A new article sheds light on why adolescence is such a rocky—and critical—time for learning.
Maybe it’s nerdy, but we love brains.
Especially squishy, mile-a-minute, highly-malleable adolescent brains. They’re swimming in potential, managing warring impulses, and working so hard to connect all the new information they take in daily.
And as we discover more about how adolescent brains learn and mature, we can develop new approaches and strategies for educators to optimize learning for their teenage students.
With this in mind (haha), we recently chatted with two members of our research team, Dr. Martha Burns, Director of Neuroscience Education, Literacy, and Northwestern University professor, and Logan De Ley, Senior Cognitive Scientist, about “The Adolescent Brain: Neurocognitive Risks and Educational Opportunities,” a new article they published in the journal CPQ Neurology and Psychology.
Join us as we chat about a range of topics, from how to help teenagers self-regulate to recent studies showing how COVID-era isolation impacted teenagers’ cognitive development and what we, as educators, can do to help.
Can you explain to someone who isn’t a neuroscientist why adolescence is what you call “a second sensitive period of brain development?”
Dr. Burns: Sure. The first stage of sensitive brain development is birth to five. Everyone knows that infants and toddlers are developing at a staggering rate, cognitively and physically. But then there’s adolescence. The simplest reason adolescence is such a sensitive period of brain development is, well, hormones!
The brain is run by chemicals that are, in part, driven by hormonal releases, so when the hormones change, so does the brain. And we now understand that these releases make the brain more flexible, or to use the scientific term, plastic. And because the adolescent brain has, in a sense, switched back on, we have an opportunity as educators to strengthen brain structures that may not have been adequately built for what we want adolescents to do, which is read or do math problems or function with self-regulation.
In your article, you mention two neurological systems being particularly important during adolescence. Can you explain these two systems and how they work together or influence each other?
Dr. Burns: In adolescence, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex are highly active and always competing with each other.
Mr. De Ley: That’s right. During adolescence, the limbic system is going full force. And that’s why there’s an increased proclivity towards risk-taking, heightened reward motivation, and social affective inclinations. That’s a fancy way of saying that adolescents are really interested in their peers, especially whatever gender(s) they’re attracted to. Peer approval becomes extremely important, and whether that approval comes from winning a race, cracking a joke, or getting a date, seeking this approval—and being so motivated by it—makes it hard for a lot of adolescents to stay focused on school work or even do hobbies that require sustained attention. Biologically they would get a much more potent reward from doing something that would result in instant peer validation, like going to a party or racing their car down the street.
At the same time, they have to develop all these frontal lobe abilities, which we often refer to as executive functions, to tamp down those impulses or at least channel them toward doing well in school.
Dr. Burns: And everyone who works with adolescents knows about the behaviors related to the limbic system: the risk-taking, the reward-seeking, the lack of attention to anyone not in their peer group. What they don’t always know is the potential that comes with all that. Because the prefrontal cortex can and often does override the limbic system, and adolescents can self-regulate. That’s why we titled our article “Risks and Opportunities.” Because they’re both there.
So, are opportunities for adolescent brain building most potent when the prefrontal cortex wins out over or channels the limbic system?
Dr. Burns: Exactly. When that override happens, and a student is rewarded—by a teacher, a caregiver, whoever—this builds a powerful pathway in the brain, and it's more likely that the teenager will keep self-regulating.
And in early adolescence, the “maturation gap,” as it's called, which is the developmental gap between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, means that kids often have a harder time paying attention or staying on task, but as adolescence continues, the prefrontal cortex usually starts to exhibit more control. And that’s where something like Fast ForWord® can be really beneficial because it teaches those executive functions that help with self-regulation.
Speaking of executive function, there has been an explosion of articles lately about its importance in improving learning outcomes. Why is executive function so crucial to learning?
Dr. Burns: Executive function is the key to everything. And it refers to cognitively taxing skills such as attention, working memory, organization, and self-monitoring, to name just a few. If students don’t have these foundational capabilities, reading, learning, and succeeding in school will be hard. And again, when the prefrontal cortex revs up and tries to override the limbic system, it's a key time to teach or strengthen executive functions. It’s such a critical thing for educators to work into their teaching practices. Students need strong executive functions for success in all subjects and their lives outside school.
Mr. De Ley: I think from a teacher’s perspective, the executive function that’s most important for learning and classroom management is attention. I mean, if students can’t pay attention, how are they learning?
Dr. Burns: That’s true! Getting a room full of 32 adolescents to pay attention to you is hard. It’s hard to get one to pay attention to you!
Mr. De Ley: And then, after attention is working memory. Once students have learned how to pay attention, if what they’re taking in doesn’t go to their working memories, where they can retrieve it and then commit it to long-term memory, they’re not learning.
And a third essential executive function is cognitive flexibility. Can students engage with a task? Pull out of that task? Switch to something else when they need to? So, you can see why executive function has been such an important idea over the last decade–it impacts so many areas of learning.
While on the topic of popular ideas in education, can you make any predictions about future trends?
Dr. Burns: I don’t know if I’d call this a trend, but Logan and I have been doing a lot of work with Theory of Mind, which looks at how students learn to consider the thoughts of others and exhibit empathy. It involves more of your brain than your prefrontal lobe, and it’s not regulatory, but it’s crucial for social functioning, and it’s built, in part, through stories and storytelling and, eventually, literature. So I think we’re about to see more scholarship on literacy as a driver of understanding the perspective of others.
There are neurological and anthropological reasons we evolved to be storytellers, right? Math is about problem-solving, so it’s really good for building reasoning skills and some executive function components like organization and sequencing, but there’s this other component of our brains that enables us to function in society. And adolescents are at a unique cognitive advantage when it comes to building empathy, partially because of their neural plasticity but also because of the importance of their peer groups. At first, they often only consider the needs and perspectives of themselves and their group of friends, but they can learn, often through storytelling, to consider the views of other individuals and groups.
Theory of Mind is exciting because it shows how important education is, not just in helping kids mature and self-regulate but also in becoming compassionate members of society. Many brain studies have shown that when we recognize the perspective of others, we activate two major parts of our brain, the right temporal parietal junction and the prefrontal cortex. And like the rest of an adolescent’s brain, these areas are very malleable when we’re young, meaning there’s a lot educators can do to strengthen them. Many of our old-fashioned ideas about how education turns people into good human beings are starting to be backed by science.
As a former English teacher, I love hearing how science confirms what I saw in my classroom daily! But turning back to executive function for now, what can teachers do to work executive function-building exercises into their daily lessons?
Dr. Burns: I recommend teachers spend some time looking at Digital Promise. There are some great suggestions for making classrooms more executive function-friendly and activities on how to work executive function skill building into lesson plans. They have attentional exercises like using graphic organizers and suggestions for how to split students up into groups where they’ll complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
In-class performances or role-playing, for example, are great for building attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. If you have students struggling to pay attention, using timers can be a great technique because students know that if they stay on task for a certain amount of time, they’ll be rewarded with a break. You can make the time periods longer as students build attentional stamina.
In your article, you also mention the impact that poverty at both the household and neighborhood level often has on cognitive development. Can you explain why students living in poverty may experience different levels of cognitive functioning?
Mr. De Ley: Poverty’s impact on literacy and brain development is so multifaceted. If a child isn’t read to when they’re young, it could be because there isn’t money for books or other literacy resources. Poor children are also less likely to have a parent or caregiver home with them because of the long work schedules that often come with poverty wages. When small children don’t have an adult talking to them constantly, early literacy can suffer.
Kids in poverty don’t usually get enrichment from travel, extracurriculars, and so on. They have less access to technology. And then there’s the higher stress that comes with poverty. And stress has terrible effects on brain maturation, especially pre-frontal lobe development, which is why poor kids often struggle more with executive functions.
Dr. Burns: New research shows us that the brain scans of struggling readers living in poverty differ from those of struggling readers from higher socio-economic groups. So there’s little question that poverty uniquely impacts the brain, and kids from poverty often need extra support in literacy and executive function skill building. And immense emotional support on top of that. But even with what can feel like insurmountable challenges, education is the path out of poverty. And it’s one of the only ones we have.
What resources can schools put in place to help all students, but particularly students from poor backgrounds, attain optimal academic success?
Mr. De Ley: There has been a lot of progress made in ensuring that students are physically prepared to learn. For example, school nutrition programs, health screenings, vision and hearing screenings, and even family resource centers that provide information on employment, housing, and so on. These interventions are critical and need to be continued.
However, especially for adolescents whose families or neighborhoods are struggling with poverty, we need to do more to ensure that they are emotionally prepared to learn. That means creating school communities that feel safe and supportive for all students—even those who struggle with academics.
Teachers can have a significant impact here by creating inclusive and supportive learning communities in the classroom for all students regardless of their academic status. And setting up systems of evaluation and assessment that are constructive rather than punishing. Extracurricular activities such as sports, band, theater, and clubs are also important for keeping adolescents engaged and motivated at school.
Your article also mentions new research about the cognitive setbacks brought on by COVID restrictions, particularly for adolescents whose brain development is so dependent on social interaction. Can you give teachers some concrete ways they can help build some of those missing skills?
Dr. Burns: COVID was an immensely tough time to be a pre-adolescent or adolescent. I know we don’t need to tell caregivers and educators this. They lived through it. But we’re really only starting to understand the cognitive effects of adolescents being isolated. Picture something you rely upon daily for your sense of self. You use it to make decisions, figure out your thoughts, and shape how you present yourself to the world. And then imagine just not having that for 2+ years.
Mr. De Ley: I think there’s a sense that kids have gone back to school in an emotionally fragile state. And it makes sense because their systems were all revved up to start learning about peers, testing their limits, and breaking a few rules to see what would happen. And that all just got shut down for a lot of kids.
Dr. Burns: And on top of not having face-to-face peer interaction when they needed it most, many kids were on social media being bullied, isolated, or comparing themselves to others. So, what teachers can do to start to counteract those two years of isolation, other than small group work, is come to realize that punitive approaches to student behavior are ineffective.
There’s a catchphrase psychologists sometimes use about managing behavior at this age that says to “catch them while they’re good.” This phrase is still repeated despite being 30 years old because it’s true. Adolescents are so reward-oriented, so when teachers reward them for positive behavior consistently and often, they can rewire an adolescent's brain to start doing beneficial things by force of habit. And, over time, you’ve built a successful learner.
Conversely, when adults react to bad behavior punitively, we know this activates dopamine in a way that appears to wire bad behavior in, making it more likely to become a long-term pattern.
And one more thing, when a teacher rewards a student, it has to be rewarding to the student. So if a teacher says, “Good job,” and all the kid’s friends laugh at them, that could actually be unintentionally punitive. So teachers have to figure out what is truly a reward. But they’re up to the task. After all, teachers change brains every day!
Want to learn more about the risks, challenges, and immense opportunities that come with teaching adolescents? Download our Adolescent Brain Guide.
Thanks for letting us share some of our team’s latest research with you. And as you continue to deepen your knowledge about the adolescent brain and how to best provide learning experiences to your students—whether it's through software like Fast ForWord or mindfully providing positive rewards in class—know that you're doing the important work of building brains at a time when kids need it the most.
About the Authors
Martha Burns, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Director of Neuroscience Education
Dr. Martha Burns is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University and has authored four books and over 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication. Dr. Burns' expertise is in all areas related to the neuroscience of learning, such as language and reading in the brain, the bilingual brain, the language-to-literacy continuum, and the adolescent brain. Dr. Burns is a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Director of Neuroscience Education for Carnegie Learning.
Logan De Ley, Senior Cognitive Scientist, Literacy
Since 2000, Logan De Ley has applied research and data analysis to build educational software that helps struggling students read, learn, and communicate more effectively. He contributed to the original design and content of the Fast ForWord Reading components and is a listed co-inventor on several patents. Mr. De Ley has authored or co-authored numerous research reports, papers, chapters, journal articles, and blog postings. With master’s degrees in both Experimental Psychology and Communicative Disorders, he strives to bridge the science of learning with the art of teaching.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author
Because the adolescent brain has switched back on, we have an opportunity as educators to strengthen brain structures that may not have been adequately built for what we want adolescents to do, which is read or do math problems or function with self-regulation."
Dr. Martha Burns, Director of Neuroscience Education, Carnegie Learning