Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Understanding How Adolescents Think

An interview with Raleigh Philp, author of Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens.

February 1, 2007

Raleigh Philp isn't a scientist; he's a longtime teacher and a teacher trainer at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology. But he also thinks of himself as a translator, someone who can use current brain research to help teachers teach. His book Engaging 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students aims to show teachers how to cope with the developing -- and often baffling -- teenage brain. (Read an excerpt from the book.)

Credit: Raleigh Philp

Philp points to research showing that teenage brains don't function the way adult ones do. (See a good introduction to scientific studies on teenage brains on the Web site for the PBS program Frontline.) The neocortex -- the part of the human brain responsible for language, planning, empathy, and executive functions -- hasn't fully developed inside the average 13-year-old's head. That teenager still relies on a more reactive, gut-instinct part of the brain, the amygdala, which handles emotions and memories associated with emotion.

Teenagers also aren't very good at reading emotion on others' faces. In addition to the obvious physical signs of adolescence, teens and 'tweens are undergoing a major neurological overhaul, which is why that perennial teen mumble "I don't know" may be closer to the truth than we'd realized.

What this means for teachers, says Philp, is that they must be both patient and persistent. The point at which teenagers tend to withdraw and ask to be left alone is exactly when it's most important to engage them.

Below, discusses Philp's conclusions with him.

What is the first thing teachers need to know about the brains of their teenage students?

I think one of the things middle school teachers need to recognize is the incapability of consistency from most kids. The kids will come in one day loving you, and then the next day, with no warning, you are the total enemy.

For young teachers, this is really hard on their developing confidence. You're searching for assurance that you're doing OK, but the inconsistency with which kids treat you is really disarming. So, middle school teachers need to recognize that this is the outward manifestation of a brain that is undergoing profound changes.

Teachers often make assumptions that their directions have gotten through. But the disconnect is that the student often doesn't get it. His or her interpretation is really different.

One of the standard things I talk to teachers about in my work is that when a kid gets in trouble, the teacher will ask, "Why did you do that?" Kids will almost always say, "I don't know," and maybe that's more accurate than we thought. When teachers understand some of the rudiments of how the brain is changing, they have a lot more patience with kids.

There are so many things going on with kids -- the physical and emotional changes, sexual development, all of those things are being undertaken by a brain that isn't capable of functioning like an adult brain. A lot of kids will look at any time they have to be quizzed about how they feel, or their reasons for doing something, as a demand for introspection. That's what teachers are asking for, and parents, too. So the teenager's response is, "Leave me alone. I don't feel like thinking about this."

That sounds discouraging, as if there's nothing to do with teenagers but sit back and wait until their brains are developed enough that they can act like human beings.

We've made some assumptions about the teenage brain, but we're looking at a tremendous curve here; I'm amazed at how many kids function awfully well and do use pretty good judgment. And one has to look at it and ask, "OK, is that environmentally controlled? Is it something we can instill in others?" That's the encouraging part of this research. We're beginning to realize that, experientially, the brain is really influenced by its environment.

At about age 12, 13, 14, the brain goes through a major pruning, much as it did around age two or three. Many of the neurons have two choices, if you will: They can develop into a neural network threaded together as a result of experience, or they're pruned away.

So, in other words, if you develop a skill at a young age, you're likely to retain that ability, whereas if you don't, that skill may be much harder to develop.

Yes. Unless teenagers put together those neural networks, they may never develop successful relationships with academics, with skills of all sorts. So, if the kid is sitting in front of a TV all day and not getting experiences, acquiring skills, we have a more serious problem than anyone had realized. Probably, we've only started to realize this in the last seven or eight years.

That suggests that we need to engage teenagers, not just let them grow up on their own.

Often, we let them go and we don't want anything to do with them. But what we've known for a long time is that if we let kids do their own things, they'll first seek out adult role models, but if those are not available for them, they'll seek out teen role models.

And this is the time when, characteristically, we've given up. Parents don't attend middle school and high school events like they did in elementary school. Kids want their privacy, and a lot of parents capitulate to that. And we're looking at probably the most important developmental time for the brain.

Recently, we've seen some wonderful character-development programs, like Developmental Assets. Those programs tend to be based on behavioral studies, but I see, over the next few years, that those behaviorally based programs will be fortified by research on the adolescent brain.

What does a teenage brain need in order to learn?

In order to make any progress, a child's brain has a list of priorities. At the survival rate, kids are not learning anything. For a kid walking through South Central Los Angeles to get to Locke High School, for instance, just getting there is a real concern. In the big herding high schools where they have 2,500 or 3,000 students, many of their emotional needs are not being met.

And the brain, in order for learning and thinking to occur, must fulfill those two categories first: You've got to survive, and you've got to have your emotional needs met. And good teachers have always known this. When you walk into a good classroom, you see a comfortable, pleasant place, a place where people are welcome.

Once a classroom is safe and comfortable, what can teachers do to engage their students?

When I do my workshops, one thing I try to get across is that kids can listen only for a short time -- probably 15 minutes max, maybe 20. And you've got to find innovative ways to change the psychological state of your learners about every 20 minutes: Get them up on their feet, change the environment using music, have them interact with each other.

I encourage teachers with a variety of strategies. For instance, how can you use music effectively in the class in order to make it an emotionally welcome place? A lot of teachers use music, but the nuances of how to use it are really important. I see more teachers saying, "I can learn to control the physiological state of my learners much more by using music at the right time."

So, for instance, maybe you should play something calming when they come into the classroom, like maybe classical music?

That's the perception most people have, that you should have music playing when kids come in. But you would also want to have playlists for other kinds of music, too. When kids come in to the class, you probably want to use music with an upbeat to it, 80 beats per minute or something. Other times, you'd want to use music in transition, between activities, or when you're writing in journals, maybe 50-60 BPM.

I'm a fan of public radio, and I'm amazed at how well they can integrate little pieces of music. So I try to encourage teachers to use emotional songs when they're doing readings. You remember the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War? There's a musical theme running through it, a resounding, beautiful melodic piece. It would be a great piece of music to play in the background along with a reading of Civil War letters.

And a lot of teachers don't realize how easy this is today. With laptops, iTunes, and inexpensive speakers, it's easier than ever to use music in the classroom.

What you're advocating is a real departure from the let-me-lecture-to-you-for-45-minutes approach to teaching.

I think that's the single most important thing I want to give to teachers: Sure, your students may be giving you eye contact, but that doesn't mean you're engaging them.

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to Edutopia. She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Classroom Management
  • 6-8 Middle School

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