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The Teenage Brain Thing: Blog #2

#highschool #teachingteens Aug 23, 2023

As the summer quickly wraps up and a new school year is about to start, I’m reflecting now at the progress I’ve made this summer in getting The Teenage Brain Thing off the ground. What started as an idea over a year ago has truly blossomed into the beginning of something really cool. 


And as I reflect on that, I absolutely can’t avoid thinking about how I got to this place and how important my role as an educator and as a stepmom have shaped  The Teenage Brain Thing. 


I became a teacher 20 years ago but had known for years before that (since I was basically in middle school) that I wanted to be a teacher. I was a good student - “a pleasure to have in class” was a popular comment on my report cards - and I loved school. I admired my teachers and wanted to be like them. 


I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that most teachers today were good students in school. Most teachers loved school when they were younger, so becoming a teacher made sense. And most teachers think (or hope, at least) that the students in front of them will love school too. 


And most teachers are wrong in that.


I didn’t really know this until I became a stepmom. I met my husband nine years ago and quickly fell into the role of stepmom to his two children, then aged 10 and 8. They were both in elementary school so I would often help with homework after dinner. Both of my stepchildren were good students - they seemed to like school, but enjoyed playing outside, riding horses, skateboarding, or being kids a lot more than reading, writing, and doing math.


But then middle school came. And it was a whole new ball game. 


Our oldest struggled in middle school right out of the gate. Between difficulty in making friends, concentrating, and increased anxiety that scared all of us, 6th grade was a pretty traumatic year. Their grades were fairly good but it was clear that they were just going through the motions of school at times. Our younger one struggled in different ways in middle school, mostly around not wanting to do homework and not turning assignments in, or talking out in class and not paying attention to detail. 


These traits of both of them continued into high school. Any topic associated with school ultimately became an argument, or had at least one of us in tears. 


I was a good teacher; why wasn’t that translating here at home?


And that’s when I started to read more about the teenage brain. Something was happening inside those creative, funny, articulate, interesting, unique, athletic, caring, thoughtful, disorganized, messy, moody and loving brains of theirs that I couldn’t quite figure out. 


I knew though that my husband and I had to change our ways, in order to change theirs. 


I learned from my reading that what was happening to their brains was truly incredible. I used to teach my Sociology students that ages 0 to 3 were the most important in human development because the brain learned the most in that time period … but I now know I was wrong. It’s the teenage years - those between ages 10 (because puberty starts earlier now) and 25 (when the brain is nearly finished developing) that’s the most important. The brain does more in that time period than at any other period of one’s life. The brain is constantly changing, pruning out the old and growing the new with each reinforced connection. It’s truly magical.


It’s also really scary. I read more about how teen brains are more prone to risk taking, to making bad decisions, to not seeing the effects of their actions, and to getting way less sleep than is healthy. Teen brains also feel emotions stronger and more intense than at any other period. When they feel something, they feel it everywhere; it’s one of the reasons why there’s a mental health crisis among young people in our country. Add a pandemic to growing teen brains and things become unbelievably more complicated. 


With all of this knowledge, my husband and I started to change our ways, in order to nurture their brains. We shifted the “punishments” we gave, we had longer and deeper conversations, we listened more, we fought less, and we let them have more say. I started talking to them about their brains. In fact, my younger one said the other day, “Jen, don’t ‘teenage brain’ me right now; I just want to talk something out” … so I let him. The most important thing we did is to see them both as individuals who were uniquely walking through the world and there wasn’t a thing we could do to try to fully control that. We just focused on loving them and giving them guard rails to keep them as safe as we can. 


And we keep trying. Things weren’t and aren’t perfect and we still make a ton of mistakes in parenting - and teaching - them. But knowledge of their brains has undoubtedly shifted the way I look at how they’re navigating the world. I am so grateful they both still have many more years left of their “teen brains.” 


Throughout these last few years, it became really apparent to me that if more educators truly knew about the complexity and the potential of this time period, that teaching teen brains could, quite possibly, become a little easier. Knowing more about what’s going on inside their brains can only help us, as educators, to make decisions in our approach that tap into the power of this time period. That’s what The Teenage Brain Thing is all about - tapping into the power and potential of this time period by shifting our approach in order to help to develop successful, happy, and accomplished young people. 


I’m not saying it’s the answer to teaching teens today. But I am saying it’s a really, really big start. 


If you’re interested in more stories like this, head over to @the_teenage_brain_thing, keep reading at www.theteenagebrainthing.com, or reach out for more help or information! 

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