The brain, my teenage son and managing behaviour in secondary schools

27th May 2016 at 01:00
This senior leader turned to neuroscience to work out how to handle a class of teens and found it helped him out at home, too

OVER THE years, I have made it my job to understand, as best I can, how the brain works. As a teacher, it’s proved pretty useful. And now, as the parent of a teenage boy, it has proved invaluable. For in learning a bit about the brain, I can suddenly understand why my son, and all those other teens, behave as they do. Knowing this makes you both a better teacher and a better parent. Here’s why.

The Reptilian Brain and learning to ‘let it go’

The human brain began developing billions of years ago when we emerged as reptiles from the primordial swamp.

A key function of the reptile brain was deciding whether to attack or run away from a threat. This brain is called the amygdala.

The amygdala was regulated by the development of the limbic system – the part of the brain that helps control emotions. This helped make sure we did not kill members of our family who could help us to survive.

As we evolved, the development of the areas of the brain that brought rationality to our thinking further helped us to control the impulses of the amygdala.

Unfortunately for teenagers, many studies have shown that in adolescence, humans can rely too heavily on the amygdala and not enough on where rational thinking takes place. Which explains quite a lot about teen behaviour.

When teenagers are more aggressive, it is likely down to a natural development in their brain: they are lacking a little rationality.

As a teacher, I always thought pupils leaving a lesson was unacceptable. Now I realise that, on a few occasions, the best thing is to allow a student to leave the room to cool off. If not, events inevitably and needlessly escalate due to raging amygdalae.

Schools should try to develop systems so that this can happen in a safe and controlled way.

Social capital and the importance of flexible seating

Perhaps in evolutionary terms, the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is designed to encourage risk taking. Teenagers need to take risks in order to impress potential mates. Studies have shown that teenagers only take risks when they are being watched by their peers. One study that placed teenagers in a driving simulator showed that if they were on their own or with an adult, then their accident rate was identical to an adult’s. But place another teenager next to them, and the accident rate increased dramatically.

This has made me reflect on how I manage my classroom. I avoid firing out unannounced questions to random pupils. We all know that mortified look that our pupils give us as their peers sit and silently judge, yet teachers still do it in every class, every day.

Instead I use Assessment for Learning strategies, such as allowing pupils to talk in pairs before sharing an answer with the class – to test with their peers that the answer they would give is socially acceptable. Or, I pose an open-ended question such as “Why did Henry V win the Battle of Agincourt?” and I ask every single pupil to give an answer so that no individual loses more social capital than the others.

I also think carefully about the layout of my tables for every lesson. For writing, we sit in rows so pupils are not under the scrutiny of their peers. For discussion work, the tables are in groups of four so that they can engage with their peers and perhaps take more risks with their ideas and learning. And I never, ever ask rhetorical questions like “What do you think is more important, chatting with your mates, or listening to me and getting a good grade in your GCSEs?” because I know the answer already.

Grey matter and taking challenge as an invitation

From the age of 2 to mid-adolescence, the human brain goes through an explosion of development. As we experience and learn more and more, trillions of brain cells make synaptic links, turning our brains from white matter into grey matter.

Indeed, children can learn so much that the early-teenage brain has more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex than an adult does, according to Sarah-Jane Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (you can watch Professor Blakemore explaining more about it in this wonderful TED talk: As adolescence progresses, the brain begins to prune itself. It decides which pieces of information it needs to keep and which it needs to discard, as they won’t be used again.

So, when a teenager asks you in a rather surly fashion, “What’s the point of that, then?” think carefully before you give your answer – if you get your response wrong, that potentially vital piece of information may well be pruned from their brains forever.

As a history teacher, I am often asked what the point of history is, especially around options time. I don’t want them to instantly forget what I have taught them in the past three years, so I spend a substantial amount of time and effort in answering them.

The prefrontal cortex and limiting choices

Brain scans have revealed that the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that makes decisions – is still developing in adolescence. So, not having it at full capacity may lead to teenagers doing odd things. It could be said that they do not choose to make bad decisions: they are not physically able to make good ones.

This knowledge has made me question my former practice of offering pupils choices.

“You have a choice: work well like all of the other pupils and receive a merit or misbehave and get a detention.”

How many pupils do you know who inexplicably take the second option?

There has been much advice recently about the importance of giving pupils choice as a way of engaging and motivating them. This is fine, as long as there is no wrong choice. When I give my students choice, I give them three different tasks to select from, but all are of equal challenge and they all result in the same learning – it is simply different ways of getting there. I also teach my exam groups that their prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped. I make it clear that they shouldn’t choose whether to revise, complete homework or classwork, as they will make a bad decision. All they need to do is follow my instructions to the letter and they will go on to achieve an A*.

A lack of empathy and the need to say it loud

The final surprise for me about the teenage brain is that it is very bad at empathy. Recent research by Sarah-Jane Blackmore has shown that, when shown an image of a face that has an expression of anger or fear, significantly more adolescents failed to recognise the correct emotion on display than adults.

For years, I have been told that I should use non-verbal signals and facial expressions to deal with low-level disruption. Perhaps those pupils who ignored me were not being rude or badly behaved, they just couldn’t interpret my expression. I now ensure, where possible, that all important messages are communicated verbally. Where I cannot avoid using non-verbal messages, as perhaps it would disrupt the flow of the lesson, I always ensure that they are as theatrical and explicit as possible. Which is as amusing as it is effective.

John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon @JohnStanier1

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