Decision-making. It is one of the most paralyzing acts humans must perform. What with all the information available to us today—we can become overwhelmed with the knowledge we accumulate and the options we must wade through.
This is especially true for students.
Today, scientists have located a specific region of the brain called the “amygdala” which is responsible for instinctual reactions—like fear, anger and aggressive behavior. This region of the brain develops early. The “frontal cortex,” however, which is the part of the brain that controls reasoning, helping us to think before we act, develops later in life. Obviously, this part of the brain is still maturing in teens, and even well into adulthood. All of this means—good decisions are hard for adolescents, because they don’t have all the tools they need to make wise choices.
This can lead to two extremes in students as they choose behaviors.
Two Case Studies
I know two adolescents, both seniors in high school, who represent two extremes when it comes to decision-making. The first one is Trevor (not his real name). He is a typical teen who loves adventure and has parents who resource him to have most everything he wants in life. He plans to go to college, and make a lot of money in his career. Because he has been afforded so much in his K-12 years, Trevor doesn’t think too long before he makes a decision. His past has assured him that if he makes a bad choice, his parents (or some adult) will swoop in and save him. So, he lives by the mantra: “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
The other student is Carly. She’s also seventeen but struggles with the opposite tendency. She overthinks. She weighs out every option, wrestling with every type of outcome and is often paralyzed from even choosing at all. Or, she wants to keep all her options open. She’s afraid of making a poor decision. She doesn’t want to fail. That’s the key. She’s so frightened of making a bad choice, she never enjoys a decision. When she’s forced to make one, she’s full of angst that another one was better. She lives by the mantra: “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim…”
Do You Know Anyone Like These Two Students?
1. The student who acts impulsively, without thinking of the ramifications.
2. The student who acts too late or fails to act, overwhelmed by the decision.
I bet we all know grown adults who struggle in the same way. Both extremes are brought on by the realties of 21st century living in an industrialized economy, and by the way our brains develop over time. We are wired to choose, but balancing our impulses and our analysis is tough. So how can we help these students?
For the Impulsive Student
We must raise the stakes.
We must work with them to sit down and develop a system for choosing options. Life has been good for them, and thinking ahead has not been a real need—no real dangerous consequences to speak of; no big costs for not planning ahead. So we need to create those realities by raising the stakes. We must help them think about issues—then let them rise and fall with their decisions. Developing a system for choosing options will result in consequences to endure and benefits to enjoy. This is how life works for adults. And its best to learn it when we’re young before the stakes get absolutely too high to learn—without drama.
For the Analytical Student
We must lower the stakes.
We must set them free from the paralyzing fear of making a bad decision. We all know some decisions are more important than others. Let’s equip our students to weigh out the factors involved, but to choose and commit—especially if the stakes are low. This posture of over-thinking issues; the “paralysis of analysis” can prevent a male from committing to a relationship or a female from committing to a major. We need to lower the stakes for kids (whenever possible) and let them know we often learn to make good decisions by making bad decisions. It’s not the end of the world.
It has been said: The world is full of thinkers and doers. The thinkers probably need to do more, and the doers probably need to think more. Consider how you could counsel a student who falls into one of these extremes. Could you help the “thinker” to do more, and help the “doer” to think more?