The teenage brain: Navigating a construction zone

It’s been about eight weeks now since school has started—long enough for teachers to begin to get a handle on what students know and are able to do—and also long enough to have initiated a few difficult conversations with parents.

“What do you mean?” said a surprised parent recently.  “Billy has always done well in school!”

“I don’t doubt that, Mrs. Johnson.  Billy works hard and is a great student.  He always gets his work in on time and usually does a good job.”

“Then why are you recommending that he get extra help reading?  He’s in 7th grade.  The last thing I want is for him to be moved to a ‘dumb’ class.”

“First of all.  Billy’s not ‘dumb,’ Mrs. Johnson.  He’s a very bright kid.  It’s clear he works very hard in school and obviously takes pride in his grades.  But, while Billy does work hard, I think he may have to work too hard–harder than he needs–just to keep up.  My assessments are showing that he is struggling to read at grade level.”

“You are the first teacher to ever mention this.  He’s always gotten A’s or B’s for every other teacher.  What grade is he getting for you right now?”

“Looks like he’s getting a C-.”

“That’s the lowest grade he’s ever gotten from any teacher in his entire life!  You’re blaming it on his reading?  Why do you think you are the only one to ever have this problem with Billy?  It must be something you’re doing.”

As a teacher, these are tough conversations.  No parent wants to hear that her child is struggling.  No teacher want’s to be the one to tell them that either.  So it begs the question: Why might a child that has always done well in school suddenly struggle?  Is it something the present teacher is doing wrong?  Maybe something his past teachers failed to do?

Often times, in cases like this, it’s neither.  Often, it’s the natural result of a brain under construction.  Think of it as a remodeling project, if you will.

As our children reach adolescence, their brains begin the most radical and significant changes they will ever make.  The cerebral cortex–the largest part of the human brain, associated with higher functions such as thought and action—begins to undergo a radical reorganization.

Up until this point, over the course of their childhood, the volume of gray matter in their cerebral cortex has been gradually increasing.   In fact, brain scans have shown that we never have more gray matter than we have at early adolescence.  As children enter and progress through puberty however, their brains actually begin to shrink.  This decline in brain volume is a normal and necessary part of maturation.

Brain scientists call this process “pruning.”  It’s a time when unused neural connections are eliminated.  Scientists believe that this pruning process, while often disruptive, eventually allows our brains to operate more efficiently.

As alarming as it sounds, this is a natural part of the maturation process.  Still, it’s a critical moment in a child’s development because the connections that we exercise with experience are the ones that we strengthen and keep.  It’s the neural pathways we don’t stimulate that we eliminate.  At no point in our child’s lives is the old cliché, “Use it or lose it,” more apt.

That’s not to say that if we can’t play the guitar or speak German by the time we’re fifteen that we will never learn.  Research has also shown the brain to be extraordinarily adaptable—regardless of our age.  It’s just that after a pathway has been pruned, it’s more difficult to build new ones.

Which brings us back to our earlier discussion.  It’s normal that a kid who happens to struggle to read (or play music, or do math) might avoid these activities.  It’s more fun to work in learning modalities that are easy.  It’s important to remember, though, that we prune what we don’t use.

Adolescence is a time for both parents and teachers to be alert, open, and honest.  A little communication, cooperation, and attention (read neural exercise) at this critical time of development can go a long way toward a child’s future success.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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