Children are children, and then they become adolescents. Before adolescence, most children are well behaved and comply with adult demands, they feel good about themselves, and they like school. But, starting at about age 12 and extending through age 18, the years typically encompassed by middle and high school, children become more unruly, their self-esteem fluctuates more dramatically, and their engagement in school weakens. Their lives become more complex, competitive, and autonomous, as they work through the challenges of actively learning to function like an adult in the larger society.
The self-awareness they grew into during middle childhood becomes in adolescence the means through which teens begin making the choices that develop who they are and will be. It is a time of testing and doubt and creativity – a stage between the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood. For those growing up under less advantaged circumstances, who may have fewer and less effective resources and supports, the increased level of challenge entailed in adolescence can be especially daunting. The abilities of adolescence, their relationship with peers, and the schools and other out of home settings where they learn about life all have important effects on their development. Families remain important as well, but their influence declines during adolescence as children forge lives apart from their parents and siblings.
Adolescent Abilities and Peer Relations
The human brain grows an excessive number of connections between cells prior to adolescence, but at about age 11 or 12, it begins the process of pruning many of these connections. Pruning clears out unused “wiring” to make room for faster and potentially more efficient processing of information. An effect of this process is that during adolescence, the brain, in a sense, develops unevenly, and this has consequences for how adolescents think, feel, and behave.
On the one hand, the adolescent brain is capable of making judgments and decisions on par with that of adults. On the other, adolescence is a time of heightened sensitivity to rewards and social stimuli, which the less mature part of the brain responsible for managing emotions has difficulty controlling. Indeed, adolescents tend to have less impulse control than either adults or younger children. Preferences for risky behavior and sensation seeking, which provide immediate gratification, become more common in adolescence, usually abating only as children enter their late teens. In particular, difficulties with impulse control combine with increased sensitivity to social stimuli to lead adolescents to exercise poorer judgment when their peers are present. These tendencies may be exacerbated by poor sleep quality (e.g., as a result of going to bed later), which has been associated in research on adolescence with compromised ability to process emotions.
Social comparisons loom large in adolescence. Children during this period spend a great deal of time paying attention to their standing with their peers. This heightened social awareness is accompanied by a shift in beliefs about intelligence and ability. Adolescence is a time of increased vulnerability to believing that intelligence and other personal qualities are fixed and not malleable. For example, it has been shown that adolescents are more likely than younger children to equate effort or hard work with inherent ability. This helps explain why grades, attendance, and attitudes toward school tend, for many, to take a dip following the transitions to middle school and high school. Conversely, adolescents who believe their abilities are improvable tend to do better in school and to develop the resilience to be effective in the face of difficulties. Such a belief goes hand-in-hand with evidence showing that adolescents with more self-regulatory competence, something girls are more likely to have than boys, earn higher grades from their teachers. Interestingly, grades have been shown to be a better predictor of high school and college performance and graduation, as well as many longer term outcomes, than standardized test scores or coursework.
While self-control is a particular challenge during adolescence, it may be especially troublesome for children who enter this period of life with already less developed abilities in self-control. Children who previously experienced prolonged or repeated exposure to stress, such as that associated with low-income or chaotic family environments, appear to have increased sensitivity to the stressors that arise during adolescence. Though the physiological and psychological implications of stress on the adolescent brain are far from clear, the increases in stress-related dysfunctions, such as anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and other forms of anti-social behavior, emphasize the salience of this developmental stage to the longer term prospects of the less advantaged.
Children who enter adolescence with learning disabilities are at a particular disadvantage. Throughout childhood and adolescence, growth of skills and achievement tends to occur at a steady rate for average students, but it begins to plateau by sixth grade for students with disabilities and, to a somewhat lesser extent, students at risk due to chronic family problems. Adolescents with learning disabilities tend to have difficulty organizing and using information. Those who have reading and math disabilities tend to have trouble with the executive brain function known as inhibitory control, which has to do with inhibiting the influence of irrelevant or no longer relevant information. Students with weak inhibitory control quickly exhaust their working memory capacity (the amount of information that can be consciously held at one time), which then interferes with their ability to handle incoming information.
School and Other Out-of-Home Settings
Middle school marks a change in the learning environment for children, a change which continues through high school and beyond. Schools become larger. The relationship between students and teachers becomes less close, and teachers become more oriented to content instruction and less to student socialization. Detecting children who internalize their distress or have difficulty adjusting becomes harder. The academic supports available during elementary school decline, and students increasingly have to make choices for themselves. Competition increases as does ability self-assessment at a time of heightened self-focus and sensitivity to peers. Because adolescent students are bigger, more independent, and prone to impulsivity, their schools may respond with increased emphasis on control and discipline. Increased discipline problems in middle and high school have been associated with more turnover among teachers.
It can be challenging to develop content and design academic work that is well matched with the increasing cognitive sophistication, diverse life experiences, and peculiar and varied motivational psychology (as described above) of adolescence. For example, middle school children report higher rates of boredom than other children when doing schoolwork, especially passive work. By contrast, if they experience curricula as meaningful, this has been shown to have an enduring influence on their commitment to school. There is evidence that cooperative, rather than competitive or individualistic, activities in middle school may lead to higher achievement and more positive peer relationships. When classrooms over-emphasize individual ability, adolescents have been found to use less effective learning strategies (e.g., memorization rather than understanding), experience more anxiety and negative emotions, and devote more attention to making themselves look smarter and avoid looking dumber than other students.
Teachers face very complex choices when designing their instructional practices. By one recent estimate, there are some 205 trillion instructional options when one considers known techniques (e.g., spacing practice over time, providing feedback, cuing prior learning), possible differences in amount of instruction, and options as to its timing. Some evidence exists to support the importance of frequent teacher feedback, use of data to guide instruction, high dose small tutoring groups (especially in math), more instructional time, and setting high expectations. But, these practices represent only some of the aspects which teachers must consider when designing their approaches in middle and high school.
Extracurricular activities become more important in middle school and high school. Not only are there more of them, but there are indications from research that student participation in these activities is positively associated with academic engagement and performance. Participation rates in extracurricular activities are measurably higher for children from upper and middle class families than they are for children from families with fewer means.
While in-school extracurricular programs increase in importance during adolescence, formal out-of-school activities, such as after-school programs, seem to become somewhat less important. The percentage of children attending after-school programs drops in half after elementary school, and the intensity and duration of participation decline as well with age. After-school programs have had their strongest effect on improvement in school attendance, especially for middle school students, and attendance is necessary for academic gains to occur. After-school programs, when designed and implemented well, have shown some ability to boost reading performance for high school students, but not middle school students, and math performance for both groups.
Ideally, parents provide their children during adolescence with a safe emotional base from which they can venture and return to in times of uncertainty, and scaffolded opportunities for exploration and skill development. Adolescents spend a good deal of time testing this support system, and it can be challenging for parents to determine when to let go and when to exercise control.
Because adolescents function more independently and spend substantial time away from home, parental monitoring becomes more important during this period. Monitoring is generally higher when there is a stable adult, male presence in the home, and higher monitoring is associated with fewer behavior problems for boys. However, an unstable male presence has been found to be worse for adolescents than no male presence at all. Notably, this effect does not show up until the teen years.