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Posted 09/12/2014 05:34PM
It is great to have the 2014-15 school year underway, especially as we celebrate our Centennial. The campus looks beautiful, and Richmond Hall welcomed its first residents, 50 girls who love their new rooms and four faculty families who love their handsome apartments. We have also renovated the second floor of the library; it will be fun to see how students use that new space, both the open sitting areas and the glass-enclosed collaborative study rooms. After several days of orientation, students and faculty are eager to get started with the business of learning and teaching.

Last week, as part of our preparation for the year, Abigail Baird, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Vassar College, spent most of a day meeting with faculty. Professor Baird’s research focuses on the teenage brain—or the teenage species as she more aptly describes them. You can find out more about Professor Baird’s research here and you can read a fascinating article that uses some of her research on the teenage brain here.

It was great to have a roomful of teachers with their own deep experience with young people discussing the wonderful world of teenagerdom. We all came away with a deep admiration for Professor Baird’s presentation skills as well as with a wealth of new information and insights.

Here were some of my takeaways:

  1. The frontal cortex is not yet fully developed in girls until their early 20s and in boys in their mid 20s. Although they have the same basic biology, the adolescent brain behaves differently than that of an adult, even in the same situation.
  2. Through a series of experiments that asked adults and adolescents whether something was a good idea or a bad idea, Baird demonstrated that adolescents actually think too much about their decisions, rather than too little. For example, where adults have enough experience to know instinctively that swimming with sharks is a bad idea, teenagers actually have to think about this for some milliseconds longer—and, even then, may decide that maybe/perhaps it might be a good idea. Of course, any delay can make a significant difference with split-second decisions.
  3. Adolescence is a time when girls and boys build up their repertoire of experiences—both concrete and abstract—that then build those instinctive reactions that will later make a host of decisions more automatic.
  4. Because adolescents have a need to build up their repertoire of experiences, it is important for the adults around them to find safe ways for them to challenge themselves and to take appropriate risks.
  5. Baird pointed out that boys and girls are generally different although there is always a continuum of behavior. For a variety of reasons, boys tend to be more risk takers while girls tend to be more relational, and these differences manifest themselves in a variety of ways.
  6. Teenagers change their primary focus from their parents and family to their peer group. This is the time they develop those all-important skills that will eventually enable them to live independently and to integrate into society.
  7. This also means that adolescents care A LOT about their peer group and what their peers think. Indeed, one experiment about which Baird talked demonstrated that the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes potentially stressful situations, is more likely to light up when asked to think about their peers than when asked about sharks.  

Fascinating stuff! While the typical adolescent behaviors that Professor Baird described were already familiar to us, it was helpful to learn about the science behind them. Several good reminders about the girls and boys we have in our charge. And a great way to start the year!

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