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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Heart of the Matter: The Adolescent Brain

From Developmental Empathy

By David Gleason
January 25, 2018

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present to the faculty of a local independent school on the topic of the developing adolescent brain. They were interested in how they could apply the findings of “The Heart of the Matter: The Adolescent Brain,” chapter five in my book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools.

Since the school had recently engaged a different speaker who had focused on the intense and competing pressures on students – and since several of this school’s administrators had read my book – they were eager to “home in” on the five recent neurobiological discoveries which I detail in that chapter.


These discoveries provide indisputable, authoritative reasons for why any school faculty should strive to be more “developmentally empathic” in its overall approaches to educating their students.

What I want to share with you here is how, during the course of an afternoon, these educators were able to move from the broad topic of the adolescent brain to concrete ideas about how they could introduce changes that would truly embrace developmental empathy into their school environment.


Five Neurobiological Discoveries of Brain Development

Here’s how it unfolded. In my opening presentation, I reviewed the following five neurological discoveries of brain development in adolescents:

  • Back to Front Development: The human cortex develops from back-to-front. The prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain most involved with the development of executive functioning skills – does not develop fully until a person reaches their late 20s or even early 30s.
  • Limbic System and Prefrontal Cortex – Uneven Development: The brain’s limbic structures (amygdala, hippocampus, etc.) that are responsible for processing and expressing emotions come “online” with full force in the early stages of puberty, long before the prefrontal cortex has the capacity to fully regulate the intensity of the limbic-generated emotions.
  • Neuroplasticity: “Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together:” The brain is “plastic” or pliable; it matures mostly by becoming more connected (white matter), not larger (grey matter) from puberty onward. These neuronal connections are totally dependent on the environments in which they exist or function.
  • Environment Shapes the Brain: Interactions between genes and environment shape human development. Early experiences determine both how genes are “turned on and off” and whether or not some genes are even expressed at all. Healthy brain development depends on both how much and when certain genes are activated within the environment to do certain tasks. Essentially, experiences leave chemical signatures (epigenetic markers) that determine whether and how genes are expressed.
  • Adolescence is a Developmental Sensitive Period for the Brain: Adolescence is a developmental window of time within which the effects of environmental stimulation – or lack of it – on brain structure and function are maximized because so much brain maturation and development is occurring so rapidly and simultaneously.

With this foundational knowledge about the adolescent brain, the participants assembled in groups around circular tables and worked together to respond to the following question.

“In light of the constant and unrealistic pressures that so many students are experiencing, within your school’s already-sensitive and intentional educational environment, what other ideas/suggestions/changes can you IMAGINE as possible ways of becoming a more developmentally empathic school?”

Social-Emotional Functioning
  • Teach social-emotional learning for students in ALL grades.
  • Schedule more free time for students.
  • Facilitate students’ connecting with each other in meaningful ways.
  • Encourage parent education about these neurobiological issues and collaborate with parents about empathic changes for kids.

Academic Work Load
  • Reduce the amount of homework we assign: be sure homework reinforces learning and is not homework for the sake of homework
  • Review our assumptions about end-of-term assessments. Do we really need them? They put A LOT of pressure on kids.
  • Revise our schedule: it is too packed … daily, nightly, and weekly!
  • Reconsider our testing and assessment policies for all age groups.
  • Prioritize what we really value!
  • Remove numerical grades. Imagine NO grades!

Age-Appropriate Expectations
  • Review our age and grade level expectations. Are they developmentally appropriate?
  • Align our expectations with kids’ development. We are grading many kids on expectations they can’t meet!
  • Integrate appropriate study skills instruction within all academic areas for all grades.

In summarizing their focused work on these issues, one faculty member stated, “We need to be brave enough to go against the norm … as educators, parents, and as an entire institution.”

To me, the four most important take-aways from this afternoon session – which sparked the creation of this blog post – are the following:

1.) The members of this entire school’s faculty and administration were eager to learn about the five recent neurodevelopmental discoveries. They were eager for this kind of professional development in their collective effort to become a more developmentally sensitive and empathic school.

2.) After about a 90-mintute presentation of these five neurodevelopmental discoveries, these faculty members and administrators assembled into working groups and responded to the question (above) that challenged them to “imagine possible ways of becoming a more developmentally empathic school.” That is, they were eager to segue from a broad, scientific presentation to a focused discussion on its implications.

3.) In less than an hour, this group of about 75 committed teachers and administrators generated a long list of very specific possible ways of becoming a more developmentally empathic school.

4.) The speed with which they worked and the specificity of their suggestions speaks volumes of their underlying and collective desire to be as “developmentally empathic” as possible.

I applaud this school – and others with whom I have conducted similar workshops – for their focused and deliberate efforts to understand the developmental integrity of the students they teach, and then, to teach to these students accordingly, in ways that are deeply respectful of their students’ actual developmental capacities.

At the end of my work with this motivated group of faculty members and administrators, I reminded them of Margaret Mead’s famous quotation:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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