Understanding the Mind of Students So We Can Lead Them

March 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

Mind of studentsOn this blog each day, and thorough our organization, Growing Leaders, we are about leading the next generation effectively. We want to help you (an adult) equip the next generation to lead and live well. Today—I want to focus on understanding the teenage mind so we can lead high school and college students to mature in a healthy way.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley, reminds us that children are reaching puberty earlier. Much of this has to do with what they’re eating and what they’re doing. Frankly, kids are eating more and moving less. In an article called, “What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind?” Ms. Gopnik’s explanation is simple: there are two different psychological systems that interact in the brain to turn children into adults.

  1. Motivational System. This is linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty. It turns the good-natured ten-year old who’s learned about the dangers of drinking and driving, into a sixteen year-old who drives his car into a guardrail. This doesn’t happen because teens under-estimate risks; it happens because they over-estimate rewards. Especially peer rewards, like affirmation and popularity. Today puberty arrives earlier and this motivational system kicks in way before kids are ready to calculate reality. As kids, their experiences are mostly virtual not real.
  2. Control System. This aspect has to do with the brain’s ability to channel all of that emotion and motivation wisely. The prefrontal cortex directs other parts of the brain to inhibit impulses and govern decision-making. It guards and guides emotion. This system usually matures after the motivational system does, especially in males. When it does mature, it enables long-term planning and delays gratification.

Sadly, because our world today doesn’t help kids grow up like it did even fifty years ago, kids are exposed to so much information—they think they can do things without any practice or experience. They get lots of stimulation without much application. In the words of psychologist Ronald Dahl, “today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”

In the past, these two systems (motivation and control) were more in sync. In the trading, gathering, hunting, agricultural world—kids’ education was a little bit “formal” and a lot of “informal” on-the-job training. Gopnik tells us “for most of our history, children have started their internships at seven…not 27.” In short, in life fifty years ago and beyond—teens worked as apprentices. Today, most teens don’t work. Learning is still confined to a classroom. And while I appreciate the classroom, it has its limits.

So—what can we do today to lead our kids into mature leadership?

The answer to this question is huge, but let me suggest four powerful acts:

  1. Conversations. Talk about meaningful topics they’ll need to know as they mature.
  2. Shadowing: Take teens with you as you work and interact in the adult world.
  3. Apprenticing: Let them try out “real world” tasks under your supervision.
  4. Debriefing: Evaluate and help them make sense of their reactions and experience.

Here’s to better understanding your young people, so you can equip them for life.

Is there anything else you would add to this list?

For further reading about the developing teenage brain, check out these posts:

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