There has always been the common understanding that teenagers do not think like the rest of us! Parents, teachers, and psychologists all agree that the mind of the typical adolescent is a strange and complicated place, but with the use of modern and sophisticated technology, this long-held wisdom now has solid physical evidence to support it. Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Computed Axial Tomography (CAT Scans) have revealed the hitherto unknown reaches of the adolescent brain and brought to light the many true physical differences between the teen brain and the adult brain.
These differences in brain development and structure translate into very different ways of approaching problems, making decisions, and judging risk and reward. Even the way that one looks at the world is based upon the developmental stage of the brain. Emotional responses and reasoning ability vary within the age groups, but overall, the adolescent does, in fact, not think like the adult and if we are to create the proper programming with our driver education bodies to tap into the specific characteristics of learning that are present in adolescents, we must understand these differences and how they translate into behavior.
Adolescent Brain Developement: The concept of "plasticity"
During childhood, there is an overproduction of neuronal tissue that is not designated in a specific synaptic pathway. In simple terms, the brain is redundant to a larger degree, possessing many more unconnected neurons than an adult brain. As experiences are accumulated, connections are made and the neural pathways become fixed, as when language is acquired. You could say that this is when cells that are fired together, get wired together. Once the wiring process is completed, those neurons are fixed in synaptic pathways.
During adolescence, this "plasticity" is more pronounced than in childhood, even though overall neuronal cell production decreases. What begins to increase in its stead is something called myelination, where the neurons become coated with a type of electrically-conductive material. This is a process that could be likened to a turbo-charge effect in the brain, creating faster connections between synapses. These changes are especially apparent in MRIs and cell biopsies of the frontal lobes. This is an area of the brain that is involved in such higher functions as planning, decision-making, impulse control, language, memory, and others. During adolescence, the shift towards control of all these functions into the frontal lobes is called frontalization. So, even though total gray matter does decrease from childhood highs, performance of certain tasks becomes more focused and efficient. (Think about the reflexes of young athletes or soldiers and also about how linear their problem-solving abilities are at this time…turbo-charged yes, but also lacking in adult experiences which allow for cross-referencing a larger pool of synaptic pathway choices.) So, the adolescent brain is full of undesignated neuronal connections while at the same time, those connections that are designated are moving super fast and yet are very subject to linear patterns due to lack of experience (Sowell, et al, 1999, 2001; Paus, et al, 1999).
Further changes are occurring such as the decrease of gray matter in the parietal lobes, where sensory information is processed. On the other hand, gray matter increases in the occipital lobes, which are dedicated to processing visual information, until the mid-twenties for most adults. Gray matter in the temporal lobes, involved in memory and visual and auditory processing, usually does not reach maximum until around 16-17 years of age. Sub-cortical changes, especially in the corpus collosum, a bundle of axons which allow communication between hemispheres in the brain, increase in size, while neurotransmitters, the hormones which regulate all neural activity, are in flux throughout adolescence. These substances such as dopamine, GABA, and serotonin, facilitate where and how information is delivered in the brain and how that information is processed and interpreted (Sowell, et al, 2001).
To recapitulate, adolescent behavior is not arbitrary. They react and respond normally for their stage of development, which is a time of great change to the actual physical structure of their brains as well as how their brains process information and make connections. Adolescents behave and think differently from children or adults because of their developmental biology.
There are behavioral consequences to the developmental changes occurring within an adolescent’s brain. The source for the following information is Bandura (2001).
The first and most dramatic change will be the increased amount of time an adolescent spends with his or her peers and the decreased amount of time spent with parents and family. This is a normal developmental change and should not be seen as dangerous or suspect, although developmental experts agree that close monitoring and clear rules and consequences be applied when allowing an adolescent more time unsupervised with friends and peer groups.
The second change will be increases in risk-taking and exploration. Not all risk-taking is negative. The idea of risk is simply that an element of uncertainty in the outcome exists. Some risks are very positive like participating in sports, the arts, debate, etc. and lead to an increased sense of self-confidence and esteem. The personal boundaries in adolescents get pushed hard and parents must allow a certain amount of failure and defeat as well. It is a balancing act that needs to be allowed to occur.
Thirdly, will also be increased conflicts with authority, including parents. This fits with the idea of mastery and of boundaries. The adolescent brain is hard-wired for experiences. Telling an adolescent is not the same as showing an adolescent and even more importantly, an adolescent will need to do it for him or herself as well. Plus, emotional lability or the up-anddown quality of emotional responses is prevalent in adolescence due to hormonal fluxuations.
Next, there will be dramatic changes in sleep patterns, including going to sleep and waking up much later. This is relatively easy to understand. Growth is acute in adolescence and hormonal and physical changes take an enormous amount of energy. Most adolescents are not getting enough sleep to begin with and estimates are that teenagers probably need ten to twelve hours of sleep a night during the height of their growth and maturation spurts. The switch of diurnality is also related to serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, which are fluxuating regularly at this stage of development. Parents should really try to get their teenager to sleep and don’t worry if they are in bed on Saturday afternoon until 2 p.m.
Finally, this is the age of puberty. The ramifications of puberty are wellpublicized and it is enough to remember that the adolescent brain is wired for sensations. So, wherever the brain goes with adolescents, the body is going to follow. It should be understood by parents and teachers alike that while there will be dramatic changes in physical appearance, even more dramatic changes are occurring in feelings and beliefs and the ways in which adolescents view themselves as sexually maturing beings.
To review, adolescent behavior is an outcome of adolescent brain development. Changes in brain structure and function lead to changes in behavior and emotional response. Reasoning abilities as well as social and cognitive interactions will undergo vast shifts and unstable periods during adolescence. The adolescent is in the process of becoming something else entirely and it is often a bumpy road.
How to Use the Science in Driver Education Settings: Suggestions
The information above is fascinating and does offer an extremely useful and reassuring profile of adolescents because they will, after all, grow out of it. But what does it mean to driver educators? Here are a few respectful suggestions, with the understanding that there are many types of settings for driver education and that resources vary greatly among those settings.
First, review your curriculum. Do you have more classroom time that actual time in the car? Do you have outdated or outmoded visual materials? Do you explain terminology and techniques in teenspeak or adult talk? (boredom checklist, please) What time of day or night are your classes? (remember the sleep patterns)
Second, review your classroom requirements. Do you have one session and then no reviews before licensing examinations? What about a follow-up refresher course in six months, one year? Do you have training for parents, teachers, or other adults in you program to help facilitate their understanding of the characteristics of the students they will be teaching? Have you updated your rubrics to include the latest technological additions to the vehicles adolescents are driving like GPS locators, cell phones, etc. as well as latest safety innovations under the hood?
Third, consult local experts. Do you have access to counselors, physicians, professors, of others who deal with adolescent populations on a regular basis? Do you regularly review with experts to discuss the latest developments and techniques concerning how adolescents think and learn? Do you regularly invite law enforcement and other officials into the classroom to facilitate the learning experience and help your students see these authority figures as allies?
Fourth, become creative. Do you take the opportunity to play the games on XBOX or Sony Playstation that involve driving? Have you ever done it in class? Have you ever taken your students to an arcade to play the simulated driving games? Research indicates that these games can be deceiving, but do we use them in learning settings to explain and demonstrate the differences in such games and real driving settings? Do you have opportunities to do night driving or bad weather driving in safe settings like parking lots or other controlled settings? What other creative things do you try in class in order to engage the students’ attention and interest?
Fifth, share what you know with others. Do you regularly network or attend conferences or talk withr peesr to track expertise and experiences? How do you share what you have found effective aow do you learn about innovations in the field?
This paper is meant to be a starting point for driver educators who wish to utilize current scientific research in their curricula. It is by no means a complete review of all the latest information, nor does begin to exhaust all the ways that the classroom experience could be enhanced. Hopefully, it will help to broaden the discussion among the current safety policies are communicated and followed. Second, they should also remain vigilant for opportunities to improve driver safety through additional safety policies, procedures and communications. Lastly, administrators should ensure that all fleet vehicles are maintained to the utmost level.
Currently in their infancy, car sharing programs hold substantial promise for positive impact on the environment, congestion and transportation costs. However, they may also involve the potential for additional risks to their customers and other roadway users. It is recommended that research be conducted to study car sharing programs more thoroughly to assess the programs’ effects on drivers and on the transportation system as a whole.
In this article, the authors chose to limit the focus on car sharing programs’ potential benefits and safety issues. It is quite clear that many related vehicle ownership issues are not addressed in this discussion and warrant a thorough hearing in another article.
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Erin Floyd-Bann, Ed.D. and William Van Tassel, Ph.D. AAA National Office