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Adolescence Is Our "Last Best Chance:" A Talk with Dr. Laurence Steinberg | NeuroConnections Series

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for TASC. This blog is Part 2 in our NeuroConnections blog series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

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As the first stop on the tour for his new book Age of Opportunity, Dr. Laurence Steinberg visited TASC for a roundtable discussion with our staff and colleagues from the Wallace Foundation and Altman Foundation about adolescent neuroscience and more. For a full transcript of the conversation, click here.

Q1: What do you think are the most important takeaways from your book?

Laurence Steinberg: I think that the key message of the book is captured in the title. Which is that we need to think about adolescence in a very different way than the way that we are accustomed to think about it. I think that conventionally we think of adolescence as a period that’s inherently problematic. I think that the advice that we give to parents and to kids is that it’s something that you survive and that you endure, and if you’re lucky, nothing terrible happens to you during it and you come out the other side. I don’t think that’s a helpful way to think about adolescence. I think it leads us to be kind of lazy in the way we program for kids and in the services that we provide them, and it leads us to focus really, exclusively almost, on problem prevention rather than the facilitation of positive development.  

I think, for reasons that I explain in the book, that neuroscience is teaching us that adolescence is a time of tremendous brain plasticity. It’s a period in which the brain is very susceptible to the influence of the environment. Probably the second period when that happens, the first being the first few years of life.  I don’t think that we knew that until fairly recently. And when the brain is plastic or malleable, it makes it a period of vulnerability, but it also makes it a period of opportunity. And I don’t think we are taking advantage of the opportunity. So, what the book is about is explaining why it is a period of opportunity and what we might do to stop squandering it and to take advantage of it.  

Q2: What do you think all of us (funders, policy-makers, intermediaries, front line educators, etc) should keep in mind when we are thinking about the adolescent brain so that we can design ways to help them learn best?

LS: When the brain is plastic, it’s not plastic in all parts of the brain at the same points in development. So the part of the brain that’s plastic during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex mainly. And that is the part of the brain that’s responsible for advanced thinking abilities – in psychology we often call them executive functions –things like planning and decision-making and judgment and reasoning. The prefrontal cortex is also very important for self-regulation, self-control. Because that’s where the main plasticity is during adolescence, it gives us an opportunity to try to do things to enhance self-regulation in people this age. Of all the traits that are predictive of happiness and mental health and success in life, self-regulation is arguably the most important one. So if you’re a parent, if there’s one thing you can give your child that’s going to be a gift that’s going to last for life, it’s a strong sense of self-control. Because kids who are strong in self-control do better in school, they have better relationships, they’re happier, they’re less prone to develop emotional and behavioral problems, and this is a very very well-replicated finding. So when I think of what we ought to be doing when we are offering programs and services to kids, is to think about what are these programs and services doing to enhance this aspect of adolescent development.  

Q3: You’ve driven home the importance of teaching self-regulation skills. What does a self-regulated child look like? Can you give an illustration of what that 12-year-old or 15-year-old would look like after having a positive adolescent experience?

LS: Good question. Well, the ability to resist temptation when there is some danger or risk involved in it.  So, you know, thinking before jumping might be one thing.The ability to think about the long-term as well as short-term goals in a given situation. Life for all of us, children and adults, is often a series of choices between doing something that’s going to get us rewarded now or holding off and waiting and doing something that’s going to get us a bigger, better reward later. Everything from whether you want to spend your money now or save it for retirement, or whether you want to stay home and study for an exam tomorrow or go out and party with your friends. So sometimes we want people go to for the immediate reward. Life wouldn’t be a lot of fun if we were always just planning for the future. But we want to give kids the capacity to identify what the longer-term consequences of a decision are going to be, and to weigh them when making a choice. I think we also want to give kids the capacity to be more mindful and to have more control over their thinking. One of the things I say we should be doing in schools is mindfulness training, which has been shown to help build self-regulation and facilitate brain development as well. We have new neuroscience research on the growth of white matter connections in the brain as a function of things like meditation and yoga and all that good stuff.

Lucy Friedman, TASC’s President: And sleep!

Q4: In your book you talk a lot about policy, more with respect to the work you’ve done in the political realm around juvenile justice, but I’m thinking of school policies in the education field such as school start times or the reduction of sports and arts in school and moving them towards out of school programs, or even school discipline policies. Where do you see a misalignment between what the neuroscience research is telling us and what educators are putting into place as school policies?

LS: Well, I mean certainly school start times is misaligned. So we know that adolescents – that there is a biological imperative during adolescence to stay up later and sleep in later. But, the studies show that at 8 o’clock in the morning, the typical teenager is kind of brain dead, and you’re probably not learning a lot in first period if that’s when first period is going on. It’s not as much of an issue in New York City, but in suburban areas there are a lot of kids on the road at that time of day and there are a lot of traffic accidents that adolescents have because they’re driving while they’re partly asleep. So we’d be much better of starting high school and middle school later than we start. That’s one policy.  

A second policy has to do with the removal of physical education from the curriculum.You almost never meet a well-educated adult anymore who doesn’t incorporate some kind of physical regimen into their life.  And we do that because it makes us feel better and we know that it makes us think better too. And yet, we’ve taken that out of schools. And it just seems crazy to me to have removed that from the school day and not just as a lot of people say, because kids need to burn off steam – that may be true also – but because it’s good for your brain. And it’s so much better for your brain than an extra half hour of math instruction is.

(Eager for more? See here for what Dr. Steinberg has to say regarding school discipline policies, what he thinks about school health reform, his favorite summer job as a teen and more).



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