Puberty is a stage where the bodies of young men and women begin maturing to that of an adult, triggered by the release of the hormones by their brain. Current theories indicate that due to children eating more and moving less, over time puberty is being activated at younger ages. As society has transformed from agricultural based to our new information age, the results have been children reaching adulthood later in life. Professor Alison Gobnik of the University of California-Berkley, recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "What is wrong with the teenage mind?" describing this widening gap and how to address it.
The neural and the psychological systems inside of children are responsible for transforming kids into adults. The neural system is associated with emotion and motivation. Easy going 10-year-olds transition into adolescents who are: restless, high spirited, emotionally dramatic and place a high priority on fulfilling every desire and satisfying every want immediately. Rewards are more enhanced for them, explaining the importance of their "first love" and winning their championship in a sport.
The psychological system deals with control of all this unleashed energy. The control is centered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This "control center" harnesses and guides impulses, decision making, encourages long term planning and delayed gratification. The development of the prefrontal cortex is largely dependent on learning experiences, both successes and failures. In the past, these experiences came from helping with family or household duties and even apprenticeships where young people learned job skills or trades under supervision. Adolescents experienced achieving real goals, in real time, in a real world setting.
Today's young men and women lack these experiences, causing a slow-down in the development of the prefrontal cortex. As Professor Ronald Dahl at UC-Berkley framed it, "Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and break."
Studies show that students are "protected" longer by being in school and not working through these apprenticeships and "real world" experiences. This extended school requirement has increased the IQ of students. Schools have allowed students to gain more intellectual depth in more subjects. Higher IQ, measuring intelligence, has been associated with slower development of the prefrontal cortex (the control center).
The development of character and intelligence in each of us is largely dependent on our social and cultural experiences. Old 'evolutionary psychology' focused on genes being primarily responsible for adult behavior. The new theory is that a combination of genetics and the sequence of activities/experiences we partake in, including the pace of these occurrences, provide the foundation for our adult behavior.
What can we do to help develop the prefrontal cortex in adolescents? Feed each student's brain with experiences through: getting more college students involved in real world research, attending a summer camp, expanding "take you kid to work" programs, encouraging students to get summer jobs, making students responsible for chores around the house, engaging college students in mentoring/tutoring/conducting outreach activities with K-12 students and involving students in community service programs.
As our education system continues to increase the intelligence of each student, we need to ensure that we are helping them develop their control system. A fast car is of little use if you aren't prepared to drive it.
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.