It has become a cultural cliché that raising adolescents is the most difficult part of parenting. It’s common to joke that when kids are in their teens they are sullen, uncommunicative, more interested in their phones than in their parents and generally hard to take. But this negative trope about adolescents misses the incredible opportunity to positively shape a kid’s brain and future life course during this period of development.

“[Adolescence is] a stage of life when we can really thrive, but we need to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Temple University neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg at a Learning and the Brain conference in Boston. Steinberg has spent his career studying how the adolescent brain develops and believes there is a fundamental disconnect between the popular characterizations of adolescents and what’s really going on in their brains.

Because the brain is still developing during adolescence, it has incredible plasticity. It’s akin to the first five years of life, when a child’s brain is growing and developing new pathways all the time in response to experiences. Adult brains are somewhat plastic as well — otherwise they wouldn’t be able to learn new things — but “brain plasticity in adulthood involves minor changes to existing circuits, not the wholesale development of new ones or elimination of others,” Steinberg said.

Adolescence is the last time in a person’s life that the brain can be so dramatically overhauled.

“The adolescent brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience,” Steinberg said. “It is like the recording device is turned up to a different level of sensitivity.” That’s why humans tend to remember even the most mundane events from adolescence much better than even important events that took place later in life. It also means adolescence could be an extremely important window for learning that sticks. Steinberg notes this window is also lengthening as scientists observe the onset of puberty happening earlier and young people taking on adult roles later in life. Between these two factors, one biological and one social, adolescence researchers now generally say the period lasts 15 years between the ages of 10 and 25.

“When adolescence is this long, we can’t look at it as something to just survive,” Steinberg said.

Teenagers get a bad reputation as risk-takers because parts of their brains are more plastic than others, creating an imbalance. The prefrontal cortex, which controls things like planning, thinking ahead, weighing risk and reward, and logical reasoning is the most malleable during adolescence. Meanwhile, sex hormones released by puberty affect brain functioning by adding more dopamine to the system. Every time an adolescent feels good about something he gets a dopamine squirt. That’s why adolescents seek out pleasurable experiences, despite the risks.

“Nothing will ever feel as good to you for the rest of your life as it did when you were a teenager,” Steinberg said. The imbalance between an aroused dopamine system and a still developing prefrontal cortex, which would inhibit some of the risky pleasure-seeking behaviors, is why adolescence is such a dangerous time. While adolescents are extremely healthy, mortality rates increase by 200-300 percent due to risky behavior. Scientists have also shown that reward pathways are activated when an adolescent is with a group of peers, which is why kids take extra risks when with friends that they might not take when alone.

The imbalance between aroused dopamine systems and self-regulation systems sounds like a scary story, but it also represents a unique opportunity to reach adolescents with positive stimuli that will be hard-wired in high definition years later. Unfortunately, American high schools are by and large not taking advantage of this opportunity.

“Our high school students are among the worst in the developed world,” Steinberg said. The high school math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been flat for 40 years. In contrast, both elementary school students and middle school students have improved. And U.S. schools tend to spend more money on high schools, those teachers make more money, and on the whole elementary schools enroll more low-income kids than high schools. Steinberg contends that the traditional arguments for why schools fail don’t explain everything that’s going on.

“It’s because our high schools are so boring,” Steinberg said. He notes U.S. high school students who study abroad report their experiences were more interesting and more challenging, while foreign students who study in the U.S. say American high school is more boring.

Steinberg believes part of the reason school is so boring for teens is that it doesn’t challenge them; they’re bored. Students themselves report that they can get by in school without doing much. “When we are not challenging our kids in high school, not only are we hindering their academic development, but we also aren’t taking advantage of the plastic prefrontal cortex,” Steinberg said. The prefrontal cortex is strengthened by challenge and novelty.

“This is when we want them to be challenged and pushed because this is when we can develop advanced thinking, as well as self-regulation,” Steinberg said.

Teachers often say their students struggle with work that is below grade level and must catch up before they can take on more challenging tasks. But scaffolding can ensure that even the catch-up process is challenging in an interesting way. Consistently providing students with work that is slightly more challenging than their current level keeps them engaged. If the work is too easy, they will disengage and become frustrated.

The problem is that many high schools confuse “challenging work” with “amount of work.” Students are stressed out by the volume of tasks they must complete each night or week, but that isn’t the same thing as being challenged by the work. Steinberg points out that hours of repetitious work that is not challenging do nothing but make kids hate school.

“Rates of anxiety disorders among adolescents are at record levels,” Steinberg said. “We are raising generations of students who we are driving crazy with what we are asking of them.” Recognizing this pitfall is not only important for maximizing the opportunity to make a lasting impact on students’ extremely malleable developing brains, but also because a plastic brain is also vulnerable to the wrong influences.

Adolescence is the most likely time for mental illness to develop, and substance abuse is 10 times worse if a student starts using before the age of 15. “It’s not just the type of people who begin using earlier, it’s the way the adolescent brain is responding to the use,” Steinberg said. The aroused dopamine system in the adolescent brain craves drugs, nicotine or alcohol in a different way than at other times in life.

Stress also has a big impact on adolescent brains. A recent study from UC Berkeley showed that growing up as an adolescent during wartime took years off people’s lives. “[Stress] takes more years off of your life if you are a teenager than if you are a child or an adult,” Steinberg said.


Understanding the neuroscience at work in the adolescents populating classrooms can help teachers develop lessons that challenge, engage and satisfy the search for novelty in teens. Those experiences in turn could be some of the most meaningful ones in their lives. If educators and parents don’t take note of this research, kids will continue to tune out, seek pleasure in risky places and continue on into college-level courses unprepared.

Research has shown that targeting prefrontal cortex development in adolescents does help. Despite being a bit clichéd, Steinberg pointed to initial research findings that mindfulness in schools can improve self-regulation, the single most important quality to leading a successful life. Steinberg says that statistically there are four things everyone has to do to have a good life: graduate high school, don’t have a child until being married, don’t get in trouble with the law and don’t be idle.

“If you play by those rules you will be guaranteed a basically decent life,” Steinberg said. “This is not a moral thing, this is a statistical fact.”

Self-regulation and delayed gratification are important skills to clear those four hurdles. Steinberg basically says that if educators and parents can teach kids self-regulation, they can reduce poverty.

Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain 21 December,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • potsie

    Well for the excellerated learners among them,is delayed gratification necessary?

    • Tanna

      I’m not sure how “accelerated learning” has anything to do with delayed gratification. I’m assuming you mean accelerated in academic terms?

      Delayed gratification, in my opinion, has a major influence on social and emotional intelligence. An individual who has developed impulse control during adolescence will probably have an easier time going through life as an adult.

      So if you’re saying that smart kids don’t need delayed gratification, I respectfully disagree. I’ve known some very “intelligent” (aka “book smart”)people who have done some v ery stupid things.

  • CarlMN

    Adolescents have some significant capabilities that have not yet been developed so they can’t be expected to exhibit those capacities in real life situations. Those capacities can and should be stimulated, encouraged and nurtured in positive, creative and rewarding ways. This is a challenging time in life during which one needs to simultaneously learn two conflicting aspects of life: to more fully become the individual they have the potential to be so they themselves can thrive, while also learning to become a more social person so they can live in peace and harmony with others so all can thrive together.

    A significant and growing body of research shows that some sort of “mindfulness” or similar meditative practice should be offered to students and staff alike to help create the insights, attitudes and environment that will enable and enrich the process of learning how to be alive, interested, engaged, mutually supportive and harmoniously cooperative.

    It also needs to be more widely recognized that not everyone is interested in everything and not every learning method will produce the same results for every person. People learn what they are interested in and they learn best in their own way. The mass education by rote approach kills interest and inhibits learning, which results in natural interest and intelligence being dulled or misguided and misdirected towards non-productive and even destructive forms of expression. Interest can be stimulated, nurtured and guided and this should always be done as individually as possible.

    Students should be individually involved in directing and designing their own education as much as possible. This will help them stay interested and engaged in the learning process, and it will help them develop their own, innate interests and capacities more fully. Standardized testing should be limited to only very basic knowledge, while other evidence of learning should be demonstrated in more individualized ways that allow and encourage students to express their individual approach to whatever they are most interested in and capable of working with.

  • Cricketdreams

    Some very linear, black and white thinking on the plasticity of the brain. Clear 4 hurdles and teach self regulation and you will reduce poverty…..and be guaranteed a good life.. If only the root causes of poverty could simply be reduced to “don’t be idle, self regulate, don’t have a child out of wedlock and get a high-school diploma. Thinley veiled contempt of poor people disguised as an article about the human brain.

    • khoi

      I don’t see it that way though. If we are talking about the very poor, then this should be a broad map on how to escape poverty.

      • Ellie Graham

        It’s not contempt. It’s statistics. As a parent, I am looking for resources for targeting prefrontal cortex development. I understand for ex that repetitious video games are actually harmful but strategy video games are helpful. What else?

        • heather macauley

          lotsa fun problem solving. Scouts, or do it yourself day trips involving new things to see that they plan, with a restaurant at the end…

  • Annie Toro Lopez

    As a former educator of adolescents, I agree that students are bored, and that many teachers provide vast quantities of tasks, but not necessarily the quality. It’s a complex problem, and there are no simple solutions. But I am a huge advocate of bringing back the concept of apprenticeships. I think that young people out in the business world would be a hugely beneficial to our society. It would expose young people to how business actually works and what their future might look like. When I taught 8th Grade I often thought how great it would be to have some of these kids out there really learning some of their passions. Or realizing that their passion might not really take them anywhere. There is a vast gulf in education between how the world actually works and how a classroom operates. Unfortunately, I have found that many teachers, especially those who have been in the public education system more or less from cradle to grave, do not comprehend how the world operates outside of the classroom. As a result, our young people are not learning how the world really operates. Formal apprenticeships could be a win-win for the business community and the education community alike.

    • Karen Lane

      My daughter attended a private school that required apprenticeships for 7th and 8th graders. Kids chose some area of adult life they wanted to learn about, found (with adult help) an adult mentor, researched the subject area and engaged in some project with the advice of the mentor. My daughter, with the support of the CEO of a local chain of stores, created the school’s first cash-basis store for students (the profits helped fund a student trip to Washington DC.)

  • klf klf

    If I had a nickel for every generalized theory about “designing lessons that really engage students…” backed up with no specifics. If the “experts” don’t know exactly how to do this, how on earth are the rest of us supposed to know?

    • heather macauley

      montessori and waldorf schools and shamabala schools do it very well, with programs that are very different.

  • biscuit

    I am crying as I read this, it describes what I have tried to tell others about my adolescent behavior. Thank GOD I’m still alive

    • Snaphia Madihah

      You’re not the only one. I feel good too reading this article.

  • In stressful silicon valley, I wonder how much of the school work is challenging vs. repetitive busy work. I wonder how Khan academy might change things – self paced learning that checks your mastery. I also hope that silicon valley will consider investing in GATE – gifted and talented education (to stimulate the best and the brightest). “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

  • Teri Spracklin

    Curious: where is the research that supports the idea that “statistically there are four things everyone has to do to have a good life: graduate high school, don’t have a child until being married, don’t get in trouble with the law and don’t be idle”? I’d like to read it for myself.

  • Atlas Educational

    “And U.S. schools tend to spend more money on high schools, those teachers make more money,”- Ha. Teachers pay has gone DOWN. Less per paycheck. Teachers are buying paper for their classrooms because money for paper is being spent on testing. Most teachers I worked with (notice the past tense) would LOVE to have the autonomy back to create engaging and fun lessons that teach kids. Unfortunately, federal oversight took that away in lieu of testing.

  • Larryalobo

    Research shows that students in early grades do about as well as students in other countries. Much of any advantages from pre-k experiences disappear by 3rd grade (except those who can afford high level pre-k, usually private). U SA students start to fall behind in later elementary grades and start to lose interest in school around Middle School. In High School, many are unprepared and find it hard to catch up and too often don’t understand how what they learn can or will make any difference in jobs they might get (since no one explains well or tells them one day they will understand or wait until college for the answers). Schools in many other countries have found ways to advance their students far beyond the performances of many USA schools and much of what they’ve learned is based on USA research in education. It reminds me of Demning, who tried to sell his quality approach to building cars decades ago to USA car manufacturers, only to be shunned but the Japanese admired his message so he taught Japanese car manufacturers how to make quality cars from the start instead of checking for quality at the end of the process, like USA car manufacturers were doing at the time. If students don’t learn to do well at least at grade level if not higher in elementary grades, how can we expect them to handle high school, college or other higher education training later on? Top students perform well in many school settings however they became top students. Its time educators learned and accepted many of the things that are working in other school systems since there are far too many drop outs in high school, community college, 4 year college, etc. leaving the USA workforce unprepared for today’s jobs and tomorrow’s careers. Its just a shame.

  • Alexandra Skau

    So much of what is being said here is very much aligned with the program that Maria Montessori recommended for teenagers, starting in the 1940’s. She said that children from 12-18 should be involved in apprenticeships and businesses; that they should get “real-world experience” through running their own farm or small business with the support of adults. In the elementary years she recommended that students be able to “go out” on field trips of their own design and planning, to examine questions of their interest. From birth on she thought that children must be taught the practical skills necessary to care for themselves, each other, and the environment and that these tasks evolve with the child over time. She imagined education as an Aid to Life and her system as Education for Peace. When children are taught in a manner that responds to their development, those less than two can set a table for lunch with their classmates and 18 year olds will have important ideas about how to solve problems in the world.

    We do have to engage kids in the zone of proximal development, that sweet spot that is just beyond their comfort zone, and the best way to do this is by *following the child* – seeing what it is they can do, what they struggle with, noticing how and when they need help before rushing in to do things for them or cram a mandated curriculum down their throats. What are these kids interested in? How can I design an experience that lets them explore that topic in an interesting, challenging way, and throw in some math and language skill development as well? These are the questions Montessori teachers have been asking for decades in classrooms around our country and the world, and they have to be answered in individual and small-group ways.

    It takes a restructuring of the learning environment that includes multi-age classrooms, a great emphasis on student choice and freedom, and a repositioning of the teacher to be a guide through the world, rather than the all-knowing authority figure. There is an expert out there who developed curriculum, pedagogic materials and an over-arching methodology to address the needs of the growing child and young adult. She was born over a hundred years ago and modern neuroscience is now catching up with what she predicted to be true. Look for Montessori schools. Ask for them in your communities.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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