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Experts delve into the adolescent brain

The New Zealand Boarding Schools Conference (NZBSA) was a stimulating, inspiring and thought-provoking week where educational professionals shared ideas, learned together and established, or built upon, key relationships. We were treated to a high calibre of guest speakers from around the world. While each presenter spoke about a different topic, they had similarities in the messages they were sharing.


The Founder and Chair or The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, Frances Valentine, was our first guest speaker. Frances is a passionate educator who, for the past 20 years has been committed to shifting education and business practice to respond to the future of work and industry. Frances spoke about where the global market for jobs is heading and how we can best equip our students for the work force.

Over the past three years, employers have listed more enterprise skills in their job advertisements. For example, the proportion of jobs that demand critical thinking has increased by 15%, creativity by 65%, presentations skill by 25% and team work by 19%.

She also highlighted the fact that many employers require their staff to have a high level of digital literacy, but there is no specific university or tertiary course that currently caters for this demand, which is astounding.

Marcelle Nader-Turner, the guidance counsellor at St Hilda’s Collegiate School in Dunedin, was our next guest speaker for the week. Marcelle has a long held interest in working with young people who have emotional and behavioural needs. Marcelle also shared her other interest, working with adolescent student relationships and the influence of pornography on young people. While this topic is, at times, still considered taboo, it was extremely informative from a health education and pastoral perspective. It was concerning to see the influence pornography is having on our young people. Marcelle spoke in depth about the genetic makeup of the adolescent brain and presented this slide:

I found this presentation extremely interesting as I also have an interest in adolescent brain development. The Brainwave Trust has spent years researching brain development, predominantly in the first five years of life. More recently, this research has widened to include the relatively unknown development of the adolescent brain.

Human brain growth is now said to be the greatest between the age of 10-15 years. We sometimes expect our students to behave like adults, however, their brain is still very different to an adult’s brain. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is still maturing during adolescence and, for some, well into their twenties.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in rational thinking, decision-making, controlling emotions and impulses, and also reasoning. Adolescents can misinterpret emotions and instructions up to 40% of the time. So while we may associate those ups and downs in emotions and decision-making with hormones, there is more and more research to suggest it is linked to the development of the brain.

Influences like adversity can disrupt this development. Adverse experiences can contribute to a number of difficulties for anyone. However, there are patterns to explain the influences these difficulties can have through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. By about 18 years of age most young people have a strong sense of who they are. Forming a sense of who they want to be or how they fit into this world can be immensely confusing. Bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood can be tough, often with a few bumps along the way.

For adolescents, navigating this stage of life also means weighing up many choices. What career path am I going to take? Am I going to change my diet? Should I join a club or protest group? The way in which adults respond to these choices can make a huge difference. I’m sure there are plenty of situations where a parent or adult would find themselves wanting to shout at an angry or emotional adolescent. The Brainwave Trust recommends a calm response to settle a situation or resolve conflict. This approach may be far more effective. These can be challenging times for all and the motto on the Brainwave Trust website sums up our roles in supporting young people, “Like trees, children need strong foundations”.

The final guest speaker was James Driver. James is a registered psychotherapist working in Christchurch. He has a special interest in understanding and treating problems arising from technology use and overuse, including gaming and social media. As an ex-gaming addict himself. James gave a very logical and thought-provoking insight into some of the reasons why humans are easily influenced by technology. During his presentation, he showed this slide:

As the research shows, our prefrontal cortex is in control again. Brain research tells us that adolescents use less of the area of the brain involved in empathy and emotional evaluation when making decisions. They are more likely to operate from the ‘if it feels good, do it’ part of the brain. As a result, adolescents often do not consider consequences. The most interesting discussion the delegates had with James was to ask ourselves, as either parents or educators, ‘why are they engaging in this particular type of screen time? Are they losing a sense of reality? Are they missing meal times, bathroom breaks and family occasions?’

According to Marcelle Nadar-Turner, wellbeing is strongly linked to intimate connectedness, relational connectedness and collective collectedness. Technology is increasingly becoming an adolescent’s world, which Frances Valentine also echoed. Whether it be gaming, social media or excessive amounts of movies.

As an adult and parent, I know personally that I am still trying to navigate this minefield of where technology is heading. I have had many discussions with my own children around what or how much use is appropriate. Frances also encouraged us to not punish excessive use of devices or technology, and instead educate young people to use digital media responsibly and responsively, including which technology is necessary and for how long.

Parents and other adults can provide support by helping adolescents find healthy ways to manage stress and to process thoughts and feelings that may overwhelm them. For example, they may encourage them to exercise, to meditate, or to play music. The way in which adults respond makes a difference.

I am also currently reading David Gillespie’s book, Teen Brain. In Teen Brain, Gillespie sets out clear, reasonable and effective rules to help parents and caregivers confidently manage their teenager’s use of screens at this critical point in their lives.

Mrs Kelly Ives, Director of Boarding