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The teenage brain – why we should teach teenagers about their brain development

Find out from Dr John Coleman why we should teach teenagers about their brain development and how this understanding can be reassuring for everyone

When it comes to the teenage brain, our knowledge of the changes in adolescence is not exactly new knowledge. It is 20 years now since reports of research on the teenage brain started appearing in the media. However, there is still a long way to go before the field of education catches up with these exciting developments. There are many who argue that a collection of brain scans does not help us plan the curriculum or organize the school day.

So, why should we teach teenagers about their brain development? 

Because it’s useful for teachers…

If learning about the brain isn’t viewed as helpful, the value of this knowledge has been misunderstood. When we talk to teachers, they say understanding the teenage brain is extremely helpful. They don’t value it for lesson planning, but as a vital tool for helping them to understand their students.

They want to understand why some students are drowsy in the morning. They want to make sense of the emotional meltdowns and understand why young people develop at such different rates. Why do some mature early, whilst others lag behind? How can teachers help their students become more mindful of the consequences of their behaviour?

Because it’s useful for students…

Often overlooked, there is a real possibility that comes out of our knowledge of the teenage brain. That possibility is that we can actually teach young people about their brains, and about the phenomenal changes that are taking place. 

Most teenagers are exceedingly puzzled about what is happening to them during their adolescence. They want to understand why they are experiencing a rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of emotions. They want to know more about how their memory works. They are keen to understand how best to revise, and how to manage the stress that they all experience. While our education system concentrates on teaching them science or history, they would really like to understand themselves better.

Because it’s reassuring for everyone…

Our understanding of the brain has made this possible in a way that was unimaginable 20 years ago. We now know that the teenage brain undergoes a major restructuring and reorganization during these years. Learning this about the teenage brain gives us an insight into teenage behaviour. Knowing this doesn’t just benefit adults – parents, teachers and others – but young people themselves. 

In my own experience delivering lessons on the brain to students, learning about the teenage brain is hugely reassuring to young people.

Those in the first years of secondary school tell me they are grateful to learn about this. Those in later years ask: “Why didn’t we have this earlier? It would have made so much difference!”

Because young people have a right to know…

In my view, learning about the teenage brain should be a human right. Young people have the right to know what is happening in their brains. After all, we now take it for granted to teach young people about puberty. Remember when it was expected these conversations should only take place with family?

Knowledge of the changing teenage brain is the same. I predict that in twenty or thirty years’ time, learning about the teenage brain and its changes will be seen in the same way.

Teaching challenges – or challenging teaching?

In making this point, I don’t want to underestimate the challenges involved. Who will teach this topic? Do they have the skills? Where will the teenage brain fit in the curriculum?

Many teachers are cautious about taking this on as it is seen as a ‘new’ subject. They might feel they don’t have the subject knowledge necessary to teach this subject effectively. 

In spite of all this, I remain convinced that in time, teaching teenagers about the wonderful changes going on within their own brains will be a fundamental part of the curriculum.

Before too long it will be recognized that this knowledge is helpful, not only for teachers, but also that it leads to improved learning among students. More importantly, we will see that it helps young people understand themselves better, resulting in happier and healthier teenagers. And who can argue with that?

Dr John Coleman, OBE, is a retired clinical psychologist and former Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. His book ‘The teacher and the teenage brain’ is available from Routledge (2021). 

You can watch John’s webinar for BrainWaves on ‘The teenage brain: Implications for mental healthhere