This is the first of two posts devoted to executive skills in adolescents. In this first post, I focus on the role of executive functions and associated brain development – particularly as these functions/skills pertain to early adolescents enrolled in highly competitive schools – and the dangerous assumptions many educators and parents make about adolescents’ actual executive capacities in these ultra-competitive environments.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present to the faculty of a local independent school on the topic of the developing adolescent brain. Specifically, they were interested in how they could apply the findings of “The Heart of the Matter: The Adolescent Brain,” chapter five in my book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools.
Since the school had recently engaged a different speaker who had focused on the intense and competing pressures on students – and since several of this school’s administrators had read my book – they were eager to “home in” on the five recent neurobiological discoveries which I detail in that chapter. These discoveries provide indisputable, authoritative reasons for why any school faculty should strive to be more “developmentally empathic” in its overall approaches to educating their students.
One of the constant concerns I hear from faculty members, administrators, counselors, and parents of adolescents from all around the world is “We expect them to think and act like adults.” This expectation arises not simply because so many of today’s adolescents, for various reasons, appear physically mature; it’s also because we, adults, assume that in their school lives, adolescent students are fully capable of appropriate “executive skills” in their school work, in their social lives, and in how they cope with the multiple and competing demands we place upon them.
We assume that adolescents are able to manage their time, prioritize homework, juggle athletic practices and community service with regular sleeping and eating, manage their social lives, and their online lives – and somehow, get straight A’s.
But these so-called “executive skills” are part and parcel of a host of neurological capacities that, generally, are not fully developed until humans are 30 years old! What are we missing here?
As millions of teenagers return to school after what hopefully has been a restful and restorative summer, an increasingly emphatic question is gathering strength: What time should the school day start?
Over the past few years, more school districts, as well as independent and international schools, have experimented with later start times in their deliberate efforts to “fall in line with research that looks at the biological clock of adolescents.” The results have been significant.
“America sees alarming spike in middle school suicide rate” reads the headline of recent USA Today article, which cites research showing “the suicide rate among 10- to 14-years olds doubled between 2007 and 2014…surpassing the death rate in that same age group from car crashes.”