I’ve been trying to develop a workshop on the teen brain for quite some time now, but I had some trouble finding an engaging way of presenting all the research I’d collected on adolescent brain growth and its effects on teen behavior and learning. Mind you, I wasn’t seeking to present that much information in so much detail. I simply want participants to be aware that beginning in adolescence, and continuing into their early twenties, their brains undergo a second growth spurt (comparable in significance to brain development in the first two years of life), which will affect their mood, behavior, and ability to learn. This period of growth is accompanied by pruning and myelination (for greater processing speed and efficiency), and all this happens largely in a back-to-front fashion, meaning that the prefrontal cortex, or the rational, executive center of the brain, is the last to mature. This leaves young people more reliant on the amygdala, or the emotional and reactive center of the brain. Because the brain operates as a “use it or lose it” system, where the skills that are most used are strongly reinforced, this period of brain development is a great opportunity to learn new things and focus on what is most important. (Are your eyes glazed over yet?)
I’d considered showing some clips of a documentary that included both scientific views and more personal perspectives from teenagers, parents, and teachers, followed by some sort of role play where participants could offer solutions to some of the problems posed in the program (lack of sleep, moodiness, etc.), but I just didn’t feel like I could make the session dynamic enough. It was only recently that I finally figured out a “hook” engaging enough for teenagers: Zits comics.Those familiar with the strip know that it pokes fun at the main character, Jeremy, for being a teenage boy. As described by youth development expert Sheryl Feinstein, teens are “[f]orgetful, disorganized, and late for everything but dinner” (35). Jeremy is also perennially sleep-deprived, stressed out, and love-sick. He is in constant communication with his friends, but around his parents he is sullen, sarcastic, and silent. He wavers back and forth between yearning for independence and needing their the emotional, moral, and financial support. He flabbergasts them with his failure to think through consequences, but he also astonishes them with his ability to master new technology with ease. Jeremy is, by all measures, a typical teenager.
In the first session I’d like to bring some comic strips in and have students discuss the traits that Jeremy exhibits, and then link those to concepts in brain development. For the second session, after a quick review, I’d like participants to engage in some creative work—either drawing their own comic strip or writing out a dialogue for role-playing—that will tackle some of the big challenges that teenagers face. Then during presentations, I’d like the group to be able to suggest some constructive solution to the problem. I have a niece, for example, who suffers from “Etch-a-Sketch” brain (that’s a Zits sight gag), and the way she manages it is by relying heavily on Post-it notes.
One thing that I really want to emphasize is that the teen brain is not all bad. In fact, in can be an asset. To take the metaphor of a computer, the teen brain is like a machine that’s still developing its memory and processing abilities. But the advantage of that is that you can customize it as you wish. Whatever teenagers devote their time to, that is what they will be good at. This has obvious drawbacks, of course (teens are more susceptible to addiction and are quick to anger, and if problems with substance abuse and anger management aren’t addressed, they will persist long into adulthood). But it also indicates a great window of opportunity to learn and master all kinds of skills.