The Teenage Brain: How It Affects the Learning Process

As a teacher, I have often resorted to different methodologies and activities to make students more interested in my class. However, lately I have been curious about the learning processes of a language and I have been eager to understand in depth how especially teenagers go through such processes. Consequently, the following question has popped up: what if we can boost students’ language acquisition by sparking something in their brains?

Much has been studied and said about neuroscience and how the brain takes in a language, but I have never found plenty of materials including details about teenagers. Therefore, in this article, I delve into how such organ functions for this age group. Are there any differences? If so, why should we be aware of them when planning and delivering our lessons?

It turns out that the human brain goes through changes up to the age of 25, which means that the teenage years are extremely important in the neural development. The parts that are involved in changes faced through adolescence are the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system is shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses. This explains why youngsters are emotive, impulsive, and instinctive.

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for critical thinking, self-control, planning, attentiveness, organisation, empathy, and problem-solving, among others. And guess what? This area has a tardy development, which speaks volumes about the challenges teachers face in the classroom with teenagers.

To make matters worse, the teenage brain has low levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that provide us with a sense of well-being and pleasure.

In a nutshell, the teenage brain is a recipe for disaster!

One usual difficulty that most teachers have when teaching teenagers is how to deal with behaviour problems. Understanding more about these characteristics of the brain can help us with that in many ways. To illustrate, it might lead us to have more empathy towards teens. In order to understand them, we must put ourselves in their shoes and embrace the fact that some of their attitudes and misbehaviour is directly related to their life stage. Therefore, we should not take it personally when a student misbehaves or has impulsive attitudes because this is part of their physiology. This does not mean we have to turn a blind eye for these issues, but from the moment we learn that they are inwardly going through a hard time, it is easier to look at the situation from a more sympathetic perspective.

As far as learning goes, by studying the teenage brain we can draw two conclusions:

1 it is way harder for teenagers to concentrate and keep focused because their brains are not entirely developed;

2 emotional experiences are to be more easily remembered than neutral ones.

Hence, one of the keys to success in teaching teenagers is trying to bring to class topics that they are interested in. This will cause much more impact than being always guided by coursebooks. Bearing this in mind when planning lessons for teenagers will come in handy if we want to create memorable learning opportunities. We may not be able to think of something extraordinary every class, but that is OK, providing that we keep them motivated.

Classes for teenagers must be dynamic in order to make a difference for them. There are a few things that you might want to start doing to make your lessons more engaging. Firstly, include videos, songs, and games in your lessons whenever possible. Secondly, bring updated relevant topics that you know students like. And last but not least, find out what you and your students have in common now and, occasionally, when you were a teenager yourself. Giving them engaging activities that at the same time shortens the generation gap and make them sure you understand how they feel and why they like what they like will certainly boost their learning experience. As long as they are moved, they are learning.

Feel free to contact me at contato@henriquezamboni.com.br in case you have any questions or thoughts you would like to share. Thanks for reading!

Henrique Zamboni has been in the ELT field for almost 10 years, having worked for different language schools as an English teacher and teacher trainer. He holds the CPE, the CELTA, a degree in Letras and a degree in Marketing. He is currently teaching teens and adults.

2 Comments
  • Mirela Ramacciotti
    Posted at 11:45h, 19 março Responder

    HI, Henrique

    Let me first start by congratulating your effort in understanding the teenage brain. It takes passion and commitment to go beyond classroom difficulties in search for more depth of understanding. The path that you have taken is one that I started pursuing almost a decade ago. Neuroscience has indeed changed my career path, but that’s another story (see more at http://www.neuroeducamente.com.br).
    What I would like to point out to you are some generalizations that may mislead rather that clarify a topic. The conclusions that you have drawn, namely, ” it is way harder for teenagers to concentrate and keep focused because their brains are not entirely developed;” and ” emotional experiences are to be more easily remembered than neutral ones” present some problems. Let me try to tackle the last first.
    Emotions heighten every cognitive experience. That’s not a privilege of the teenage brain.; it has to do with the way we are neurobiologically driven to operate. Emotions serve as a ‘rudder’ for any cognitive process and underscores our cognitive abilities (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). In fact, emotionally laden stimuli affect how we see and hear(and not just how we feel). That means the human brain, at any age, is constantly processing emotional stimuli (Vuilleumier et al,, 2001). Additionally, it is also well known through research that positive emotions increase attention (Frederickson & Branigan, 2005) and that is what leads us to have memorable learning experiences (Storm & Tecott, 2005; Salamone & Correa, 2002). I hope that this made clear the reason why emotions – mainly positive – are so important to learning across the lifespan.

    Now on to the first conclusion about the difficulty in concentration and focusing being a result of an underdeveloped brain. And a word of caution is needed here. In neuroscience, and mainly in Mind, Brain, and Learning, fields that interconnected and budding with discoveries every new day, hard-drawn conclusions are hard (and dangerous) to come by because of one single – yet so complex in its implications – fact: each brain is unique and, although there are pre-programed stages of development that we all go through, the way that each phase and stage will unfold largely depend on individuals characteristics, behavior and development. That said, hat is adamant to understand about the teenage brain is that the “use it or lose it” ratio is accelerated during adolescence. because hormones speed up the synaptic pruning process. This process underscores what adolescents effectively use and turns it into something much more critical. That fact, for instance, explains the difficulty teenagers have (in comparison to children) of acquiring a very good accent in a second language. Besides, their inner world, and this means their neurobiology, is in upheaval due to a heightened hormone sensitivity. Their amygdalae (a structure in the limbic system) enlarges. As this structure is the first to process emotional stimuli, their sensitivity does increase. Additionally, their anterior cingulate gyrus and ALL THE CONNECTIONS (capitalized due to their importance for this point) implied are still maturing as much as the corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers that connects both brain hemispheres, is myelinating. That underlies their attentional and correction processes.. But in no way are their learning processes impaired; much to the contrary. Adolescence, and the psycho- social- emotional-changes it brings, carries untapped potential for learning experiences that may shape a lifetime. It befalls on us, part of a community that deals with them on a daily basis, to make that known, and capitalize on that.

    References

    Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires. Cognition & emotion, 19(3), 313-332.
    Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education, 1(1), 3-10.
    Salamone, J. D., & Correa, M. (2002). Motivational views of reinforcement: implications for understanding the behavioral functions of nucleus accumbens dopamine. Behavioural brain research, 137(1-2), 3-25.
    Storm, E. E., & Tecott, L. H. (2005). Social circuits: peptidergic regulation of mammalian social behavior. Neuron, 47(4), 483-486.
    Vuilleumier, P., Armony, J. L., Driver, J., & Dolan, R. J. (2001). Effects of attention and emotion on face processing in the human brain: an event-related fMRI study. Neuron, 30(3), 829-841.

    • Henrique Zamboni
      Posted at 22:33h, 15 abril Responder

      Mirela, thanks so much for your thorough comment. It’s always nice to share knowledge so I really appreciate that!
      I’ll look into your website and will start following your social media so as to learn more about this topic.

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