Neuroscience and brain development
Human brains go through significant changes during adolescence, which can often reflect in the behaviour of young people.
Throughout life, experiences continually shape our brains. Thanks to brain plasticity, we continue to learn, acquire new skills and form new memories throughout our lives.
There are many reasons why young people’s behaviour may change as they get older, but a basic knowledge of brain development can be useful for educators, to help understand why a young person may be behaving in a certain way.
How does the brain work?
Approximately 100 billion specialised cells, called neurons, form the grey and white matter in our brains.
Each neuron is linked to tens of thousands of other neurons. Together they form networks, and communicate with each other through connections called synapses. Synapses help to collect and send information through the brain with electrical signals.
During childhood and adolescence, different networks of neurons become dedicated to serving different purposes – we can think of these as different brain systems. Brain systems that regulate body functions (such as heart rate) and process our five senses tend to become established very early in life. Other brain systems, involved in more complex tasks such as social behaviour, undergo more gradual transformations.
Infancy and adolescence are the two periods during which the brain undergoes the most significant changes and is most receptive to experience.
How does brain development affect the behaviour of young people?
Adolescence is a period characterised by significant social, psychological and biological change. The changes that occur in the brains of young people can mean they may behave in ways that may be challenging for teachers.
The part of the brain that regulates our impulses continues maturing until our early 20s. This means that young people may have difficulties with impulse control. For example, a young person may feel angry about something that happens at school, and display that anger through shouting at their teacher, instead of regulating their emotions and behaving in a more appropriate way.
The relationships young people have with their peers also takes on increased importance during adolescence. Adolescents begin to spend more time with peers, and these relationships play an increasing role in their emerging sense of self, their well-being and behaviour.
How their peers behave will influence their decision making much more than when they were younger. This means that peer pressure and risk-taking behaviour can become issues for schools in peer groups of older children.
The greater significance of their peers can also increase anxiety in young people. The opinions and actions of other young people will matter much more to them, and anxiety around how they are perceived and how others treat them can be more common.
The impact of adversity on a child or young person’s brain
All children require nurturing adults who care for and value them – attending to their physical, emotional and social needs, and protecting them from danger. However, when adults fail to provide a ‘good-enough’ early environment – which is nurturing, safe, consistent and stimulating – the consequences on brain development can be profound.
Alterations in brain development following childhood abuse and neglect have been documented across a range of different brain systems, including the threat, reward and autobiographical memory systems.
For example, research has documented heightened responsiveness of the amygdala to threat cues such as angry faces. Such ‘hypervigilance’ has been shown even when these cues are outside of a child’s conscious awareness. Such changes can be understood in part as patterns of adaptation, helping a child cope and survive in dangerous and unpredictable environments.
In the longer term, however, they may mean a child has more difficulty in adjusting to and navigating more predictable environments, such as a stable and safe foster placement or school. This “latent vulnerability” may not be immediately obvious but unfolds over time, in part through the child’s social relationships.
Practical tips for schools
In this video, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Dickon Bevington explains how teachers can use the way our brains work to help young people exhibiting challenging behaviours. He also looks at ways schools can identify if a young person is in need of specialist support.
Four key principles for schools to remember
1. The brain is an adaptable, learning organ
We know that early adverse experiences can influence brain system development in unhelpful ways. However, the brain can adapt again in response to new positive experiences. Exploration, play, and trusting relationships can create opportunities for the brain to keep learning.
2. The brain learns through trusting relationships
If we are with people we know and trust, then our minds are more open to new experiences. For children who have experienced adverse experiences, including abuse and neglect, a lack of trust may be one factor that explains their greater difficulty in learning. They may not be able to focus their attention on what excites and engages them in the classroom or at home.
As a result, we need to work harder to earn the trust of such young people, ensuring that we are consistent and transparent in our approach and communication. We should also help the child or young person cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with others, inside and outside of school.
3. Brain adaptations may contribute to behaviour we find challenging
Sometimes a child behaves in ways that are not typical or expected. This can make it hard to know how to help them because we can feel rejected or even angry.
It is important to remember that early adverse experiences can mean that the child in our care may not experience the world in the way that we do. Their brains may have adapted to survive a dangerous or unpredictable world. This can mean that they may find it more difficult to regulate and manage their emotions.
We all have a role to play in helping children develop more effective ways to regulate their emotions and behaviour – this is a foundation stone for positive development. However, this requires us to have effective ways to regulate our own emotions, including advice and support from our friends and colleagues.
4. Challenging behaviour can be a form of communication
When a child or young person behaves in a way that we find challenging, we need to step back and reflect and look beneath the surface. The behaviour may have had an adaptive value for the child’s survival in the past, or it may be a coping mechanism for them now.
When a child or young person acts aggressively, we can choose to read their behaviour at a surface level. However, if we can uncover the worries, fears or doubts hiding beneath a child’s behaviour, we are better placed to understand them and build a relationship that endures over time.
This is key if we are to help a child’s brain adapt in new ways.