Thinking about Puberty

A lot has been said recently about the difficulties adolescents face because the self-control functions of their brains can’t keep pace with their biological drives to explore the world and experiment, resulting in risky behaviours.

Bewilderment about adolescent disorganization and the apparent loss of self-control exists partly because parents and teachers assume that children’s thinking ability improves consistently across the transition from childhood to adolescence. That’s not how it is. We know that children’s thinking gets more efficient and more sophisticated as they approach puberty. But there is a `dip’ in thinking and reasoning from the time that puberty begins, gradually improving until mid-adolescence. The reason for this `dip’ is a spurt in brain growth at the beginning of puberty, reaching a peak in girls at about 11 years and boys about a year later. But these new brain cells are not settled into stable connections for some years, and so there are lots of unconnected brain cells that interfere with efficient thinking. Paradoxically, while there are more brain cells, the overall functioning of the brain is not as efficient as it was when there were fewer brain cells.

Importantly, it is the parts of the brain responsible for paying attention, making decisions, planning, self-control, and perspective-taking that are most affected by this brain development. There are obvious implications for learning and living. In New Zealand, children aged 11 to 14 are in the school years 7 to 10. These are the years that are associated with a major transition in children’s learning environments the move to high school. So, it is just at the age when children are experiencing a decline in their thinking, organizational and self-control abilities, that expectations increase for them to become more responsible for their learning, and their lives more generally.

Admittedly, the ability to be independent learners and responsible citizens depends on more than just brain development. Temperament (that part of personality we’re born with) and general intelligence also make major contributions to our respective organizational and self-control abilities. A child who has a cautious, risk-averse nature is somewhat protected against risky behaviours; a child with high general intelligence is somewhat protected against disorganization; and a child who is strongly attracted to adventure and excitement by nature is more at risk for disorganization and impulsivity.

Therefore, it is important that educators and parents are aware that the transition years pose considerable challenges for adolescents’ reasoning processes. It is not uncommon for young people who did well at primary school not to achieve as well at intermediate school or during the first two years at high school. Rather than withdrawing support structures on the assumption that adolescents can manage themselves better than they could when they were younger, these supports need to stay in place with gradual removal as young people demonstrate their ability to manage themselves and their lives effectively.


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