#Brainstorm: Understanding How Our Adolescent Brains Grow

When you are in your teenage years you are consciously experiencing everything for the first time, so adolescent stories are all beginnings. There are never any endings.

Aidan Chambers

Ah, yes, middle school. The thought of teaching this group of truly unique learners often strikes fear into the hearts of many a talented educator. Often friends and colleagues have queried why with teaching experience at primary and secondary I continue identify my career as a middle school teacher. Often a typical party conversation goes something like this:

Guest: So, Jeff, what do you do?

Me: I’m a teacher.

Guest: Oh yeah, cool. What grade do you teach?

Me: I teach middle school.

Guest: [wide-eyed] Oh, jeez. Really? That’s gotta be tough. What a tough time in life. I remember in middle school…[Cue a personal story about their time in middle school as a young adolescent.]

I can only say this: It definitely ain’t easy. But two decades of fascinating brain research shows us that if we recognize and honour the stage of development known as adolescence (ages 11-15), it reveals itself a unique and potent opportunity to effectively affect a learner’s long-term brain ‘remodeling’, a result in healthy mental and social integration. The formation of the teenage brain, writes UCLA clinical-psychiatrist Dan Siegel, is imperative to understanding how humans develop healthy relationship to themselves, to their families, and even to their own perceptions of their learning. It a tool and time for empowerment.

In his 2016 book, Brainstorm: The Power and the Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Siegel deftly peels back and destroys the societal myths of the teenager. I first read the book in 2016 for what I believed was in preparation for the oncoming emergence of two adolescents in our family. In hindsight, I was not ready to learn, not open to Siegel’s ability to distill massive amounts of research on brain physiology and its impact on teens themselves, not ready to use (or even) several of his Mindsight tools. So, why did I read it? At the time, I was readily curious to see if my 13 year old son might be open to learning about how his brain develops in anticipation of the issues that would surely arise during the tumultuousness of early adolescence. Boy, did I read that all wrong.

Combining years of neurological science research experience from his nearly three decades plus work with children and their families, Siegel’s Brainstorm offers parents and teens an to understand explanation of how the brain develops; why adolescence in unique and necessary; why the myth of the ‘moody teenager’ still exists to this day; and how teens themselves possess immense control over how they integrate the world around them to become empathetic, compassionate individuals.

In youth we learn; in age we understand.

Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach

As a bonus, Siegel includes several of his Mindsight tools for use by teachers, parents, and teenagers. The Mindsight toolkit promotes the cultivating and integrating of the various parts of the brain together during this period of massive brain ‘remodeling’. Adolescence can be an intense, emotional and if nothing else, a confusing time for our kids. As both a parent and teacher, I feel called to support all of the adolescents in my life to develop healthy relationships with themselves, others, and their own learning. With time and space, I feel that any adult can contribute positively to helping our kids wade through the ocean of adolescence and into the river of young adulthood. Brainstorm has become a beacon for my journey alongside them.

Interestingly enough, it was my wife who recommended that I re-read Brainstorm after hearing about it mentioned in a webinar she attended recently. Her brilliant suggestion: Why don’t you reread the book and then share and discuss foundational parts of it with your students?

Well, maybe I just might do that…

As a class, we have started to discuss regularly about what’s going on ‘up there’ and they are responding with curiosity, and lots and lots of insightful questions. We have talked about Siegel’s brilliant hand-model of the brain and what happens when we ‘flip our lid’. It is a worthwhile 10-minute demonstration and the students can replicate and easily understand it almost instantaneously. Next week, we are expanding our discussion to that of the brain-heart neurological and emotion connection. Fun!

The curiosity and learning continues.


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