I’ve talked a lot about the rapidly developing brains of babies and toddlers, and how to take advantage of these stages. But what about another stage of rapid development – puberty? Sometimes it is a development stage we would rather forget about. But any time period of quick development opens opportunities for growth and learning. It is an age we can take advantage of. Even the frustrating parts fade into understanding when we learn more about the middle school brain!
As Hank Pellissier tells us in an article for Greatschools.org, “From middle school to maturity, the brain’s primary growth area is the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes, a region that’s referred to as the “CEO” or “central decision-maker” of the brain. The cognitive control center, it’s responsible for functions like mediating conflicting emotions, making ethical decisions, inhibiting emotional and sexual urges, general intelligence and predicting future events. . . And right now it’s changing tremendously in a “rewiring” process that fortifies certain neural highways while virtually abandoning the majority of others. The transitional activity of this rewiring phase is disorienting for your young teen, and often exhibits itself in recklessness, poor decision-making, and emotional outbursts.”
It is comforting to know that there is a reason, beyond blaming hormones, for the sometimes inexplicable actions of my precious thirteen year old who is mostly caring and responsible. This stage is absolutely necessary to reach the decision making capacity and good judgment we equate with maturity.
An article from the National Education Association explains implications of this rewiring for learning, ” This period of brain growth marks the beginning of a person’s ability to do problem solving, think critically, plan, and control impulses. This brain development cycle also impacts short-term memory. A middle school student can generally retain from 5 to 7 bits of information at one time, so teachers should not try to cram too much information into one lesson. The more engaged and ‘rich’ the new information, the more likely it is that the new information will be retained. The short-term memory maintains information until it moves into another area of the brain (long-term memory) or until more, new information is introduced. At this point the short-term memory ignores the new information in favor of the previous information, or discards the previous information in order to deal with the new. “
This explains why information seems to drip out of my middle schooler’s head. She is not lying when she says she can’t remember what the school assignment involved, though she can remember every lyric to every song on Lauren Daigle’s new album. Lauren Daigle touched her emotionally, so the information stuck. “Do problems six through nine”, was information that was quickly replaced by the next assignment which struck a nerve of excitement, “Write a paragraph about whether Achilles loved Briseis in The Iliad.”
Neuroscientist Jay Giedd, in an interview for Frontline, creates a mental picture of the middle school brain for us when he shares, “The gray matter, or thinking part of the brain, continues to thicken throughout childhood as the brain cells get extra connections, much like a tree growing extra branches, twigs and roots. In the frontal part of the brain, the part of the brain involved in judgment, organization, planning, strategizing — those very skills that teens get better and better at — this process of thickening of the gray matter peaks at about age 11 in girls and age 12 in boys, roughly about the same time as puberty.
After that peak, the gray matter thins as the excess connections are eliminated or pruned. So much of our research is focusing on trying to understand what influences or guides the building-up stage when the gray matter is growing extra branches and connections and what guides the thinning or pruning phase when the excess connections are eliminated.”
So much of the brain is truly at a “use it or lose” point in middle school. What this does is allow us to focus and dive deeper into what interests us – or whatever we are forced to deal with while approaching adulthood. This also reminds us that whatever habits we allow are probably going to be there for life. Yikes!
Sarah Crowley, Director of Academic Affairs at Calvert School articulates, “Rather than refining the parts of the brain that are responsible for the sensory and motor functions, however, the pruning process during adolescence takes place in the frontal lobes, and more specifically, in the prefrontal cortex. And this is where the invisible drama of adolescence unfolds within the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for planning, making decisions, setting priorities, forming strategies, and inhibiting impulses.”
So the pre-frontal cortex, that can easily be influenced by emotion or hormones, is where we want to aim our lessons, to coax them into long term memory. Here is the smartest thing to do: teach our middle schoolers how there own brains work, so they are empowered to help the learning process along!
So much then, of this immature middle school brain requires full parental involvement to achieve success in learning and preparing for adulthood. Although it is an age where we are training our children in responsibility and self-accountability, we still must enforce and model good habits and self-control.
Now is truly our last chance to easily influence much of their thought patterns and behavior. This is not the time to give in to emotional outbursts or allow ourselves to be pushed away in favor of peer influence. It is brain science, moms and dads. Remember, it is their job to prune. It is OUR job to influence which branches are pruned!
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