Archive for the ‘Adolescent Brain’ Category

Dr. Daniel Siegel explores the neural mechanisms beneath social and emotional intelligence and how these can be cultivated through reflective practices that focus on the inner nature of the mind.

Daniel is a child psychiatrist, educator, and author of Mindsight, The Mindful Brain, Parenting from the Inside Out, and The Developing Mind. He is the Founding Editor of the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute.

Notes from Talk –

• Interpersonal neurobiology

• All are interconnected.

• Relationships are our lifeblood – the brain is a social organ

• School is imprisoning the brain. The way we educate kids now is basically damaging our kid’s brains.

• At a young age kids circuitry is all ready, the whole relationship that they’ve had with their parents has been shaping this brain and then we shove them in schools and everything that was relational disappears after kindergarten. It’s so sad. Then the brain shrinks away. This kid has the ability to see all sorts of things, to be an artist, to be creative, to be intuitive, to stick to it, to approach things that are difficult and not withdraw from them and we have the opportunity to support this child’s development if we do it right and train teachers well.

• How do we plug in the kids brains?

• What I’m suggesting is that you can have a whole curriculum where reflection, the importance of relationships and the way they develop resilience is at the heart of this curriculum.

• Children who have reflective skills before adolescence actually have more resilience during adolescence.


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Neuroscientist Richard Davidson presents his research on how social and emotional learning can affect the brain.

The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning | Edutopia.

This presentation was recorded on December 10, 2007, at the CASEL Forum, an event in New York City that brought together seventy-five global leaders in education and related fields to raise awareness about social and emotional learning (SEL) and introduce important scientific findings related to SEL. Learn more about Richard Davidson here.

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ScienceDaily (5/11/10) – Zero tolerance policy in schools – which can mandate automatic punishment for weapons, drugs, profanity and various forms of disruptive behavior – is failing to make students feel safe, contends a new study.

The policy, established in the mid-1990s to address gun violence in schools, has become plagued by inconsistent enforcement and inadequate security, according to the study, which appears in the May issue of the journal Urban Education.

As a result, the very students zero tolerance was designed to protect overwhelmingly say the policy is ineffective, said Laura McNeal, assistant professor of teacher education and lead researcher on the project.

“Zero tolerance policy represents what happens when there is a disconnect between law on the books and law in action,” said McNeal, who has a law degree. “We need to reform existing policies such as zero tolerance to ensure every child receives a high-quality education in a safe and supportive learning environment.” Continue

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On October 24th, 2009, a group of 10 male youths raped a 15-year-old girl for over two hours at her homecoming dance. This story reveals three terrible facts – the number of youths taking part, the number of youths watching and the hardest truth to understand – how no one reported what was happening. Instead, they watched, joined in, cheered and took pictures with cellphones.

The 10th grade girl was on her way to meet her father when a boy lured her outside. The rape and assault lasted throughout the dance and as word spread, more students slipped outside to see for themselves. Police found the nude, semi-conscious girl under a bench but only after they received a phone call from Margarita Vargas, 18, who learned of the rape when her brother returned home after the dance.

A side-note – there is a 1999 California law making it illegal not to report a witnessed crime against a child under the age of 14. The students who watched and did nothing will not be charged.

Vargas says that she understands why no one called 911. “I think people are scared, especially in a community like this where ’snitching’ is a big thing to people.”

An assumption can be made that violent schools in poor neighborhoods create a “do not get involved” attitude among students who fear retribution. But something more pervasive is happening, something not exclusive to poverty and neglected schools; something that does not discriminate.

It is apathy – the lack of interest, concern, emotion or feeling: indifference.

Look around and see a generation of American youth who increasingly lack concern and care for themselves or others.

What is the source and cause of adolescent apathy?

Is apathy the consequence of an educational system that is not effectively engaging students developmentally, of preoccupied adults, of just simply missing the boat? Are we graduating leagues of emotionally detached, stunted and apathetic young people because we employ an antiquated educational system unwilling and/or unable to take on the intensity of non-cognitive learning?

When working in the field of education, psychology and mental health, it is wrenching to witness the scope of social and emotional disorders that potentially could be averted or considerably eased if schools took on a larger, more encompassing care-taking role. A school is a home to many whose home lives are unstable. Still, all adolescents seek adult relationships outside the home for guidance and moral modeling. There is no denying the need and power of an adult presence during adolescence. Adults are the wall youth must push against. With no wall, there is confusion and internal chaos. Who is in charge?

In educating the highly exposed 21st century youth, schools must embrace the deeper values of parenting. A good parent is authoritative. A good parent is firm but loving. A good parent is in charge.

Schools today are confused by responsibility and the definition of education. When in-training, prospective teachers are not required to take developmental psychology courses. Teachers are mandated to teach to the cognitive left brain and do not attend to the subtleties of red flag behaviors or blatant emotional deterioration of the searching right brain.

Take for example, the Columbine massacre, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. If their homemade bombs had worked, the devastation and carnage would have resembled a Beirut war zone. Even as school violence increased and violence committed by students off school grounds, budget cuts are pink slipping school counselors.

What is the role and responsibility of schools in response to extreme stories like the Richmond gang rape. On October 16, in Deerfield Beach, Florida, 15-year-old Michael Brewer was set on fire by a group of four boys upset about a stolen bike. On October 21, in Jefferson, Mo. 15-year-old Alyssa Bustamante killed 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten because she “wanted to know what it felt like.” When these crimes happen, should schools be somewhat accountable? What is it exactly that our children are learning in school about their selves? Could it be apathy?

Michael’s mother, Valerie Brewer, said that “People really need to wake up and see what’s going on with this generation. They need to take hold of our children and really do something. The violence across our nation, across our world with our children is getting stronger and stronger, and we need to stop it now, so this doesn’t happen to somebody else.”

Schools are forced to take on a combination of ineffective parenting styles. They are unprepared, lacking funds and resources. As a result, many are authoritarian, permissive and uninvolved. Authoritarian parenting is highly directive, rigid and demanding and does not take into account the needs and wants of their children. At the same time, the extraordinary permissiveness in schools would be called neglect in the home. In the case of the Richmond School rape, there were adults in the gym and students were coming and going through the gym doors where the rape was occurring. No adult stood by the door and said “no coming and going.” In most, if not all high school dances, it is a clear that students leave to “get high.”

Uninvolved parenting and schools have low or no expectations of their children and students. They simply don’t care enough to do the work of setting boundaries and following up on consequences. At the Richmond dance, no adult was invested enough to notice the buzz of activity around what was happening outside. Overly permissive or uninvolved schools that don’t set boundaries and instill expectations give up control of their environment. When parents are too permissive, children will feel out of control. They have nothing to push against. This holds true for schools as well.

The ideal parenting style and school environment is authoritative or democratic because of clear but fair expectations and boundaries, as well consistent consequences. There is an environment of openness but there is also a bottom line. Students know who is in charge, the rules and that there is something solid and unyielding to push against.

One student gave adult authoritative leadership as the reason why a once violence centric school turned around and became a school that felt safe and productive. Simply – “We don’t fight because it’s not tolerated.” Competent adults are essential in creating order, boundaries and expectations.

A Navajo Native American proverb states, “It’s impossible to awaken a man who is pretending to be asleep.” Are our children really asleep or pretending to be asleep? More importantly, are the adults in their world asleep as teachers and guides? Is everyone lost, as a result, in a metaphorical wilderness because education is unwilling or unable to address the social and emotional needs of their students and take responsibility for those needs?

President Obama, with the help of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, wants to close the achievement gap by rewarding those schools willing to work to change and reform with Race to the Top funds. Duncan says schools at the bottom are “perpetuating poverty and social failure.” Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton adds that low expectations have become the “new racism.” What makes “great education” is adults, says Duncan. But where are those adults and those schools?

Another Native American proverb teaches, “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” It is fair to venture that youth (our old age caretakers) are relegated to a kind of “hell hole” education where adults decide every aspect of what is important for them to know. The relational distance between student and adult during adolescence can reflect healthy separation but also can tell a story of abandonment. Has this generation of children and adolescents been abandoned by an over-worked, self-absorbed, less-self assured, more unfulfilled adult world? The teacher who stands at the front of the class while students languish in tight desks for hours on end, does she know herself? Does she like herself?

Too often adults don’t take the time to look beneath the superficial surface being offered. As a result, adolescents become skilled actors feigning health and engagement. Without a willing adult to process issues and concerns, difficult feelings are often repressed or expressed through anti-self, anti-social behaviors.

Along with fear, rage and confusion – apathy certainly paralyzed those taking part in the violence that Saturday night. When unable to change a dangerous environment for the better, it is natural to give up, to think “this is the way it is,” that one is powerless and life is safest when keeping your distance and worst of all –This doesn’t involve me.

It takes enormous courage and a strong sense of self to think and act differently from the majority. In school, we must teach, promote and support caring for others and the courage to know ones self. This means educating the non-cognitive, the social and emotional intelligences.

Deepak Chopra, an author of mind-body wellness, said in response to the Richmond Gang Rape that “There is an epidemic in our urban communities amongst our young people in schools. It is emotional dysfunction, emotional retardation, lack of emotional development.”

“Emotional retardation” is inciting use of language but accurately describes the state of the adolescent emotional mind today. If adolescents are given no time to train their right brain learning, the intuitive, creative, emotional mind and are left to rely solely on left brain sequential understanding, then we are indeed retarding their development.

It’s easier but discomfiting also to sit inside the safety of our homes and think, my child would not do that. I would not do that. Those kids are animals. And maybe they are. But why are they animals? Or are they? A friend commented this way:

“Anyone, anywhere, doing violent things to another individual for their own pleasure is is even more reprehensible when it is clearly observed and the innocent person is helpless. Yes there are lots of reasons why people stand back and away from interfering but it is still unacceptable in a community to allow it to be tolerated. It hurts everybody even those who engage in it.”

Do we create our children or are they left to their own devices to create themselves? If adults don’t take time to model and teach emotional courage and empathy, can we expect young people to have the skills, self-knowledge and confidence to act accordingly?

Schools which demand conformity reject the work of individuation and group students into a single scale that reinforces a mindless detachment. One senior boy told me: “We’re told to care about things adults have decided we should care about but it doesn’t apply to our real lives.“

So why are we surprised when adolescents act like a mindless mob?
Lord of the Flies author William Golding told a story of a group of boys stranded on a lone island and how, without adult guidance, admonition and direction, once innocent boys can turn feral.

And isn’t this the story of Nazi Germany; an entire country brought to it’s moral knees by the intoxicating brutality of a ruthless leader? Why is it easy to abandon a sense of right and wrong when afraid and unsure; when we don’t have the validating support of others.

In Lord of the Flies, the one willing to kill the pig was the first one to break the rules that maintained social order. The other children were afraid but also transfixed by the mad leadership of the boy with no boundaries, no inner or outer rules. The followers were drawn in by the doer, the one taking action, to his craven disorder and to his reckless emotionality. No longer did they have to be good little boys. Permission was granted to break the rules that held their humanity in place. A dam was breached, with no adults, no social rules to prevent the ensuing chaos – to guide them in a different direction.

In the case of the Richmond Gang Rape (as it’s now being called), there were no parent volunteers at the dance. The absence of adults is not unusual once children enter high school. So which adults should we blame? – the parents who have their own problems, who are not invited in, overburdened teachers, administrators who work the numbers, community members whose children have graduated, local politicians who don’t visit the schools, President Obama who has been handed an educational system rife with apathy and dysfunction equal to the problems of health care.

Adolescents need adults to hold and guide them toward a responsible, caring adulthood by building relationships based on trust, empathy but also firmness. One Richmond school superintendent said he felt the school was”responsible for some of this.” Is that statement in response to ineffectual coverage at a school dance or a greater problem of teacher-student disconnect? How can adults sharing the same space with students not sense something was wrong? And why didn’t any of the students feel comfortable enough to share with an adult what was happening?

What role does school play in the emotional deterioration of today’s adolescents?

Consider also Group Think during adolescence. Adolescence is a time of emotional vulnerability and the heady drive to individuate through building community. Group think actually promotes de-individuation by creating illusions of unanimity and invulnerability. If everyone is doing it, it must be alright – “I don’t have to make a decision about how I feel about this because clearly the group has decided for me.” We can convince ourselves of anything.

We need conversations in school that challenge group think behavior.

One student told me that he feels “kids are sheep. We are all so afraid of being different that we become superficial and shallow. Anything real inside of us is lost because we never show anyone what we are really thinking and feeling.” Most adolescents are afraid to take risks and to be seen as different. It makes sense when kids act “crazy” there is curiosity and fascination.

Phil Harris, a criminal justice professor at Temple University said emotional repression might have played a role in the Richmond Gang Rape. “A lot of kids don’t know how to express anger and they are curious when anger is expressed.”

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Anger is one emotion that screams for attention.

Anger is righteous. It’s has integrity and is protective. It draws lines in sand between self and other, between what’s out there and what’s inside. Anger connects us to our humanness. What makes us angry tells us who we are clearly and directly. Its immediacy feels right and good and doesn’t mess around with ambiguity – the “I don’t know” emotion, the “I’m not sure how I feel” stuckness so prevalent during adolescence. Anger pushes through the messy irregularities in life.

The amygdala is the brain center of anger, of all emotion.

In a nutshell, the adolescent brain is less frontal cortex and more amygdala. The frontal cortex, the tempering brain, is undeveloped in adolescence so it makes sense that emotion, especially anger, is easily accessed. The amygdala is the part of the brain that both feels and reads emotion, sizes up situations and determines what is safe or what is not – which is exactly what’s going on emotionally as adolescents do the work of identity formation.

Though once a species whose brains were primarily emotional, we have evolved to present day “rational” thinkers heavily reliant on the frontal cortex . As a matter of survival, early man, guided by emotional reactivity,  didn’t think so much as do,  A highly activated amygdala meant individual survival as well as survival of the human species.

When anxiety and racing hearts recede, the thinking brain is activated. Our ability to think, organize and negotiate evolved because emotional experience informed and strengthened the thinking, rational brain over time. And we learn from emotional experience by repeating defensive behaviors that worked.

When adolescents feel safe, the amygdala is at rest. A dark, easily angered adolescent is an active amygdala. I think all adolescents are on high alert as they learn how to know themselves and their world.

Adolescence is a matter of survival. As a result, the adolescent brain is in active survival mode.

There is evolutionary importance connected to strong emotion.

I was an angry teenager. My anger was important to me. It guided me and gave me courage to say and do what needed to be said and done to keep my feet moving beneath me, to engage meaningfully in the world. Strong emotion had meaning. If I had been passive, I would have felt unprotected, exposed, vulnerable in a unforgiving, stranger world not kind or patient to the identity work of adolescence.

It’s interesting to think about adolescence as a micro evolutionary process in relation to the human species macro evolutionary journey. It took possibly 7 million years for the human species to evolve to who we are today. It takes a child 10 years to evolve into a complex adult whose brain is balanced by emotion and the tempering rational mind.

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Just before puberty the adolescent brain experiences a second wave of brain cell proliferation similar to the first 18 months of life. This overproduction of cells happens in the thinking part of the brain, the frontal cortex. During adolescence, a pruning “use or lose it” process occurs that establishes strong neural links while unused neural links are discarded.

Neural pathways are strengthened through activity, like academics, sports, and the arts, playing computer games, or sitting around doing nothing. All positive or negative activity shapes the brain.

An example of brain muscle memory happens when I am dancing or being creative. Since I spent 13 years of my life as a ballet dancer, my brain remembers what to do even if my body is resistant.

Neural pathways become hardwired when an adolescent spends a lot of time doing something. The pruning of unused neural links during adolescence eventually determines the shape of adult brains.

My brain, for instance, is hardwired for synthesizing information in creative ways. I was never a traditional learner and processed through the arts, writing, dance and theater. At the same time, I had little interest in science and math. That’s not to say I’m not interested in learning about how the brain works (science), for instance, but I’m never going to understand science easily. My comfort level is in areas where I excelled during adolescence, areas of interest I spent time doing, not areas I avoided.

Adults rely on the frontal cortex to process information. The frontal cortex is where planning, reasoning and moral judgment reside. Adolescents rely on the amygdala in decision-making. The amygdala is the brains emotion center, where primal emotions like anger and fear are fired up.

Eventually, the frontal cortex, the home of “executive function” will balance or temper the emotionality of adolescence or what one adolescent boy in the film refers to as the excitement of randomness.

How adolescents spend their time is what designs their adult brain. What better argument than this to immerse youth in creative experience if only to help their brains grow strong creativity brain neural links that will last a lifetime.

Here are two short video clips about the adolescent brain.

Discovery Channel


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