Neuroscience & Adolescence

This afternoon we were privileged to have Nathan Mikaere Wallis at school to talk with us (our staff plus some staff from other schools in our CoL) about neuroscience. This post is sharing my notes from the session (so please ignore grammatical errors etc. as Nathan is highly entertaining and moves at great pace!).


He is a highly entertaining speaker and the 2 hour session sped by. If you get the chance to see Nathan seak, then make sure you take it!

Nathan said we were trying to cover 6 hours of material in 2 hours. So, here are my notes to summarise it even further. Some of my thoughts on the implications of all of this follow at the end.

1990’s decade of the brain – learned the same amount about the brain than we had in the previous 300 years. We could now look at living brains (through tech breakthroughs, especially MRI scans) rather than just the biology of dead people’s brains. The biggest gamechanger was: our brains are set up to gather information in the first 1000 days (from conception to 1000 days old) that sets it up for the rest of it’s life. The first 2 ½  years are essentially the most important data gathering time in our lives.

30% of genes are set. 70% waiting to interact with the environment before they kick into action. We know this since the human genome was mapped just over 10 years ago.

Our brain is designed to be moulded by the environment we interact with.

25 years of research showing this. Our policies in NZ need to reflect this. Easiest time to change outcomes for people’s lives is the first 3 years. Scandinavian tax spending is targeted at this first 3 years of life.

Research says spend $50,000 on having parent spend time at home with their child – will do far more for them than spending it on a private high school education.

Also important here to point out the complexity – there are many risk and resilience factors interacting here to produce a person’s outcome.

The frontal cortex is what changes in adolescence – it’s why us teachers and parents get all excited about it. Frontal cortex is brain number 4. Brains 1,2 and 3 are the same brain parts that a dog has. This means the frontal cortex helps us do all the things a dog can’t do – reading, language, emotions, empathy, setting goals, understanding consequences etc. (Dogs have a stump of one so can partially do some of this like a touch of empathy and anticipating next 30 seconds). Newer research is pushing the time out, “mythical average person’s” frontal cortex now fully developed by late 20s.

Female brain develops faster. Fully developed brain by 18-24. This is why (generalised/stereotypically) they mature quicker etc. Male brain fully formed by 22-32.

Birth order – only 2 categories in neuroscience: 1st born and not 1st born. All based on compilation data. Majority of times 1st born becomes higher qualified and earns more $. They get more undivided attention in first 3 years. More you are spoken to by a person who loves and is attuned to you, the better for your brain development.

Evolutionary hangover – for centuries, women have been raising multiple kids so some will survive and look after you in your old age. Females need that complex brain to develop faster. Also vested interest in delaying male brain development as empathy will get in the way of hunting, being a warrior etc.

Boys who are not first born are biggest group in almost all the negative statistics in areas like crime and education. Girls who are first born are smallest group.

Bigger age gap between children does decrease the impact of being not a first born but doesn’t remove the impact entirely.

Brain expects a relationship between them and 1 other. This is the most responsive for brain development. Best thing scientifically for a brain is for other partner, family, rest of village to help by supporting the main parent rather than sharing the load with baby. But – this is a very small risk factor compared to others.

Brain 1: Brain stem/amygdala – Survival

Brain 2: Movement

Reptiles have 1 & 2

Brain 3: Mammal brain – limbic system. Emotions

Mammals have 1,2 and 3 as we nurture our young.

Brain 4: Frontal Cortex.


Important relationship between Brain Stem & the Cortex. As one increases the other declines & vice versa. Brain stem is in charge. If needs to be survival mode then brain will focus on this and there is no learning, flashy stuff going on in the brain. Only when brain says ok, nothing needed here to survive right now, the environment is calm etc. then your frontal cortex will raise in how much it can do. Therefore, the safer you feel, the more learning you can do. This is why relationships are so important to learning for all people but especially for those coming in from complex, unsafe lives outside of school. Help the student feel safe and they can learn far more.

Research supports mindfulness – it calms the amygdala/brain stem and raises the amount that a cortex can take on for learning..

Trauma, abuse and neglect while a brain is developing can be seen in MRI scans. At resting heart rate where brain stem shows up and not much action happening in the frontal cortex. Interventions can rewire and help brain to develop the cortex, but it is so much harder after the first 3 years of life. Interesting link: 98% of death row inmates brain scans also show very little frontal cortex action.

Alcohol and marijuana have major impact on brains before 18. The damage will then stay throughout their lives. This long term damage isn’t done to the brain when using these after 18-21.

From 3-11 your frontal cortex gets bigger and better. People develop the ability to control emotions, see other perspectives, focus attention etc. Then adolescence kicks in, and so much neurological change occurs that the brain shuts down the cortex for rewiring (for on average 3 years).

Great side notes here: while the cortex activity is extremely reduced we have the exams etc that set people up for careers and let them start to drive! A decade of knowing this is trying to overcome an education system set up 150 years ago.

1:1 conversations are so much more powerful for learning during adolescence as you can calm the limbic system so that the remaining cortex can function fully. Teenagers can operate with an adult brain but only for about 10% of the time. Adolescence is about rewiring this so you can operate with an adult brain closer to 100% of the time (as adults we still tend to operate with our limbic system about 10% of the time – ignore logic and for example have that extra wine/beer because it feels good). This 90/10 split as an adult is very variable of course – individuals vary greatly.

Reading facial expressions part of the cortex is completely shut down during adolescence. They use the amygdala to read expressions at this time. Teenagers will read facial expressions far less accurately than younger kids or adults.

Implications I Was Pondering On The Way Home

How might we get more 1 on 1 time with students to help them learn?

Empathy happens in the cortex which reduces function during adolescence. How do we change teaching approaches then to help students empathise and reach deeper levels of understanding that come from this? 1 on 1 interviews with people involved in an issue. 1 on 1 time with people different from them. Is VR a way to appeal to all the emotions and immerse them in a situation enough to help develop empathy?

What quick starter activities could calm students’ brains ready to learn? What mindfulness strategies would I be willing to try to replace my What If starter on days that it is needed?

The part about feeling safe means your amygdala calms down and learning can begin, has big implications for how we deal with students after intense situations like fights etc. How might we change our approach to do this better. i.e. Maybe incident reports wait a while for the brain to kick in?


9 thoughts on “Neuroscience & Adolescence

  1. I have attended a few brainwave talks now. I found them extremely insightful as a parent and as a teacher. Thanks for your thoughts Steve.

  2. My thought after hearing Nathan this afternoon was to what extent are we/adults/society trying to control this transition? Is this something that is beyond our control, and we’ve just got to let it play out? Or can we actively make the process better/more efficient? Can we mess with nature?

  3. My colleague from CHC was also privileged to hear Nathan speak to her school staff the other week and she was really inspired by his presentation. So thank you so much for summarising in this blog as it gave me more detail about what she had been talking about. Some other colleagues of mine in Dunedin are doing some work around Active Education (TLIF Project – Kaikourai Valley High School and Queens High School). Their maths teacher Steve Murphy spoke to us last week at our Sport in Education workshop, and taught us some Brain Gym mindfulness exercises that he has had real success with, with his classes He does them everyday. They are sharing all of their resources on the VLN, but you might be interested in this one in particular…
    Ngā mihi nui

  4. Hey Steve. I should be writing report comments but this stuff interests me. We have also had Nathan talk with our staff in the past. Regarding teaching empathy, apart from the awesome platform that the Social Sciences provides to look at issues from different perspectives, I think another strategy is modelling by the teacher. My observation is that this is generally not done well and indeed many teachers feel unable to give empathy or allow students to express empathy towards them as teachers as to do so, you first have to let the students know how you are feeling in a non-judgemental way.

    My thinking on this is heavily influenced by the work of Marshall Rosenberg who has a heap of stuff on Youtube about the framework that is known as “NVC” or Non-Violent Communication.

    Some quick examples, to illustrate this:

    Often I have seen students “getting it wrong” and straight away, the teacher response is to judge their behaviour and dish out an appropriate consequence – For the student, they immediately are unable to access their cortex as they are under attack (fight, flight or flee response) and thus not much lasting change comes out of the incident other than reinforcing the students belief that teachers are there to make life difficult.

    The alternative for the teacher is to start from a position of empathy. ie. I wonder what is going on for that student for them to have taken this action. It might sound like: “I am confused that you have chosen to do ______________ and I am wondering what is going on for you.” Then you can start the conversation from a more empathetic place and you are teaching empathy at the same time.

    Another example and this is the one that I think freaks teachers out, is to share with students how we are feeling and thus allow them to contribute positively to our lives. Some cannot cope with this as they feel that they are giving away control or power.

    Using the formula OBSERVATION, FEELING, NEED, REQUEST might sound like:
    When you guys are taking during full attention times, I feel really frustrated because I really want the class to succeed and it’s important to me that feel I have control at those times because I need to know that everyone has the same instructions. It would make my life better if you would be willing to take greater ownership of managing your talking at appropriate times.

    If this was true NVC, because I have made a request, I need to be prepared for them to say no. I am still struggling with this so usually follow up with “if you are unable to, I can happily apply some strategies like shifting where you sit etc. Anyway, the point is, if we do not give students the opportunity to meet our needs and have empathy, how else are we getting them to practice it.

    Sorry, a bit of a rant there. I have been dormant on the twitter and blog networks for a while.

    Craig @perrynator

    • Thankyou for sharing this Craig. I’m currently a second year teacher and I often explain to my students how I’m feeling and the impact it’s creating. I had been un-sure if this was the correct approach or not and worried it might not be. This blog post and the comments have been very useful !

  5. I don’t know if I am too late- but I wanted to add something I have always found rather interesting and somewhat relates to the idea of “teacher empathy.” To counter, I have been reading books and studies that suggest that not only does there exist an empathy region of the brain (if we are taking into account the regionalized approach), but also that doctors in general tend to have less developed or less reaction in these areas. Just something to note 🙂

  6. Pingback: Neuroscience & Adolescence | Teaching and L...

  7. There is some excellent material in this post and am keen to hear Nathan speak wondering about the value of sharing and unpacking neuroscience with students

  8. Pingback: Creating a Supportive Learning Environment | Steve Mouldey

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