by Nicole Taylor, Reagan MacDonald, Radu Mavrodin, Stephanie McPherson & Hiba Syeda
Students have many decisions to make throughout a day, from the clothes they wear to how they can fit in with their peers or whether they should participate in illegal activities. Since the development of a human brain occurs from back to front, the region responsible for controlling impulsive behaviour (frontal lobes) and analyzing long-term consequence has been shown to develop up to the age of 30. As such, it is important to recognize that teen brains are in constant development and as educators, we must enforce risk management strategies. Important issues to consider when teaching teens include rewards and motivation, decision making and self-control, trauma and effects, and building of the teen brain.
Key Areas of Concern
Rewards and Motivation
Many educators are still using extrinsic reward systems such as points for good behaviour. These reward systems, though, can actually have a negative impact on teen behaviour. Since the reward and impulsivity areas of the brain mature faster than the prefrontal cortex, extrinsic reward systems promote the modelling of behaviours solely for extrinsic motivation. Research has shown that tangible rewards (extrinsic) undermine intrinsic motivation. As such, it is suggested that reward systems should be removed completely from schools and an emphasis on facilitating intrinsic motivation should be the primary focus.
Decision Making and Self Control
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking logically and restraining impulsive decisions, this part of your brain matures slower than the rest, therefore the reason why adolescents tend to make poor decisions. As an adolescent, they are at a greater risk for death because of their poor decisions, brain maturity is still developing until around the age of 23 and even later for males. Teens are being exposed to sensation-driven risks that affect their ability to think rationally when their brains aren’t fully developed yet. The decisions made by this age group are usually impulsive and not logical due to the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex.
Trauma and Effects
Adolescent brains are more sensitive to the effects of stress which can greatly impact how teens deal with and manage the different stressful factors in their life. This sensitivity can become more problematic in teens when they have experienced and suffered from “chronic stressors” like “abuse or trauma, in childhood.” (Griffin, 2017) When this sensitivity continues to manifest, the teen’s neurological system is affected as it makes it harder for the teen to maintain cognitive control. That, in turn, makes it harder for the teen to stabilize their emotions and behaviours.
A teen affected by trauma have more difficulty managing their emotions and dealing with stress in comparison to a non-traumatized brain. When constantly bombarded with traumatic and stressful situations, teens may fail to learn how to self-sooth and or regulate their emotions (Gunn, 2018). This can lead to being withdrawn from people in their lives, overreacting to minor irritations, disturbed sleeping patterns and are prone to being rebellious (State of Victoria, 2015).
Psychological trauma sets into motion several processes throughout the brain and body that make the body ready to respond to danger (Finch, 2018). When the primary function of a child’s brain is to protect itself and process fear, normal brain development is affected. Experiencing traumatic events directly impairs the ability to learn, both immediately after the event and over time (Gunn, 2018).
Building the Teen Brain
For adolescent students, brain development is at a vulnerable stage. The way students spend their time is a critical piece to their neurological development. The adolescent brain is prone to seek out sensations, often involving risks. For example, the intake of drugs and alcohol have current effects on the teen brain and body, but can also have lasting damages. It is important at this stage to encourage healthy suggestions.
Practical Suggestions for Educators
Shifting to Intrinsic Motivation
Examples of facilitating intrinsic motivation include developing interesting and engaging activities with the help of students, providing choices to the students regarding various aspects of the classroom environment thereby encouraging autonomy, and ensuring that tasks are optimally challenging (i.e., not too easy and not too difficult).
Good Decision Making Within The Classroom
With all the decisions that adolescents make in a day, it is important that educators assist students in making positive decisions. The educator will get to decide the choices, so whatever decision the teen makes, it is pre-approved by the educator to benefit them. This allows for the student to feel like they have the power of what they are doing. This can be as simple as giving students the opportunity to choose what day a test is on, what assignments to work on during class, or how they are going to present information. They need to be taught how to weigh the pros and cons of each option, deciding what will work best for them. Creating positive choices will then correlate into the world outside of the classroom in helping them to take time to come to a decision and to chose the one that will benefit them the most.
Helping Students Impacted by Trauma
Students need to have an environment where they feel safe, and oftentimes a student who is suffering from traumatic experiences is unable to reassure themselves of their own safety. They go into “survival mode” where they are unable to truly enjoy their experiences at school as they are often riddled with anxiety and stress. These are a couple of ways that teachers can help students who have experienced trauma (adapted from Minero, E. 2018).
- Connect with the student and let them confide in you as it can help them process their own emotions and make them feel better knowing that someone is there for them.
- Create a strategy that helps reduce stress for the student but also reduces secondary stress for the teacher.
- Teachers need to keep a clear boundary between work and home in order to avoid getting overwhelmed and feeling like they are unable to help the student. Furthermore, they should realize that they can only provide so much help, that sometimes there are situations that are outside their control or realm of knowledge, and that social workers or the police do need to get involved and that as a Teacher they did the best they could.
Reinforcing Healthy Brain Development
In the school community, it is important to make students aware of the teen brain, as well as reinforce a positive and supportive environment. In the classroom, encouraging routines, critical thinking, and positive behaviour and skills allows for the development of a healthy brain. The development of the teenage brain is not limited to education. At home, emphasizing sleeping routines and providing emotional support to adolescents, reinforces the development of a healthy brain.
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Deci, E. & Koester, R. & Ryan, R. (2001), Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again
Finch, S. (2018). How does Trauma Affect Memory
Griffin, A. (2017). Adolescent Neurological Development and Implications for Health and
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Healthy Promotion Agency (2018), Advice for Parent and Caregivers
Gunn, J. (2018). This is a Student’s Brain on Trauma
Minero, E. (2018). When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too | Edutopia.
Raising Children Network (2018), Brain Development: Teenagers
Spano, S (2003), Adolescent Brain Development
Statistics Canada (2018), A Portrait of Canadian Youth
State of Victoria. (2015), Trauma and Teeneagers – Common reactions
Teen Mental Health (2018), The Teen Brain
The Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation (2018), Adolescent Brain Development