Quick: list your top three most embarrassing, shameful, and cringe-worthy memories of yourself. How many of those memories are from high school? Chances are pretty good that at least one of them does. (One of mine involves a show down between the most popular girl in my ninth grade class and me during home ec class. I was humiliated. She was really mean. I still remember it as vividly as yesterday, and decades later I swear my pulse beats more rapidly even now when I see her picture on Facebook.)
It turns out the adolescent brain is primed to be traumatized by the terrors of high school. In New York magazine this week, Jennifer Senior has written one of the best explanations I’ve ever seen about why, as she describes, we “never truly leave high school.”
Most developmental research has focused on the early years of our lives: infancy, toddlers, and preschool. Because adolescent research on the brain is just starting to hit its stride, our understandings are still preliminary. But Senior points out several important facts about teenagers and their development that we do know:
1. Many of our most important adult abilities — the powers to reason, to abstract, to use self-control, and to understand our own self-identity — are not yet fully formed. Our prefrontal cortex, which controls these tasks, is going through rapid changes starting just before and during adolescence.
2. The reason why teenagers feel everything more intensely is because their brains experience sensations more intensely. Dopamine is surging in the body, a fact that makes memories, fear, and trauma even more vivid.
3. Adolescents are really bad at figuring out how others perceive them or how others feel. They have not yet fully developed the perceptual skills of assessing people’s intentions or explaining their behavior.
4. And, most importantly, the environment of high school — where same-age peers develop their own distinctive adolescent culture of hierarchies and power — is particularly poorly suited to adolescent development. While teenagers used to be mixed with adults and younger children during most of their days, now they increasingly spend most of their waking time and social energy isolated from other age groups. And this isolation can be a toxic mix for teenagers’ developing, immature brains.
What can schools, parents, and teachers do, given the growing knowledge that we are gaining about adolescent biology? Senior’s piece does an amazing job of describing high school — maybe even too painfully — but she makes few suggestions for what to do about it, beyond more study.
These understandings point to a few directions:
1. Teenagers should participate in mentorship experiences with adults. Every adolescent should have a meaningful relationship with an adult — preferably, besides their parents — in which to talk about their fears and experiences.
2. Cross-age experiences should be a regular part of the curriculum. Pairing younger and older students in curriculum units and activities can help adolescents get perspective on their own development and to cultivate a sense of empathy and service.
3. Noncognitive skills — habits such as persistence and self-control, as well as moral habits (yes, even, “character”) — should be integrated into the regular school day. Any one who has taught teenagers knows how important it is to teach them academic skills, but also how easily many of those lessons slip away because they’re not perceived as relevant in their social, every day lives. Teaching kids that qualities of character matter in their future success and happiness — just as much as their specific math or reading skills — should also play a role in their school lives.
High school is always going to be rough. It seems that our brains are programmed that way. But we can think about how to make high school a better experience academically, socially, and emotionally during this vulnerable time.
What suggestions do you have for how to make high schools better?
What lessons did you learn from your experience in high school?