Adolescent Brain Development and Implications for Classroom Management

By Mears, Derrick | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Brain Development and Implications for Classroom Management


Mears, Derrick, Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


Most middle or high school physical educators can recall a similar classroom management scenario such as the following: During a class you observe a student engaging in inappropriate behavior. When confronting the student, he/she denies having done anything wrong followed by an argumentative response and attempts to divert the blame.

Managing such scenarios can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching secondary physical education. However, many of these behavioral manifestations are related to ongoing physiological and neurological changes taking place within the adolescent brain, meaning at this stage of neurological development, their brains are "broken."

The Developing Adolescent Brain

Studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to observe the adolescent brain have shown that during adolescence multiple changes are occurring. This can provide a potential explanation for the sporadic and seemingly unpredictable behaviors that appear (Spear, 2000). It is believed that the brain of an adolescent goes through a profound neurological reorganization. The brain goes through fluctuations in the ratio of grey matter to white matter during restructuring. Grey matter increases take place in areas undergoing reorganization, while white matter increases indicate reorganization is completed. Thus, during this process the brain develops new synaptic connections resulting in increases in grey matter. As the brain learns, the connections considered to be "correct" pathways are reinforced, while connections no longer used fade away in a process referred to as "pruning." The result is efficient sensory/motor patterns and decreases in grey matter (Jensen, 2005). This decrease of grey matter is then paralleled by an increase in white matter indicating neuron maturation (Day, Chiu, & Hendren, 2005).

Multiple areas of the brain undergo this reorganization process. Of primary concern to the secondary physical educator developing an effective classroom management plan are those taking place in the Pre-Frontal Cortex and the relationship between the Pre-Frontal Cortex and a structure deep within the brain called the Amygdala. Many behavioral characteristics exhibited by adolescents can be attributed to the interaction between these two key parts of the brain. Of its many functions, the Pre-Frontal Cortex plays a direct role in selecting behaviors, initiating appropriate social responses, and contributing to the development of short-term memory (Day, et al. 2005). Beginning at approximately age 12, this portion of the brain undergoes a large increase in grey matter production with pruning and an increase in white matter which continues into the late teens (Giedd, Blumenthal, Jefferies, Castellanos, Liu & Zijdenbos, 1999; Giedd, Blumenthal, Jefferies, Rajapakse, Vaituzias, Liu & Castellanos, 1999; Giedd, Rumsey, Castellanos, Rajapakse, Kaysen, Vaituzias & Rapoport, 1996; Giedd, Snell, Lang, Rajapakse, Kaysen, Vaituzias & Rapoport, 1996; Thompson, Giedd, Woods, MacDonald, Evans & Toga 2000).

These neurological changes can help explain the erratic behaviors and behavioral inconsistencies exhibited by an adolescent. Of primary consideration is what part of the brain the adolescent uses to process emotional stimuli. For example, when faced with an emotional crisis, the adult brain utilizes the Pre-Frontal Cortex to reason and generate an appropriate response to the situation. During adolescence the sensory-motor patterns that are controlled by the Pre-Frontal Cortex are "broken" or going through reorganization. Thus, when presented with an emotional situation, such as being confronted by a teacher concerning classroom behavior, the adolescent brain responds using a structure located near the mid-brain called the Amygdala, rather than the Pre-Frontal Cortex. The primary functions of the Amygdala are to assist in the processing of emotional stimuli and the forming and modulation of memories. …

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