No more muddling along

6th July 2007 at 01:00
when robbie asked his dad recently if he could leave school, he was unable to comprehend his father's reply. He didn't recognise his father's gestures, he couldn't read the nuances behind his words. He couldn't accept his reasoning. He simply couldn't understand, say scientists studying the teen- age brain.

According to Elizabeth Morris, clinical psychologist and principal of the School of Emotional Literacy, Robbie's brain was going through too much flux to cope with even simple messages such as no. "When a child is born, he or she undergoes massive neural growth. Then as he or she grows older, the brain goes through a series of pruning stages, reducing some of the neural pathways that have formed.

"But when a child hits puberty and the sex hormones are released, which is happening at 11 for girls and 13 for boys about two years earlier now than it did 10 years ago there is another massive growth period for the brain, lasting until they reach around 17 years old," said Dr Morris. "It is like a growth meltdown."

Most teachers will be well experienced in the fall-out from this development: sleepy adolescents, risk-taking behaviour, self-obsession, aggression and disengagement. "For the young people, it is like Philip Larkin said, there is a 'beginning, a muddle, and an end', and it can be a very emotional time for them," says Susan McIver, psychodynamic counsellor with the emotional literacy centre for half the week, English teacher at James Gillespie's High, Edinburgh, for the rest.

Mrs McIver and Dr Morris have been working together to develop a series of workshops combining a psychodynamic counselling approach with neural research to help teachers understand the science behind teen behaviour.

Beginning next academic year, teachers in Glasgow, Midlothian, West Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh will be the first to be offered a series of twilight sessions on understanding the young brain. There are also plans in Edinburgh to run sessions for the educational psychology service, so that training can be cascaded to more teachers. Summer term trial runs of the series, which also includes a look at the Young Brain and the Fragile Brain, were booked up immediately.

"It helps you see it from the child's perspective more," says Christine Sumstine, principal teacher at Woodmuir Primary in West Lothian, who attended the session on the Teen Brain held in late June.

Part of the problem with the young mind is that it is most active at night, between the hours of 10pm and 2am, due to the sex hormones. Instead of sleeping so they are rested enough for learning the next day, they are sitting up late following their urge to find a mate on the internet, MSN or similar.

"Research has shown that humans are most receptive to learning 12 hours after REM sleep, which in teenagers corresponds to around 4pm, after school has finished," says Dr Morris.

Other key findings from the combined study of the brain and psychology suggest that young people have difficulty reading facial expressions, are unable to see deeper meaning to arguments and situations, and need more neural stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure as someone older or younger. Risk-taking is enhanced because areas in their brain are developing at different rates, which restricts accurate decoding of signals.

Researchers have also found that play fighting when young is an important factor to later development. "We also know that the rough and tumble that children engage with, when young, helps them set physical boundaries but some children, because of changes in society, are not able to engage in this behaviour," says Mrs McIver. "This often leads to aggressive, physical behaviour when older; the pushing and shoving that teachers often witness in the classroom."

But the research has done more than reveal some of what is happening within the adolescent brain; it has also found that the teenage years are a fertile time for therapeutic intervention with vulnerable young people. "It is like a second chance for them," she adds.

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