Lesson Two: The Teenage Brain

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I don’t know how many times someone has said to me, “You work with middle schoolers? I don’t know how you do it. I could never do that!” Let’s face it, teenagers can be weird and quirky, but isn’t that why we love our jobs so much?

It is sometimes astounding to watch the light bulb go off one day for a student and then have them forget this same information just a day later.

I often hear from parents upset with their teen. They say that when their child was in elementary school she was organized and had great time management skills. Yet, once she turned eleven or twelve, she lost it all. Why is this happening? How can students have skills and then suddenly seem to lose them? Why is your daughter happy one minute and crying hysterically the next? Or, why does your son lock himself in his room for hours at a time playing video games?

Well, it all boils down to the brain, their frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. Even teens with normal executive functioning can struggle with their behaviors governed by these skills. At this stage, their brains are going through a critical stage of development. A surge of growth of neurons and synapses just before adolescence is followed by a process called pruning (explained in detail on pages 22-23 of Smart But Scattered Teens.) During this period of development, the “use it or lose it” process may occur in the frontal lobe. In other words, “Neural connections, including synapses, that are used are retained, while those that are not exercised are lost.”

This is why understanding the teenage brain is so important. If we want our students to have good executive skills, we need to teach them to them. They will not just magically appear.


    1. Watch the Teenage Brain Explained A bit funny, but full of value.
    2. Watch the first two videos of the Frontline episode “The Teenage Brain”
      1.  Teenagers’ Inexplicable Behavior
      2. The Wiring of the Adolescent Brain
    3. In 250 words or more, describe some new learning you have about teenagers from watching this video.
      1. Were there any surprises for you?
      2. Did it confirm your existing views?
      3. Did it explain any behaviors you see, or maybe saw in yourself at that time?
    4. Upload your work document below
    5. In the comments section below, share a story of when you were a teen, or if you prefer and you have/had a teen of your own, share one of those.








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  1. Growing up I recognised lots of differences and also some similarities between my brother and I whilst in our teenage years.
    My morning routines changed as I got older and progressed through my teenage years. Between the ages of 13-16 I found it very easy to get out of bed in the mornings and felt that I had a lot of energy. In my later teenage years in my finals years at school and first years of university I found myself finding it increasingly difficult to get out of bed in the mornings on a weekday but at the weekends would wake up very early without any problems.
    My brother on the other hand for as long as I can remember until the age of 22 when he started working, was never able to get out of bed no matter who called him or how he was called. He would be very much like the boy in the first two videos and would only get out of bed at the last minute or when he was ready.
    With regards to moods I also found that we differed. I was teased as a teenager and so became very defensive and found my emotions very hard to control depending on the situations. I would float between anger, sadness and feeling insecure on a daily basis and then also happiness at different moments. In a surprisingly similar context I noticed that my brother (4 years younger) would also go through emotions of anger at the same age but for completely different reasons, most of which as a girl I couldn’t relate to at the time.

  2. Hi Claire,

    While my brothers and sisters and I all got up at relatively early times, it always astounded me when I’d go to a friend’s house for a sleepover and that friend would sleep in until noon! As I write this, my teenage son, who just woke up 2 hours ago, is again napping on the couch.

    The more I read about teenagers, the more I understand why they’re off task so much of the time at school If they have a personal issue going on or are feeling “unsafe” at school due to teasing or other reasons, how can they possibly concentrate on what’s going on in the classroom. The amygdala in the brain is like an alarm bell. When they feel threatened, that alarm bell starts sounding, and that’s all they can focus on.

    Emotional control and response regulation are 2 executive functions that are controlled in the pre-frontal cortex. As we know, the pre-frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, so easily controlling your emotions at that age is quite difficult.

  3. I remember as a teen always being excessively tired and having to push myself into completing work in school and doing sports. My mom always points this out during family meetings and how different I became once I reached my teenage years. “When you were young, you wouldn’t stop moving and playing, but once you reached adolescence, you became slow and sleepy”, which makes perfect sense with the videos I just watched. In Chile we have a saying about the adolescent years and we call it “the age of the turkey” because it makes teens slow, emotionally volatile and as if they had an eternal “lag” in their wiring. The video makes perfect sense to what I remember myself as and how I see my 6th grade students as they pave their way through 6th grade and into 7th grade. I remember my 6th grade year as the toughest, for my body began to change and I was extremely emotional and sensitive to my surroundings. Friends were hard to keep and peer pressure began to sink in as I tried to fit in with the groups that I wanted.
    My mom always points out how my moods began to change. From being and extroverted, happy child, I became quiet and very moody, shifting from one emotion to the next and even bursting into tears for the smallest things, which made the relationships with my sister and my mom very hard. Thankfully, my mom is a very patient person (unlike my sister). It is easier to connect with teens when you understand what is going on in their brain. it also helps us as teachers to have this information and be able to explain to parents to some extent, what goes on in their kid´s brains.

  4. I also have students are always sleepy. It’s like a drug! Even if they get the recommended number of hours of sleep, they are still wanting more. I love your saying in Child about the age of turkey. that is perfect!

    I think it’s really important for us to teach our students about their brains and why they are feeling the way they are feeling. If they can name it, it takes the mystery away of why they are going through these constant mood changes.

  5. Morning in our house is hectic. While my husband and I get up at 5:30, the kids roll out of bed at 6:50/7AM. We are all out the door and off to school by 7:15. Being a Speech Pathologist I try to give my teens strategies to be efficient with their limited time in the morning. This limited time is their choice, as my first suggestion was to wake up earlier. My suggestions of packing the night before, lying out their clothes, making a list of what they have after school so they don’t forget items, and putting their keys/wallet in the same location seem to fall on deaf ears. My son tends to go to bed at a reasonable hour so he tends to be more alert and calmer in the morning. My daughter, despite multiple reminders to go to bed, tends to stay up – studying, talking to friends on social media, and watching episodes of Gossip Girl (all simultaneously). She comes down in the am tired and moody. My suggestions are perceived as judgemental and she tends to respond with short, snappy answers. My husband and I try not to take it personally, but its not easy to do on some mornings. We have learned that we both can’t react to her, as that spirals the morning into raised voices and tears. So, we combat the teenage brain with routines, thick skin, and tons of verbal reminders. These videos reminded me that its a “stage.” When the kids were younger we embraced each stage, reading about what to expect in the terrible two’s, and threes. Funny how when they got up in age we stopped reading and started reacting. It’s true that at times our teenagers are perceived to be “old enough to know better” and ” old enough to know how to do that.” A good reminder for me was that they might be taller than us at this “stage” but they still need us. We are their executive functions – we are constantly teaching and modeling – and this helps develop their teenage brains!

  6. As a teenager, I ran cross country and track. My mother ensured that each of us were involved with a sport. She did not realize it was helping us to manage our time and develop our executive functioning skills. She just wanted well behaved children. I had a routine everyday after school which involved time management and learning how to study. This allowed me to make good use of my time. I did have a tutor for a while and thinking about it was about note-taking skills and how to learn not content.

    Now as I watch students who are involved with activities after school and those who are not, I see differences. Those students who have to manage their time, also understand how to organize themselves with study habits. They create schedules for themselves and know how to ask adults for help with their learning. Students with too much time tend to wait until the last minute and assignments are lacking organization and deeper thinking skills.

    • Your mom seems like a smart woman! Exercise is so important for our brains. I’m glad our students get PE in school, as some of them would never be active otherwise. The routine is so helpful. For students who always said they were “too busy” to get their homework done, I’d have them fill out a time management guide in their planners so they could see where the openings in their nighttime routines were and they could complete their homework during that time.

  7. As the parent of 6 kids, most of whom were adopted as older kids, and for a few years, five of whom in their teen years together, I have had to deal with more than my share of ‘risky teen behaviour’. One story that has become a family legend but was anything but funny at the time, concerns my oldest son. When he was 14 he had broken his leg playing basketball. He and his buddy had apparently been planning to steal the farm truck for a joy ride and they felt that doing it while his leg was in a cast was the perfect time. After he was caught, it shocked me how his view and mine, of the dangers he put himself and his friend in, couldn’t have been more opposite. He was deep in the zone of feeling invincible- remorseful yes, but really believing he had it under control. I think that was the point I realized that I had better start reading about what was really happening with teens and their developing brains. While greater understanding has made me more aware and empathetic towards young teens and their need for risk taking, it still, never fails to amaze (and often terrify) me.

    • Wow, Donna! What a life story you have! I’d love to hear about your experiences sometime. I always wonder how we all made it out of our teenage years in one piece, and you are right, it can be terrifying. I had some scary experiences as a teen when I hung out with people who also thought they were invincible; driving like crazy and taking our lives into their hands. Still makes me angry when I think about it. I love the story of your son joy riding in the truck…it is so “teenage brain.” Thanks for sharing!

  8. It was quite interesting to learn about teenagers’ brain and their sleeping time. I think I was an owl when I was in my teen. Schools started at 7 and I had to bicycle to school from 6:30 while I never went to bed before midnight. So in the morning, I was still dreaming. However, night atmosphere helped me to stay focused better. I always had a hard time to explain to my mom that I had to stay up late to work on my essays as I could not write when I heard TV noise from neighbours. My mom never believes that. And not being believed was so frustrating.

  9. I grew up in a big, close-knit family. I only went to schools where my mom’s sisters/cousins teach to monitor us. I never felt I had the freedom growing up so I always try to escape by telling lies all the time. The rules were highly implemented in the house: no tv from Sunday-Thurs, has to read books from the library, practice spelling, tend the garden, sleep in the afternoon, clean the house etc. There was nothing left for fun time. So I rebeled. I know the consequences but I didn’t care. I wanted to prove something and the more I’m being controlled, the less I heed. Growing up, I always felt no one understands what I’m going through and whenever I see teens acting reckless or rebeling, I can relate to them. It’s comforting to know that it is just a phase of development rather than a long term problem. Now, I can explain myself to my parents. Ha!

  10. This lesson reminded me about my memories of being a teenager. I remember the moodiness and emotions being amplified. However, I remember feeling lots of emotions but often kept them inside. I was brought up in a family and community where people tended to keep their emotions ‘under control’ and definitely didn’t talk about them. Basically, if you were having a hard time, you were just supposed to suck it up and got on with it. And any outbursts or sharing of strong emotions were seen as being out of control. As a teenager, I realized, I didn’t direct my emotions or moodiness at my parents – I don’t remember arguing much with them – but I do know my sister and I had a very chaotic relationship at that time. I have one sister who is 2 years younger and I know we argued a lot and did not get a long so well. We both look back now as adults (and teachers) and have a much better understanding of what was going on. We also realize that we grew up in a situation where emotions were not discussed and now are much more open about sharing how we’re feeling. My sister is also instilling in her two sons that it is okay to talk about how you feel and to address the emotions we have in a positive way. I think this will help as they move into the teenage years. I also realize that I have adapted that with students I work with. I don’t discount their feelings or emotions (We need to refrain from saying ‘just get over it’ or ‘it’s not that bad’ with students) and recognize that they are having some strong feeling and giving them tools and strategies to move forward.

    • Yes, so very true, Diana. I grew up in a similar manner; large family who kept their feelings hidden at all times. Sometimes teens don’t even know why they are feeling the way they are feeling as their frontal lobes are just not mature enough to have that understanding.

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