In his book ‘Age of Opportunity’, Laurence Steinberg talks about the malleable nature of the teenage brain. Lecturer at Temple University and an expert on the adolescent brain, Steinberg describes how the changes in the brain between the ages of 12 and 25 have a remarkable influence on the behaviour of each and every one of the students in our schools. Steinberg reports on the impact of peer pressure on how a teenager behaves and their greater susceptibility to impulsive and risk-taking behaviours. The rapid changes taking place in the pre-frontal cortex during these significant years also mean that teenagers are less likely to put on the brakes when they are with their friends. “Risk taking,” Steinberg argues, “may be heightened in adolescence because teenagers spend so much time with their peers, and the mere presence of peers makes the rewarding aspects of risky behaviour more salient.”
So, if there is something different about the hard-wiring of the adolescent brain, what can we do about this in a school environment? Can we minimise this tendency to engage in potentially dangerous behaviour? This is – of course – a difficult question to answer. Certainly, Steinberg argues that a tendency to teach character is not always fruitful; teenagers have the cognitive, reasoning ability to comprehend the consequences of their actions. However, attempts to reason are overcome by the impact of peers and the individual desire for rewards.
In order to address this issue, therefore, we must provide opportunities for teenagers to take positive risks. The extra-curricular provision in our schools is as important for the wellbeing of teenagers as what we offer academically. Providing teenagers with a busy environment which challenges them to work outside of their comfort zones will enable them to take risks in a controlled manner. Steinberg, for instance, describes the importance of aerobic, physical activity – even in those examination years. Participating in physical and other challenging activities, students can learn those skills of perseverance, grit and determination that will then contribute to their future reasoning capacities.
We also need to make sure that parents are aware of this research too. Encouraging our students to become positive risk-takers cannot end at the school gate. Parents need to be aware of the important role they play in understanding the behaviour of their teenagers and the importance of peers on how they behave. For instance, teenagers understand the risks of speeding when driving, but they are more likely to do so when they are driving in a car with their friends. Indeed, drivers aged 17-19 only make up 1.5 per cent of UK licence holders but are involved in 12 per cent of fatal and serious crashes. Parents need to be informed and then make the decision as to whether, for instance, delaying allowing their child to drive or using ‘black-box’ technology are routes they need to take to minimise the impact of the behaviour Steinberg describes.
At my own school, I have seen the positive impact on teenagers of opportunities which encourage challenge. This has often been seen in the context of teenagers gaining a new and sometimes relative late interest in physical activity. Offering new activities for girls – tag-rugby, outdoor residentials which focus on team-work, the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, climbing, water-polo and so forth – has had hugely beneficial consequences, not only on physical health, but also on the ability of our girls to link rewards with positive risk-taking activity.
What is certain, though, is that we ignore the findings of modern brain research at our peril. Accepting and acting upon the differences between the teenage and the adult brains is crucial if we are to ensure happy and healthy futures for our students.
Helen Jeys is Deputy Headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls