What the Research Shows

Early adolescence can be difficult. Rapidly advancing brain science tells us that middle school is a pivotal period of social and emotional learning. At the same time,  young teens are experiencing significant emotional, psychological and physical changes.

As tough as they may be, these years turn out to be a major window of opportunity for influencing the development of young teen’s brains and, in turn, their behavior. There are many ways to attempt to influence teens during this important time, but as the research here shows, some are far more effective than others.

Key Facts about the Early Adolescent Brain

  • In early adolescence, developing brains are highly plastic—meaning they are highly changeable. They have both increased capacity to adapt and learn new skills, and an increased vulnerability to certain disorders (like depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders), many of which begin or intensify during adolescence. [Source]
  • Young teens’ brains are still in the earliest stages of developing the structures needed for executive functions, which include planning ahead, weighing risks and rewards, and being able to simultaneously consider multiple sources of information. [Source]
  • In the first half of adolescence, the brain’s response to reward is heightened, but its response to harm and its ability to self-regulate are still relatively immature. This makes young teens highly responsive to positive reinforcement but not to consequences or punishments. [Source]
  • When kids reach adolescence, they become very motivated by the desire for approval and positive reinforcement by their peers. The evidence suggests that female brains are more affected by the outcome of these peer interactions—especially those that are either very positive or very negative—during adolescence than their male peers. [Source]