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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, April 26 2021

The Teens - A Time for Specific Change

This Newsletter follows on from the last posting ‘Tips for Teaching Teenagers’ where the specific changes in the brain structural formation and the consequences of these changes influences the way adolescent students learn and behave.  This essay expands on this work outlining the more particular arrangement of these changes and what motivates this change of intent of future behaviour.


As mentioned, the onset of puberty marks an explosion of neural activity where excess myaline and supportive neural materials focuses on a particular part of the brain to produce conditions that support a specific brain location that will service a particular cognitive capability.  This occurs predominantly in the prefrontal lobes but also in the limbic system but the manner in which the changes occur over the period of about age ten to sixteen is quite different and this explains some of the peculiarity of the teenage behaviour.


The prefrontal lobes mature gradually slowly tiptoeing toward the desired skills such as the ability to show good judgement; to critically analyse information that is exposed to them.  This is the work of what is referred to as the executive part of the brain, that part where our working memory operates to examine what we have learned and applies this to a problem to be solved.


The other part of the brain under renovation is the limbic system.  This is where the social/emotional part of the brain is organised.  This is where we are conscious of our position and acceptance in our social group as being very important and rejection becomes so painful.  This is a time when we develop our social synapses that deal with our mutual interactions and these exchanges go a long way to establishing our status and self-respect which is our important sense of self.  The problem is the changes in the limbic system is not gradual but is in spurts.  You can see this when you look at the behaviour of Year 7 and compare this with Year 10 and make a further appraisal of Year 12.  The advances are more in steps rather than gradual.


Another consideration is that the maturity of the brain’s connectomes is under construction.  In 2009 the US National Institute of Health commissioned a project to identify the memory centres, our schemas in the brain, The Human Connection Project to understand the interconnectedness across all the memories held in the brain.  The resulting network is referred to as our connectome.  They identified 180 areas, hubs if you like that were connected, 97 more than previously known.  Each area has a dense internal array of neural connections.  Each hub has access to the others via connections of axonal pathways allowing them to share their information.  This sharing process is our working memory in action.


In adults these connections may vary across their life as their experiences and beliefs adjust to their environmental circumstances but at any given time they are relatively distinctive, they have a consistency in how they interpret their environment.  In children these connections are less distinct and so the inconsistency leads to the confusions so typical of children and adolescents.  This ordering between hubs takes place in concert with the prefrontal lobes.


A characteristic about this maturity of the connectome is that this occurs on average a year to eighteen months earlier in females than males and this confirms the attitudes of girls and boys that any secondary teacher will have experienced.


This time of transition is about becoming a functioning adult.  Like all things about being an adult the skills needed are many and varied however, the following illustration contains the broad categories that define an effective adult.

Down the left column are the deficits with which children come into the world.  They make the change by acquiring the skills that make them effective in dealing with the challenges in life.  These are as follows:

  • Relating Skills – At birth, human babies are the most dependent of all mammals.  They also take the most time to accumulate the self-awareness and confidence to stand on their own two feet.
  • Comprehension – Children have to be taught how things work especially the social skills so important in negotiating within a community.
  • Decision Making – Like relating skills children need to have the confidence to make decisions and stick to them when they think they are right.  Of course, they need to be flexible and accept an alternate view if they are wrong.
  • Social Skills – This is also similar to relating skills but this is the ability to recognise how the ‘others’ feel in a given situation and take their standpoint into consideration.  Sometimes it is necessary to put the group’s needs first.
  • Interested – This is a critical skill that is most ‘at threat’ in the teenage years.  Curiosity enhances all parts of a person’s life decisions and makes things very interesting.


Developing these skills in adolescents is not a simple matter of just telling them what to do!  One of the worst things you can do is come across as the expert ‘just do this because I know best’.  This is a time when teenagers are moving away from the control of adults and this is healthy and necessary however, if you engage them and say things like ‘this is what I think about the task’ you give the advice without threatening their emerging independence.


Creating a supportive classroom also assists in this transition.  Previous Newsletters (The Tribal Classroom – 1 August 2018 and The Tribal Teacher – 29 July 2019) give excellent summaries about how to create strong group cohesion and attachment where the conditions of equity, fairness and trust underpin the classroom environment.


So many children miss out on supportive conditions in their first three years.  Our work focusses on these abused and neglected students.  A supportive teacher in a caring school can make such a difference for these kids – it is never the last chance but it is the next best chance after the early years to create new behaviours.   If they miss out change is still possible but for those children in low socioeconomic areas, access to mental health  professional is rare.

Posted by: AT 11:39 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 19 2021

Tips for Teaching Teenagers

For years it was the assumption that children were born with a certain number of neurons and how these were arranged predetermined an individual’s fate. The statement, ‘Give me a child for the first seven years and I will give you back the adult!’ is commonly attributed to Mark Twain but it is a cliché that can be traced back to Aristotle and used by St. Ignatius Loyloa to underpin the Jesuit Order’s emphasis on educating the youth.  This is faulty belief Number 1.  Of course, the early years are critical in the development of a child’s sense of self and their subsequent approach to life but this is not decisive.

The second inadequate truth is that early intervention is the only effective time to attempt to modify dysfunctional behaviours; if you miss this time it is too late.  Of course, it is much easier to change behaviours before they become entrenched in a child’s repertoire but this is not the only time this can be achieved.  When I started working with dysfunctional teenagers I experienced unintentional reluctance to support my work.  My supervisors looked at my school as somewhere to park these dangerous kids while they placed their meagre resources on working in early childhood.

To be clear, I agree early intervention is very much the preferred option when helping those kids who struggle to control their behaviour.  All our work is about supporting such endeavors but I refuse to give-up on any child or any adult just because they missed out during this time.  The conduct disordered and oppositional students, I was charged to look after deserved every chance to change the way they behaved and take their rightful place in our society.
In 2007, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd published a paper, ‘Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence’ which demonstrated that the onset of puberty marked a significant stage in the development of the brain.  At about age eleven there is a surge of growth in the Brain’s ‘grey matter’ and a significant increase in the presence of myelin in the prefrontal lobes; these are the conditions for development of new areas of cognition and therefore new ways to control behaviour.

This is the period where the prefrontal lobes begin to mature eventually allowing us to consider decisions through the use of our finely matured working memory.  During this transition from behaviours regulated by our concrete thoughts or raw emotions to more measured decision making there is a period of adjustment.  This is particularly marked around the interpretation and expression of emotions.
Up until about age eleven the interpretation of the emotional state of an individual is carried out in the amygdala and this informs the individual’s response to this non-verbal message. Eventually, the emotional message from the environment goes through the prefrontal lobes for evaluation and, unless the situation is extremely stressful the decision on how to react is more controlled.  Of course, when any situation is potentially threatening to our survival the amygdala provides instant response.

During this time of change the child will become less capable of identifying how others are feeling as emotional interpretation function shifts from amygdala to frontal lobes.  A ten-year-old child can more accurately identify the emotions of others at a high level than an eleven-year-old.  The drop-in accuracy is considered to be in the order of 20%.  This frustrates both parents and teachers who, when expressing their great displeasure are confronted with an adolescent who ‘just doesn’t seem to care’.  

Another form of annoyance for the adult is that having given clear instructions about what to do, and receiving a message that their teenager understands the directions and is willing to comply, when they come to inspect the ‘finished task’ nothing has been done and the teenager doesn’t understand why you’re upset; more frustration!

However, this is the developmental period of the prefrontal lobe which, in times of tolerable levels of stress:
•    Controls how we are interacting with our environment
•    Manages how we make judgments about what occurs in our daily activities 
•    Directs our emotional response 
•    Organises our expressive language. Assigns meaning to the words we choose 
•    Involves word associations 
•    Controls memory for habits and motor activities 
This is our working memory in action.
The following is advice for teaching all adolescent students and is the same for those who we focus on, those with dysfunctional behaviours resulting from childhood abuse and/or neglect.  The environment you provide must be consistent, persistent and supportive as always but a bit more patience is needed through these years.  On top of this, the following suggestions will help:
1.    Don’t let the challenges of puberty lower your expectations.  Just because your children may become moody or resistant doesn’t mean you should let them pull back on their efforts in their activities or their schoolwork.  Continue your encouragement and involvement, you can still be appropriately angry when they fail to ‘do their homework’.  It’s all about finding the right fit.

2.    You have to gradually pass the control of the environment from you to them. One of the hardest things to do is to hand over the responsibility from it being your duty to having them fulfil their obligations to it being their responsibility.  I understand how hard it is to let go and watch them make choices that we might not necessarily make; to watch them make mistakes.  But, without going through the process of learning to be self-responsible they will never take their rightful place in our community.  

3.    Organise reasonable routines for your students.   Allow time for the very demanding academic work or schoolwork but make sure you give them plenty of time for other, more social activities.  The amount of time put aside for school work will increase throughout their time at secondary school but the growth should synchronize with the maturity of the prefrontal lobe.

4.    Don’t be surprised if your students focus more on socialising during this time. This is customary and important but friendships aren’t the only significant aspects of their lives and should not displace their other important activities and responsibilities. Be vigilant around their use of social media, this can become a substitute for students who struggle with face-to-face relationships.  It’s best to limit the use of these activities.  

5.    Expect students to grow and change.  Encourage them to seek out new activities to replace ones they outgrow.  Some young teenagers stick with the same activities that they’ve done since they were young children; others go through radical changes; both are normal.

6.    Accept, in the senior years you may have to take more of a back seat in the driving of their education.  But, back seat drivers can be effective in making sure the course they are on is steady and safe!  Teenagers are still hearing what you say even when they seem not to be listening.

I have included, in the resources section of our site a chapter form my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ – Chapter 8 - The Second Chance: The Teenage Brain, that gives a much more detailed explanation of this stage of their brain’s development.  It is just as the chapter says, a second chance and I have argued that dealing with those damaged adolescents at the time of puberty is a powerful form of early intervention.

Posted by: AT 07:05 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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