Have you ever thought about what goes on inside the brain of a typical middle school student?
We’ve all been there. Recall the fleeting moments of anxiety before tackling a challenging assignment; the joy of the varsity team going to state finals; the sadness of losing a cherished pet — all of these riveting experiences overlap to create an emotional roller-coaster ride. That turbulence may be a challenge for educators who are privy only to behaviors that show up in the classroom.
The 2015 Pixar animated film “Inside Out” revealed the internal emotional workings of 11-year-old Riley’s mind. However, we are left to wonder about an equally important part of Riley’s brain, still under construction: cognition. For educators tasked with helping students reach specific learning milestones, understanding how learning works in their brains can help set expectations.
Judy Willis, M.D., is a neurologist-turned-middle school teacher who applies her knowledge about adolescent brain development in the classroom. Dr. Willis made the unlikely transition from clinic to classroom when she saw too many children coming into her medical practice for inattention, OCD, disruptive behaviors, and ADHD.
Her curiosity about the surge in medical diagnoses for what didn’t seem to be medical problems inspired her to visit middle school classrooms where she did indeed see kids fidgeting, not paying attention, and acting out. But her prescription wasn’t a medical treatment. She determined this behavior showed a normal range of cognitive development for tweens between the ages of 9 and 13. She came to recognize a disconnect between the way tweens were being taught—by lecture; by sitting quietly in rows, expected to listen to teachers for long stretches; by filling out worksheets—and how their brains work best.
Dr. Willis observed that this kind of classroom was actually increasing stress levels for these kids.
“There’s a part of the brain, a switching station of the amygdala that when there’s stress building up instead of letting the information get up to the highest brain and behavior monitoring come from that, the brain goes on to automatic pilot in response to the stress state,” she said.
“I know the brain [also] goes into a state of stress from boredom,” Dr. Willis said in an Edutopia interview. But was this how teaching and learning worked optimally for this age group?
She thought no. To test her hypothesis, Dr. Willis decided to become a teacher and has since taught second, fifth, and seventh grades, applying what she knows about brain development to the classroom.
“I found that just making a few easy changes brought the kids back into a state of voluntary good behavior, and they learned easily,” she reported. “Their mindsets changed.”
What’s Going On in There?
While it is commonly understood that children’s brains go through a rapid period of development in infancy and early childhood, what’s less widely known is that adolescence sets the stage for another big neural growth spurt. In this second developmental stage—beginning in early adolescence and continuing into the mid-twenties—the brain’s prefrontal cortex (or PFC) shows the greatest activation on the road to maturation.
The PFC is primarily responsible for the regulatory function of the brain—building the capacity to organize, switch fluidly between tasks, problem solve, and engage in abstract thought and higher reasoning skills. The emotional brain—depicted in Inside Out—is part of the limbic system, an evolutionarily older part of the brain’s functioning. Inside the limbic brain is the amygdala, the small almond-shaped organ in the center of the brain that governs fear, anxiety, and stress.
Dr. Willis likens the relationship between the limbic system and the PFC to the function of a railroad switching station. Fear, anger, sadness, and other states may be caused by by anything from problems at home, to lack of sleep, to a problem with a friend, to boredom. Such feelings can trigger a shut down of higher cognitive processing. If the amygdala is highly activated, it switches off the capacity for higher thought and learning, self-management, and organization—the executive functions governed by the prefrontal cortex.
“When you are not stressed by negative emotions, you can control what information makes it into your brain,” said Dr. Willis in an interview with ASCD. “When your stress levels are down and your interest is high, the most valuable information tends to pass into your thinking brain. If you can turn things around to become calm and focused, your amygdala will ‘decide’ to send new information to your prefrontal cortex. ”
Teaching Teens to Become their Brain’s Boss
In those times when the limbic brain is switched off, adolescence offers a unique opportunity to learn new things. Then, as learning is reinforced through practice and application, these connections become stronger.
There’s also a use-it-or-lose-it component to teen brain development. The brain’s nerve cell networks—a.k.a., neural pathways—go through a flowering and pruning stage in adolescence based on where attention is focused. A focus on playing a musical instrument, for instance, strengthens neural pathways. Conversely, failing an important test may send a message reinforcing negative self-beliefs.
The implications for school learning are important. Dr. Willis notes that teachers are uniquely qualified to offer practices and model behaviors that serve to strengthen those neural pathways for executive function.
Here are a few of her suggestions to promote healthy organizational practices and nurture more brain maturation:
In some ways, teens have a high sense of motivation for organizing things. Teachers might start a discussion that allows students to focus on their existing organizational abilities.
What systems have they developed, independently or by emulating others, to keep their lives organized? Do they:
- Organize schoolwork by using a different spiral or folder for each subject matter?
- Sort out roles and rules when organizing group projects?
- Develop good work habits to establish homework versus screen and social time?
You may also suggest they observe existing systems of organization—and what difference these make in their lives.
- How are books arranged in a library or bookstore?
- How do search engines produce results based on keywords?
- How is the school day organized?
By reinforcing awareness of their own organization efforts, they gain the means to strengthen these skills and transfer them to other uses. Dr. Willis offers these six strategies:
- Set the Tone for Discussion
As the leader of the classroom, it is your behavior that sets the tone for your students. A calm teacher, open to listening, and investigating the “why and how” of a student’s behavior (privately, and in a way that doesn’t further escalate disruption), is uniquely able to defuse unruly behavior—or wake up a student who may seem disengaged or bored.
- Give Clear Instructions
Know your students. Even when teachers are sure they have given clear directions on an assignment, or repeated the same thing several times, some students may still not “get it.” Understanding that students have different learning styles may help. Does it help to write directions on the board while you say them aloud?
- Compartmentalize Classroom Activities
“Chunking” information, or steps in a process, is a key brain-smart strategy. When becoming organized appears to be overwhelming students, break the activity into small pieces. Doing this along with students—and selecting one student to follow along step-by-step to model the process—helps all the students visualize what happens in completing each step along the way.
- Assess student knowledge
Invite students who you see are struggling to repeat instructions back to you in their own words.
- Gradually release responsibility
If the “chunking” strategy is effective, you may phase out giving step-by-step direction, and encourage students to take more responsibility in determining the steps for themselves.
- Provide Good Feedback
When students are handling more of the organizational skills on their own, make sure to acknowledge that they are showing improvement. This is the best way to reinforce and strengthen the new neural connections that come with learning new behaviors—or improving existing ones.
And since feedback is a two-way street, invite them to offer constructive suggestions on how you might support their continued efforts.
It’s good to keep in mind that adolescence—and the brain refurbishing that goes with it—is a normal part of growing up. With the right strategies and a little patience, educators have an opportunity to set their students’ minds on the right course to maximize learning opportunities.
That’s a goal we can all support.
Robin Stevens Payes is a Maryland-based science writer, coach and consultant in social marketing specializing in health, science and education. She’s the author of the teen time travel adventure series, Edge of Yesterday.