Adolescent brains are developing brains. Adolescents are suspended in a state between dependence on the immediate family, and independence. This precarious position is difficult. Adolescents are struggling for independence, identity and acceptance. This paper explores the emotional, intellectual, physiological and social aspects of adolescence and viable options for implementing lesson plans that work with the adolescent mind.
Adolescent Developmental Stages
Adolescents are emerging into the world. They are functioning on a higher intellectual level yet are immersed in emotion, physiological changes and social awkwardness. As teachers, we may explore the adolescent development in these four domains, and apply our findings to our lesson plans. In setting goals for ourselves as teachers, we help students set clear goals for themselves.
Ideally, a young adult has a strong sense of identity, has empathy for others, communicates ideas clearly, self-reliant, emotionally stable and proud. We may include these attributes in our goals. In order to reach these goals, we may set smaller goals, master each, and in the process achieve higher goals. If we have a good understanding of adolescent development, we may use that knowledge to foster learning.
During adolescence, students experience many physiological changes that effect learning. The adolescent mind is pruning unnecessary neural pathways in the brain. If a student is in an environment that stimulates learning, he “will retain a more complex network of synapses than one growing up with fewer forms of stimulation.” (Bee, 2001, p. 50) With this in mind, curriculum should be diverse, and appeal to different portions of the brain, in order to develop a well-rounded individual.
Another physiological change is physical development. Adolescents are entering the final stages of physical growth. Not all growth during this stage is in a tandem arrangement. “Because of this asymmetry in the body parts, we often think of adolescents as awkward or uncoordinated.” (Bee, 2001, p. 44) However, there is no evidence to support that adolescents are less coordinated than children or adults. This perceived awkwardness may have a huge impact on an adolescent’s self-esteem and confidence.
Endocrine glands are in full gear, releasing hormones everywhere. This physiological factor affects the adolescent’s moods. “One of the frustrations with adolescents is due to the fact that hormones, environment and learning make the survival region of the brain the ‘hot area’ in adolescent brains.” (Nunley) This survival area of the brain is the hypothalamus. We may compare the hypothalamus as a kind of id. Adolescents need their cortex to work as the ego and balance societal expectations and instinctive reactions.
Needless to say, these physiological changes have a significant impact on an adolescent’s emotional development. Erikson sites the fifth stage of emotional development as the time that adolescents experiment with different “roles” as a means of self-exploration. Also, adolescents are moving away from parents and begin forming their own opinions, often criticizing adults. They are in a torrid state of wanting to assert independence while wanting to feel a sense of belonging. On top of that, they still need guidance. (Beck, 1999)
Along with the emotional turmoil come increased attention span, curiosity and planning skills. (Beck, 1999) However, “the immature region responsible for the logic of long-term benefits does not always override the impulsive, survival-oriented hypothalamus.”(Nunley) This is why it is necessary to create a warm, safe environment that reduces anxiety. Adolescents like to see results from their efforts. They need to discover information rather than being fed the information. “The teenager is more likely to soar into the realm of speculation and possibility.” (Bee, 2001, p. 132)
Socially, the adolescent is developing long-term relationships with peers. They confide in peers in this stage more than they do parents. An adolescents peer group “helps the adolescent make the transition from family dependency to independence.” (Bee, 2001, 382) In class, we may use peer relationships in assignments. Peer editing in English is a good example. Group brainstorming activities and philosophical discussions also foster learning among peers. Ideally, the adolescent is moving from the egocentric infant to an altruistic adult.
Educators have an outstanding opportunity to bring out the best in their adolescent students. First, by setting goals that will help the adolescent develop into the altruistic adult:
1.Create a strong identity
3.Communicate ideas clearly
5.Self-reliance and interdependence
In order for one to create a strong identity, one should be reflective. I believe in revision. In class I would like to give students papers they had written describing themselves at the beginning of the year have them re-write them towards the end of the year. When they turn in the revision, they also turn in notes on how the revision took shape. Why did they change what they changed? How are they different? How did they remain the same?
Personal beliefs are a strong part of an individual’s identity. Debates are a powerful tool to help students assert and defend beliefs. A student’s opinion may be charged with emotion, but in a debate, they must prepare their argument with evidence. In this vein, they balance reactive, impulsive judgments with logical thought processes.
Delaying gratification is difficult for everyone. Setting short-term goals in order to reach a long-term goal is an ideal way to delay gratification. If students experience small successes, they will be propelled toward success in long-term goals. If we have students create a comprehensive project in class, it enables them to work towards a large goal. They use their successes and mistakes throughout the year to create a compilation of their experience in the class.
Peer editing helps students develop critical thinking skills, interdependence and clearer communication skills. A monthly peer editing exercise that requires the students to make interpretations and constructive suggestions would also help students communicate ideas clearer. Peer editing fades into group assignments in which students work together, pulling their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Adolescence is such an emotionally charged time in a person’s life. A good assignment would be to personify an emotion. What does Anger look like? How does it differ from Fury? Where does the emotion reside and work? The students may draw a portrait of the emotion, write a day-in-the-life of the emotion, write a song reflecting the emotion, or they may create a play. Each student chooses the emotion he wants to play, the group collectively writes the play, and they perform it. The possibilities are endless. I think that the activity would help students objectify emotions, which is ironic considering that they would be personifying it.
English is such a limitless subject. It encompasses social, intellectual, physiological and emotional issues. If approached correctly, English can be cathartic and intellectually stimulating. Students may use it as a tool to discover themselves.
Bee, H. (2000) Child and Adolescent Development, (9th ed.) [etext] Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing
Beck. (1999) Normal Adolescent Development. From: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology website:
Nunley, K. PhD. How the adolescent brain challenges the adult brain. Website: