The Teenage Brain

Jensen, F. E. (2016). Teenage Brain, The: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Harper Paperbacks.

Educators have a seemingly endless series of books informing their practice; each year we have a small library full of how-to manuals, philosophical treatises, and utopian (or dystopian) visions of schools from which to select our professional reading. In most years, we can safely ignore almost all of them. Already this year, a book has been published that educators cannot ignore.

Frances Jensen is a neurologist from the University of Pennsylvania, and she previously held was a professor at Harvard Medical School. Along with science journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, Jensen wrote The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Young Adults. Every educator who works with middle school students through college students must read this book and recognize the emerging science describing the adolescent brain.

The chapters are organized to first describe the brain and how it learns. The facts recounted are well established and familiar to most educators. We know synapses matter, and the building of connections between neurons across synapses is the physiologic basis of learning. We also know that brains, especially the frontal lobes, are changing and maturing through adolescent years; and how young brains act and react are different from how adult brains act and react.

Jensen and Nutt then detail what we have learned recently about the differences between how adolescents and adult brains react to environmental factors such as sleep, drugs, and stress. There are also chapters addressing very timely subjects such as the effects of digital technologies on adolescent brains and concussions.

As I read the book, I found myself increasingly troubled by the dismissal of science by educators and other adults. Consider the simple observation that teen brains function better later in the day; there is ample theory and empirical evidence to support the later start times for schools. “The bus schedule” excuse seems a very poor reason to keep the current schedules.

It becomes clear that educators have a role in reducing the amount of tobacco and alcohol and other drugs in their communities as well. These substances affect young brains to a much greater extent than adult brains and the effects last longer.

The chapter on concussions was particularly interesting. The damage that can be done to a young brain by repeated violent collisions makes for dreadful reading. Clearly, schools must adopt very strict policy and procedures regarding the brain health of student-athletes.

Throughout the book, there are stories of young people and their seemingly unreasonable actions. Jensen and Nutt explain them in terms of brains. We see how the actions are easy to explain in terms of maturing brains. They do observe that the explanations are not excuses, but they observe that adults have a role in helping young people understand their brains and how they work—and how to keep them healthy.

Reading this book is an excellent first step.