Teenage Brain

brainImagine a bush that needs pruning.  It is growing in all sorts of directions, with branches all different lengths.  The branches have different numbers of leaves on them, and are reaching in a variety of ways.  There seems to be no order to it.

This is what the teenage brain is like….and then it gets pruned.  This pruning happens during adolescence and impacts the teenager.  Have you ever had a conversation with a teenager and they seem not to be listening and/or comprehending?  Pruning.  Has your teenager ever done something that makes you say, “Are you crazy? Didn’t you think about the consequences?” Pruning.  How many times has your teenager come roaring at you saying that they need to get somewhere NOW and you are expected to drop everything?  Pruning.

Annoying as well, but the brain is busy pruning.

Although the infant brain changes as it develops, it is during the teenage years that the brain undergoes significant changes more than any other time in a person’s life.  When we think of what a baby learns in the first year of life (language, motor development, humor…) and then to realize that a teenager’s brain is developing at that rate…it is no wonder that teenagers often seem to zone out.

When a child is young they are learning at a rapid rate their neurons are busy making connections all over the place.  This is why children can learn languages, musical instruments, and athletics at a quicker pace than adults.  Their brains are absorbing everything.

When teenage years arrive, the person is close to being fully grown and the brain has no more room and must get rid of what is not needed.  Consequently, those neurons that are not being used frequently are pruned.  This is why a child can play the piano well, and then if they stop….they can’t play as well anymore…they seem to lose all ability.  Their neurons have been pruned.

The neurons that are used remain and are strengthened.  It is definitely a case of “use it or lose it”
Additionally, the prefrontal cortex is developing.  This area of the brain is the area that deals with long term planning, morality, impulsivity, emotions; more commonly known as what makes a person who they are.  This is why there is so much “drama” in school at this age.  The teenager doesn’t have the brain power to make long term decisions, has a hard time controlling emotions, is impulsive, swings rapidly from one emotional extreme to another….all within a five minute period. It seems that car rental operations and car insurance had it correct all along: they will not rent out cars and lower insurance rates typically until  a person is 24 years old.

Unfortunately, it is during the teenage years when a person is asked to start making long term decisions, is faced with many moral dilemmas on a daily basis (drugs? sex? friendship? self advocacy?) and is expected to be more responsible.   It is a difficult position for teenagers as teachers, parents, bosses who are all expecting the teenager to “step up” and become more adult like.  The teenage brains are both pruning and developing and there is a lot of activity!

Teenagers should be exposed to higher expectations, however, be mindful that when your teenager seems to be suffering from brain freeze, or walks into walls, or breaks up with boyfriend/girlfriend again and again it is not abnormal.  The teenage brains should be done pruning and developing by the time they are 24 years of age.  Hang in there.


About talkcounts

Diana Loiewski has been teaching special needs students for over thirty years. She not only is a classroom high school teacher, she also serves as an administrative designee in IEP meetings, and case work trainer for the military Exceptional Family Member Program. In addition, she presents on special education topics all over the country and is a co author of Individual Education Plan Workbook for Success, and Healthy Relationships a multimedia workbook for special education teens and adults. ___________________________________________________________________ Elizabeth Dominick is the parent of an 18-year-old special needs student. Elizabeth and her husband navigated the special needs odyssey from the time their son was 3 years old to the present. She and her husband have placed their son in both public and private settings and have worked with attorney advocates to get better services. Ultimately, they ended up educating themselves on special education law. Elizabeth is a past reporter and editor and currently writes parent meditations and other articles for iepsurvival.com. __________________________________________________________________ Sharon McCormick is a special education teacher and blogger. She has been in the classroom for over fifteen years. Prior to that time, she worked with emotionally disturbed youth in residential and group home settings. She is clever and creative and enjoys supporting students with special education needs. ___________________________________________________________________________ Renee Tompkins is a graduate of Illinois State University with a Master’s Degree in Speech and Language Services. She is an amazing and energetic professional with fifteen years of experience working directly with special needs students. She also serves as a board member of the Special Education Foundation and supports fundraising efforts for teachers within the Poway Unified School District. She is currently employed with the Poway Unified School District and she delivers services to both groups and individuals in the transition program working with adults eighteen-years-- twenty-two years of age. Her current responsibilities include organizing and running a healthy relationship program with both men and women with intellectual disabilities.
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