‘Adolescence is one of the most fascinating stages of human development’

'The teacher and the teenage brain', by John Coleman, is published by Routledge. Annie Brookman-Byrne asks the questions.

You say that there is a tendency to focus on the changes that take place in the teenage brain and the consequent difficulties teenagers face, but ‘there is another side to the story’. What are the positives that are sometimes neglected when we talk about teenagers?
One of the most striking things about teenagers is that they represent a paradox. The good and the ‘not so good’ are combined, so that often it appears to be a contradictory and puzzling stage. I frequently say that inside every teenager is both a child and an adult, and this duality represents the positives and as well as some of the difficulties. With regard to the brain, yes indeed there is another side to the story. As well as the challenges represented by pruning and the upset of the hormone balance, there is also a hugely positive element that results from increasing maturation of the brain during this stage. This maturation makes possible increasing capacity for abstract thought and scientific reasoning, as well as improvements in working memory and greater communication skills.

Is there any danger in encouraging teachers to use an understanding of neuroscience in their teaching? Despite attempts to debunk neuromyths, they are clearly still present. Is there a chance that conveying neuroscience to teachers causes more harm than good?
Yes indeed, this is a live issue and one that comes up frequently. Some believe it is too soon to translate the findings of neuroscience into the world of education, whilst others believe that doing so will just confuse teachers or raise expectations that cannot be realised. I address these questions directly in the book.

An understanding of brain development will not help teachers with curriculum design or teaching their particular subject. But there are many examples of how this knowledge has changed teachers’ understanding of their pupils. It helps teachers to know why teenagers are drowsy in the mornings, why they don’t always understand consequences, and how they can be motivated more effectively.

I am very careful to draw only upon research that is accepted by all reputable scientists. I address the issue of ‘neuromyths’, and emphasise that there is now a body of knowledge that can be found in any reputable textbook on the adolescent brain.

Are there any simple changes that teachers can make in the classroom that draw on evidence from neuroscience?
Definitely. Teachers give lots of examples. Knowing that the brain is not all set in Year 7 when pupils transition from primary school is very helpful as teachers can see the capacity for change. Having a better understanding of motivation makes a big difference, as does knowledge of the role of dopamine and the importance of reward. Knowledge of teenage sleep patterns means that schools can rethink what they do in the first lessons of the day – there is still melatonin in the teenage brain at this time, and this makes some drowsy in the early part of the day. A better understanding of executive function, and how this alters with brain maturation can also assist teachers to learn more about cognitive change and development.

You’ve worked with teenagers for a long time. Our understanding of adolescence has grown hugely, but have teenagers changed?
Well, I don’t think teenagers themselves have changed, but what has changed is the environment around them. There has been enormous social change over the last 40 years, and all these changes impact on young people’s lives. The changing family, the changing world of work, and the ubiquity of the digital space are all aspects of our lives that have had profound effects on the way teenagers grow up today.

I outline the findings from my ‘Change Questionnaire’ in the book. This is a very simple questionnaire, asking how young people themselves think they have changed since they became teenagers. I have used this with over 500 young people aged 13 and 14. The result that struck me most was that 95 per cent believe that they are more stressed as teenagers than when they were younger. What is this about? The answer is universal. It is school that creates the stress – homework, tests, exams, as well as pressure from teachers and other adults. That is what has changed. It is a more stressful world for young people than it was for previous generations.

When I run workshops in schools on the adolescent brain, pupils find the information helpful and reassuring. They discover that they are not alone in having complicated emotions, and perhaps most importantly, that things will not stay the same. They will change and develop, and thus what they are experiencing is a process, a part of their movement towards adulthood.

Your book is a result of the work you’ve done to develop those workshops. What challenges did you face in designing those workshops? And what advice would you give to others who want to share our understanding of the adolescent brain with teachers, parents and teens?
This question is about the translation of research into practice, or about public engagement with science. There were lots of different challenges depending on the audience. For professional adults the key issue was to make the workshops lively and interesting, but also to deliver a basic understanding of the brain and how it functions without losing their interest or blinding them with science.

The major problem with the workshops for parents was to encourage them to attend schools in the evening. Being able to deliver the workshops online has enabled us to get to more parents involved. My experience with adults has been almost entirely positive, and hugely rewarding. Having a better understanding of teenage brain development seems to have a big impact, with people talking about ‘light bulb moments’ and ‘leading to a change in family relationships’.

Developing the workshops for pupils has been the most challenging. There are all sorts of questions that arise with this content. Where does it fit in the curriculum? Who will teach it? For what age is it most appropriate? Why should we add this when the curriculum is already so crowded? And so on. When I was originally contracted to design this workshop, I was asked to do something that would fit into one 45 minute lesson. However, when running training sessions for teachers who wanted to deliver this material, without exception they believed that the content needed more time. They wanted to make their own modifications, so where this is being delivered in schools it is probably being taught in a somewhat different manner from how it was envisaged at the start of the project.

A key issue here is training the trainers. Clearly, I cannot continue to deliver workshops to everyone who shows an interest. This is a significant problem if this knowledge is to get into the public domain. Some local authorities (e.g. Hertfordshire) have taken on the challenge of training a cohort of trainers, whilst some voluntary sector organisations have also contracted me to train their trainers (e.g. The Charlie Waller Trust).

You ask what advice I would give to others interested in this work. I believe the work I have described is relevant, not just to developmental psychologists, but to all psychologists who work in health and social care, in the criminal justice system, and in human resources. For this reason, I believe that anyone working with this age group, no matter the setting, should learn about brain development. This is a live field, with new findings appearing every year. Even in the last few years, important findings have been published to do with reward processing, teenage sleep, the impact of early childhood trauma on teenage brain development, and the relation between physical puberty and brain development. It is exciting, as we are at the early stages in a new field of scientific endeavour.

There are too few psychologists working with this age group. Yet adolescence is one of the most fascinating stages of human development. Puzzling, contradictory, yet full of promise and opportunity. My advice to anyone reading this – working with teenagers offers rich dividends.

What questions are you excited for psychologists researching adolescence to address in the coming years?
A range of questions arise as a result of this endeavour. We need to understand the brain better. The human brain is immensely complex. We still know relatively little about individual differences. There are variables which may affect brain development that have hardly been addressed – gender and race are the two most obvious ones. We need more longitudinal studies which will help us understand the way these changes in the brain influence development into adulthood.

I suppose for me the most obvious answer to this question is that I would like more psychologists to become involved in translating our current knowledge into practice. This branch of neuroscience is relevant in a number of fields, so it would be good if others were able to take my work as an example. We need evaluations of the impact of workshops like mine. We need explorations of new ways of delivering this material to a variety of groups of adults and young people, in a variety of settings. Most importantly we need to know what difference this knowledge makes in the real world of education, in health, in the care system, and of course, in the home.

I have found this work hugely rewarding – I hope other psychologists can discover the same rewards as I have found in making scientific knowledge more widely accessible to the public.

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