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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 16, 2015 at 5:00 AM

Teens’ brains are not fully wired but plenty capable of self-control

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Donna Grethen / Op Art

True or false: Adolescents’ brains aren’t wired for responsible behavior until they’re well into their 20s, so parents and teachers should give them a free pass.

False.

The idea that teenagers lack the ability to control their impulses is “Neuromyth #4″ on a list published online this month by the Dana Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes a greater public understanding of brain research.

Like most neuromyths that sometimes show up in education discussions, this one is based on a grain of truth — risky and impulsive behavior spikes during the teen years and subsides in early adulthood.

It’s also true that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with “executive” tasks such as controlling emotions, weighing risks, solving problems and making plans, isn’t fully wired until at least the mid-20s.

But it’s too simplistic to chalk up bad decisions in the teen years to immature frontal lobes.

Here’s Abigail Baird, a psychology professor at Vassar College who studies adolescent brain development, arguing against the idea that teens can’t control themselves:

One of the easiest ways to debunk the neuromyth that adolescents can’t self-regulate is to simply watch them with their peers. … Because in peer-related settings, we do see adolescents self-regulate wonderfully. They do it all the time. Think about it: most teens would never violate something that their peers thought was uncool. They don’t use outdated slang or a lame emoji. They are constantly checking themselves against what they should and should not be doing socially, you know, the things that are most important at this age.

The Dana article suggests that teachers in middle and high school should give teens breathing room to make mistakes and learn from experiences but also establish clear consequences if they take that freedom too far.

Parents of younger children should take note of Neuromyth #2: Eating sugary snacks results in hyperactivity and reduced focus and attention. Teachers and parents say it’s so, but scientific studies have repeatedly debunked the claim.

Comments | More in News | Topics: neuroscience, self-control

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