Our sense of self provides the foundation for how we respond and react in every situation we face. When we feel good about who we are and stress knocks on our door, we are more likely to make positive choices. When we feel horribly about our inner self, then our choices will reflect that as well. This is why knowing how identity development manifests in the brain is key to connecting with and supporting the future potential in all of your students.
When we learn about brain development, we often focus on the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex’s (PFC) limited ability to cool down the hot-tempered, super charged limbic system, predominantly the amygdala, home of fear, stress and paranoia. Of course, hormones play a huge role in teenage emotional ups and downs, as well as teens’ risk taking and novelty seeking.
But there is another area of the brain rapidly forming during the teen years that’s worth knowing in order for you to provide informed interventions. No surprise that this area, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), is home to the social self. Teens love to be social! The ACC helps teens figure out who they are via the social interactions they have with other people. This can be a slippery slope. They are interpreting and analyzing (using skill sets from their under-developed PFC) other people’s reactions to them while feeling the resultant emotions (emotions that the amygdala controls and prefers to be more threatening than empowering to the self) of those reactions and attributing them to their forming identities.
For instance, Brynn, a 14 year old student fails to bring her AP summer assignment to the first day of school. She interprets the teacher’s facial expression as, “You are a stupid, ill-prepared, poor student. What a problem you will be in this class.” Brynn begins to apply these aspects to her sense of self, but before they attach she bounces them off her mother. “Am I really a bad student? The teacher thinks I am.” Imagine the response you may provide as the parent because the response is key. She is looking for clarification – “Am I a bad student or is the teacher wrong?” (Never would she imagine that her interpretation of the situation is misguided.)
These types of interactions happen on a daily basis. Many times a day, in fact, as students interact with peers, teachers, parents and other figures in their lives. Their social, emotional, moral and physical development is in hyper-drive. They are constantly assessing their identity in the face of every interaction – good, bad, and ugly. Especially ugly.
This is why knowing about teen brain development informs us toward best practices. The ACC lays the strongest connections during middle school – just when we want to put them in a bubble, right? In fact, that’s the last place they need to be. They need to be in the trenches.
And we need to be with them, scaffolding while reflecting their infinite potentials to live passionate and purposeful lives. If Brynn felt stupid and problematic based on a fleeting glance, imagine what a smile, pat on the back, or special question might mean to her, especially if she were struggling socially. When we value students, the dopamine and oxytocin release helps build better brains for learning and a better sense of self for life.
Therefore, with all the complex social interactions of the teen years (peer pressure, popularity, bullying) we need to support the ACC’s development to foster a strong sense of identity. How can we do that? Here are a few suggestions:
- Incorporate a social emotional learning program. Many exist for the early years, but few exist at the middle and high school level where the development of social self is at its peak and therefore of utmost importance. Try www.YourSelfSeries.com as this program is also a health and mental health curriculum, much of which is free online.
- Teach using project-based learning tools. Teens must learn skills to collaborate, work in teams and get along. These are all social skills. Build them with PBL activities.
- Whenever possible, arrange the classroom or appropriate setting so that students face each other. With all the time they spend looking at a screen, they need to begin to look at each other to read facial cues and interpret emotions.
- Have a discussion about what social skills are. Make a list of skills we use everyday: eye contact, use of names (not pronouns), smiling. See if your students can add to this list and then use them.
- Scaffold their potentials. Teach to the future twenty five year old, not the current fifteen year old. Let them see how much you believe in them. You will tap into their sense of self and help them to face their challenges.
- Connect with your students. This is invaluable. Consider their ears plugged and eyes shut until they feel a connection – an authentic, believable connection.
The beauty of all of these suggested interventions is that they can be woven into curriculum, supported on the sports field, fostered after school, and confirmed in the hallways. Every person at your school has a role in the social and emotional development of the students. All it takes is a connection via a smile, a proper name, a genuine interest. These are daily interactions. Don’t let them pass you by.