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ASCD Express

The Adolescent Brain—or Harry, How Could You?!

Gloria Neubert


In 2005, when he was barely 20 years old, Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi in a German desert uniform and a swastika armband to attend a friend's costume party—not a prudent choice for a young man third in line to become king of England just months prior to entering the prestigious military academy of his royal ancestors. Harry made the international news, apologized for his offense, and left people around the world to wonder, "What was he thinking?"

Lamentations about the idiosyncratic behavior of adolescents are, of course, nothing new. Adults have always scratched their heads and tried to understand why adolescents behave the way they do. Fortunately, now we have the ability to look inside the living adolescent brain and examine the processes that result in this erratic behavior. Neuroscientists use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and DTI (diffusion tensor imaging) to examine the structure and function of brain areas and to monitor the communication trail among different brain areas. These noninvasive neuroimaging technologies have revealed startling information about the brain that can help us understand adolescent behavior.


The Prefrontal Cortex

Giedd and associates (1999) discovered that around the ages of 9 or 10, the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain immediately behind the forehead) experiences a huge growth spurt—some new neurons (brain cells) and millions of potential connections through which information is transmitted from neuron to neuron. Metaphorically, the prefrontal cortex of the brain becomes overgrown, filled with a proliferation of intertwined branches, few of which are strong and functioning optimally.

The prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain and its seat of wisdom, is responsible for executive functions such as rational decision making, self-control, regulating and sustaining motivation, goal orientation, attentiveness, and accurate emotional interpretation—all behaviors associated with the mature adult. The adolescent's brain, however, is not yet hardwired to perform these life functions independently, accurately, and adequately, which may explain some teens' erratic decision making and behavior.

The maturing of the prefrontal cortex that controls those executive behaviors is called regression. For the average person, regression begins in middle school and continues into the mid-20s. Neural circuits that are used are retained and become stronger; those used infrequently or not at all are pruned away.


The Limbic System

Casey, Jones, and Hare (2008) report that the limbic system, the emotional seat of the brain, develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex in the adolescent brain. The limbic system is the area of the brain responsible for initiating impulsive and risky behavior, anger, fear, and aggression. Thus, the teenager often has an "appetite for adventure, a predilection for risks, and a desire for novelty and thrills" (Dahl, 2003, p. 8), without the fully functioning brakes of the prefrontal cortex.

This risky behavior is even more pronounced in males. Adolescent boys have multiple surges of testosterone every day, and the amygdala, a dominant part of the limbic system, has receptors for testosterone. Consequently, male adolescents are more susceptible than females to dangerous and outrageous behavior and do not have a mature prefrontal cortex to trump the limbic system.


Coaching the Adolescent Brain

Robert Sylwester (2004), a specialist in cognitive science research, said, "The only way we can learn to walk is to practice walking, and the only way we can mature our frontal lobes is to practice the reflective problem solving and advanced social skills that our frontal lobes regulate—even though young people aren't very successful with it initially" (p. 78).

So maybe the question about Prince Harry's behavior should be not, "What was he thinking?" but "Who let Harry out of the castle dressed as a Nazi?" Where was the adult coach of his executive system who should have asked Harry to reflect on the appropriateness of his attire?

If Sylwester's hypothesis is correct, then the question for secondary curriculum developers and classroom teachers should be, "How can we include content-related, authentic decision-making and problem-solving activities so that we can coach adolescents in the use of logical reasoning and reflective thought?"



Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111–126.

Dahl, R. (2003). Beyond raging hormones. Cerebrum, 5(3), 7–22.

Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O., Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A. C., & Rapoport, J. L. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 861–863.

Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain: An educator's handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Gloria Neubert is an education professor at Towson University in Towson, Md., and the 2007 International Reading Association Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading.

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