge, LD students are at risk for learned helplessness, dependency, and feelings of inadequacy. A study examining what makes computer games so captivating found that the key element is variable challenge based on player ability.

The most popular computer games in the study took players through increasingly challenging levels as they became more and more skillful. As players' skill improved, the next challenge would stimulate new mastery to just the right extent that the player could succeed with practice and persistence Malone, Extending that kind of incremental, responsive challenge in the classroom is motivating and imparts a sense of accomplishment. Teachers must demonstrate to all students in inclusion classes that success is measured not only by standardized tests and grades, but also by the ability to set and reach appropriately challenging goals.

Planning these personalized goals is time-consuming, but teachers' efforts will be rewarded by students' improved confidence, attitudes and behavior, and academic achievement. When students participate in setting reasonably challenging goals, they are also practicing the executive functions of planning, time management, and prioritization.

They not only feel good but also have greater potential to reach their goals. The goal-setting process also has the brain benefit of lowering students' affective filters and stimulating the dopamine reward system: the brain's release of the pleasure chemical dopamine during naturally rewarding experiences. Students are more willing to invest their time and energy in an area of study when they collaborate on setting goals that lead them in the right direction. When those goals are carefully planned to incorporate authentic use of the standards' required academic knowledge, students will be more engaged in the learning because it will help them reach their goals.


Their increased investment in the outcome will also stimulate their interest in the tools teachers have to offer them. As students experience the connection between practice and progress in achieving their goals, they will appreciate their teachers for having provided them with the keys that unlock the doors to their aspirations. Goal planners—scaffolding tools that teachers can call such fun names as treasure charts, wizard plans , or trip planners —can help empower students in setting and achieving their individualized goals.

After teacher modeling and practice, students can reach varying levels of independence in creating their goal planners. Some students will develop their own wizard plans, and others will need preprinted treasure charts with spaces to write below column headings. These headings can also vary, but in general they will incorporate subject, activity, time allotted, predicted goal, and achievement. Before the class starts on an activity, students predict how much of the activity they will be able to complete in the time allotted.

After the activity, students complete the chart by recording the amount of work they actually completed. Students may need teacher guidance when they first begin to make predictions, but as they progress they will learn how to predict more accurately. Charting their predictions and outcomes on separate pages once a week or so can provide additional useful feedback on their long-term progress. As students review their weekly progress charts, teachers should encourage them to make a note of particularly successful strategies.

When students reach or exceed their goals, they set new short- and long-term goals. If they find they are now completing all vocabulary sentences in the allotted time, for example, they may choose to add one of the bonus words, conduct a self- or partner review of previous vocabulary words, or create a puzzle or story using the vocabulary words.

Why Teenage Brains Are So Hard to Understand

Students who fail to reach their goals may need support to avoid falling into frustrated, self-defeating behaviors. These temporary setbacks can be opportunities for students to practice recognizing what strategies might have helped them succeed. When students build a backlog of strategies that work for them, these setbacks will become learning experiences.

Writing down their plans will help them remember these strategies the next time they return to the subject or activity. Teachers can build choice into the classroom community in a manner that does not separate students based on intellect or ability. When it is time to do independent classwork, for example, students can choose which assigned work to do first.

Having some students start their math homework while others conduct research for their reports combines choice with student activity variation. During this choice time, students will be doing work that needs varying amounts of teacher support.

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When more students are working at their independent levels or in cooperative groups, teachers have time to work with a few students who need more assistance, whether remedial or advanced. These classroom patterns become more effective as they become routine. Most in-depth investigations and reports in history, language arts, or general science can follow curriculum guidelines and still be approached and presented in a variety of ways.

Teachers may allow students to demonstrate their understanding through a broad array of projects, such as writing a report, making a board game or puzzle, or creating a book that includes questions and answers for students several grades below. A note of caution: Problems can arise when choice takes precedence over learning objectives—for example, if certain students always choose to design book covers for their literature projects. These students are not striving for the challenge component of reasonable challenge.

They are not extending their knowledge if they repeatedly choose the easiest or fastest activity. To avoid these situations, teachers should not give students responsibility for making all choices. Teachers who are comfortably familiar with their students' learning levels can provide choices that offer all students equal opportunities to learn the required material at appropriately challenging levels and make sure that all students are progressing and not stagnating.

Why Teenage Brains Are So Hard to Understand | Time

Partial participation is a strategy that enables all students to follow a common curriculum at their own levels. This adaptation of the curriculum incorporates individual goals with appropriate levels of differentiated challenge within the same assignments that peers without LD perform.

The assignments are age- and interest-appropriate but geared to each individual's level of ability at that time. For example, students whose faulty memory tracking slows their mastery of the multiplication tables may need to use calculators temporarily. Other students may initially need to write their notes about the new topic on outlines that are already partially filled in. This strategy keeps students motivated because they are stimulated by suitable challenge while working within their own comfort zones.

This continual assessment creates opportunities for discovery learning within each student's zone of proximal development —the gap between the student's current or actual level of development and his or her emerging or potential level of development—while avoiding the frustration or resentment that activates the information-blocking power of the affective filter Routman, Through practice and more familiarity with the new topic, students will gradually need less scaffolding, but in the meantime, they will not be shut out from the lesson.

Academic priming , or lesson previewing, can help students with disabilities prepare for the following day's lesson in advance, with an aide or with parents at home. For example, students who are easily confused early in a math lesson and become too frustrated to continue focusing will be more comfortable and confident if they preview the lesson's basics before class. Teachers can show parents how to help with this task and then gradually have students preview the material on their own. Usually after a few weeks, this process builds enough confidence that the cycle of early frustration breaks and students no longer need the preview.

They begin to realize that they can keep up with new information in class if they stay attentive and don't give in to frustration the instant they feel the slightest confusion. It may also help lower students' affective filters to know that when a new subject is introduced, their classmates are experiencing similar ups and downs in comprehension. Also, as students learn that their teacher will reexplain the concept to suit multiple learning styles, they will become less stressed when they don't understand something immediately. They will learn to trust that within a few minutes the teacher will present the information in a way they can access it.

Students get bombarded with an awful lot of information and can easily feel overwhelmed. One way to help all students increase the amount of information they retain from their hours in the classroom is to have them keep personal learning logs. Learning logs allow students to choose how they wish to connect to the information, although students are still accountable for including the important nuggets from each lesson.

For each new class or topic during the day, depending on student age and ability, students make new entries in their logs. Students can list, sketch, chart, or diagram three to five main points, new items they learned, or facts that were emphasized during the class. The ideal time to complete this summary activity is immediately after the lesson. The learning log can be used for all subjects and as an addendum to regular notes and assignments. Because students have choice in how they log their new learning, the material becomes more personally meaningful.

Using their preferred learning styles to record the material prompts students' most receptive brain centers when they review their logs. If certain topics interest them, they can investigate those outside class and add information to the logs. Adding material of personal interest to them will increase their connections to the lessons and reinforce their relational memories.