Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Adolescence: Cognitive Milestones

Just when you thought that baby's childish egocentrism had disappeared, she becomes a teenager. The adolescent egocentrism that makes her think everyone is staring at her will drive you crazy, but it's not her fault. Just like with the growth spurt, neurological development in adolescence comes one piece at a time. The limbic system that controls fear matures, then the prefrontal cortex that regulates those emotions. Teenagers become reactive and emotional before they can regulate those mood swings.

Researchers do have to be careful not to blame everything a teenager does on incomplete brain development as they continue to study adolescence. The research can be expensive and as a result there is not much research done on children between the ages of 10 and 17. So try as you might to get baby to be cautious in these formative years, she probably won't be and the research can't tell you all of just why that is yet.

Perhaps the biggest problem with research on adolescents up to this point is the old adage, "Easier said than done." Many questionnaires show that teens know what to do in a bad situation, they know to turn down the drugs and alcohol, they know they shouldn't have sex and they know if they do there should be a condom, but when emotions run high, the logical part of the brain seems to shut down completely. They can think rationally; they're even good at it when the time comes, but if it's an emotional situation, the maturing rational centers stop working. Adolescents are actually attracted to intense, exciting, or arousing situations.

One benefit of these quick reactions that come with incomplete brain development is athleticism. Speed is valued on the playing field and wise coaches can direct that teenage energy into a healthy outlet.

The brain does not fully mature until about age 25 and values acquired during adolescence are more likely to endure into maturity than those learned later. Adults should provide the scaffolding that teens need to learn and increase chances of proficiency during these formative years.

Cognitive growth is propelled forward between ages 11 and 18 by a number of factors. Scientists agree that there is huge variability between adolescents in cognitive functioning: egocentrism usually appears at the beginning, intuition in the middle and logic at the end but these can can all appear at any time.

While young adolescents dealing with puberty have mixed reactions to the changes in their bodies, one thing is definitely a part of all of them: the worry of how others see them. This adolescent egocentrism usually lasts from about age 10 to 14. Every pimple is reason to freak out - not because it's a pimple, but because, oh no, everyone else will see it! This is called the imaginary audience, making baby incredibly self-conscious about everything she does because "everyone is watching." Even if another teen in the room wipes their own nose, it's enough to send baby over the edge because perhaps that person is trying to warn her about something on her own nose. The ultimate goal during this egocentric stage is to blend in, not stand out.

Part of adolescent egocentrism is called the personal fable, the belief held by an adolescent that his or her experiences, thoughts, and feelings are either far better or worse than everyone else's. Another is called the invincibility fable, an adolescent's belief that he or she is literally invincible. The latter can cause problems as it can mean that baby thinks she can get away with driving fast, doing drugs, or unprotected sex and no consequence will come of it. There is also the other extreme, teens who exaggerate the risks.

Once adolescents start developing abstract logic, Piaget would say they are entering the final stage of cognition: formal operational thought. This stage is characterized by the ability to understand more abstract concepts and systematically manipulate them. For example, in math adolescents can use unreal numbers such as (4x)(3y). They do not need to see or touch to understand, they can work with information to figure out what should happen, for example, chemistry relies on the ability to realize that hydrogen and oxygen together can make water. A younger child would need to see the combination happen in order to understand it.

Around age 10 a child can use trial and error to figure out solutions, but by 14 an adolescent can hypothesize and then deduce the solution instead of just going for it. This is called deductive reasoning or top-down reasoning. They can start with an abstract idea and then use logic to prove or disprove it. The opposite is called inductive reasoning, which is what young children use. They use facts to aid what they already think.

Even though teens can think and then act, that doesn't mean they always do it that way. Researchers call the balance between logical and intuitive thinking the dual-process model. This means that the emotional and analytical parts of the brain each have their own network within the brain. The intuitive thinking arises from the emotional side and is beyond rational explanation. The analytical thinking is the formal and logical part of the brain where results are calculated.

As we all know, it's hard to think scientifically all of the time. One fallacy associated with this is called the sunk cost fallacy: the belief that if an investment has been made and cannot be recovered, then more effort should be devoted in order to reach the goal. For example, if you're watching a terrible movie, you're more likely to tough it out at the theater after paying for it than if it comes on TV at home. Scientifically, we should recognize that the movie is bad and give up on it, but when money is involved it changes the way you think. Another is called base rate neglect, a fallacy in which people ignore statistics in favor of emotional bias. For example, after 9/11 many Americans chose driving over flying even though the chances of accident are lower in the air and highway accidents actually increased due to the influx.

Some of these fallacies and choices may be simple for you to grasp, because they affect adults as well as adolescents. You're probably more egocentric than you realize, which can be obvious sometimes in the difference between your own values and those of teenagers. You assume they will have your same values but adolescents value friendship over health, leading them into situations where they end up trying drugs or alcohol in exchange for acceptance. You're past this, but chances are, your teenager isn't.

In terms of faith, baby is very likely to adhere to the same religion that you do, but adolescents tend to think of faith as a way to feel good about themselves instead of using it as a guide through the ethical dilemmas of life. You should discuss and debate your faith with her to help her understand the personal crisis of faith beyond the rituals of your religion.

Education is a loaded question with multiple answers. Secondary education is middle and high school, often grades 7 through 12. These days it is accepted as fact worldwide that secondary education transforms the adolescent into a better person and elementary school just isn't enough. In 2004, 78% of children worldwide received some secondary education; in the Americas, East Asia, and Europe this number was much higher.

Middle schools can start as early as grade 5 and usually continue until grade 8. Academic achievement in middle school is not what it was in elementary as behavior problems rise. First impressions seem to be of utmost importance as baby is thrown into an environment with hundreds of new people and old friendships seem to disappear. Suddenly the star pupil of elementary school is unpopular while the aggressive student is admired. Having a peer group is crucial for baby's own validation. Conflicts between child and parent arise and academic success lacks the luster it had just a year or so before.

Children are developmentally not prepared for middle school when we put them there. They have an increasing fear of failure, so we put them in multiple classrooms throughout the day with multiple chances to get lost or mess up. Personal comfort is out of the reach of middle schoolers as even extracurriculars may seem to magnify minor mistakes. They will blame parents, teachers, peers, or even government. Middle schools should appeal to each student's egocentric, logical, and intuitive needs by getting them excited and engaging them in role-play and group interaction. Otherwise we will lose them to their electronic shells as they ball up with a cellphone or iPod to avoid the world around them.

The once glaring digital divide between rich and poor is bridged as computers are readily available in libraries and schools. A study conducted on low-income 10- to 18-year-olds gave them free Internet access at home, and those who took advantage of it increased in reading scores as well as their grades in school. While the Internet is a great tool for education, few students use it as such. Most use it for social interaction - which adolescents need for cognitive growth. It can help the shyest kids have a social outlet, but it can also be where kids look up things they don't want to ask their parents about, like sex.

Other dangers of the internet include cyberbullying, using the Internet, texting, e-mails, etc. to spread rumors or embarrassing photos or video. The victims are likely to cyberbully others. Perhaps the greatest danger here is that there is no imaginary audience, the messages are accessible to anyone. Another problem is teens who are technologically proficient can use the Internet to get involved in bad activities they don't want parents or sometimes even friends to know about, for example, more than 400 sites online are devoted to the practice of "cutting," a form of self-mutilation. Teens can positively connect with peers going through the same troubling thing, but also give tips on the best way to cut themselves.

Transitioning to a new school can be incredibly difficult for an adolescent, even impairing their ability to learn. This can lead to problems such as eating disorders, self-injury, or depression. This includes the transition to high school. Schools should pay close attention to new students and their needs. The sooner the student finds a network, the sooner they will transition into new life at the new school.

High school should advance the analytic ability of students by teaching formal thinking instead of assuming the students understand the concept of thinking formally already. The hope of IB and AP programs is that the more rigorous coursework will lead to better thinking, but there is no research to support this belief. Raising the standards of education is more involved than just making classes harder. Many states in 2008 required students at the end of high school to pass a high-stakes test, that is a test where the consequence of failure is a severe one. In these cases the high-stakes test determined whether or not the student would graduate.  Some believe this is raising the standards, others believe this destroys learning. Many teachers may just "teach the test" and no real learning come of it. These fears have brought on educational reform in many East Asian nations. Fewer exams, fewer academic requirements, and fewer classes aim to turn their students into creative, flexible leaders who can take initiative, preparing them to work in the global marketplace.

While here in the US our high academic expectations prepares more students for college, it also pushes more students until they drop out. One solution to the problem of too much academic knowledge and not enough skills is to arrange apprenticeships so students can work for a local business and learn a trade while they earn credit towards graduation. When Germany implemented such a program it was highly successful - until many employers left the program when the job market ran into trouble.

The high-stakes exams have been found to be a direct cause of high school dropouts. In the states that require the exam, fewer students graduate. However, the percentage of dropouts has decreased over the last 30 years, and 90% of 24-year-olds have earned a high school degree of some kind (including those who earn GEDs, etc.). Many adolescents simply get bored of school (even honor students) perhaps due to the exclusion of egocentric and intuitive thought in curriculum. Social interactions are limited and in tight financial times, extracurriculars are the first to go. Often times the students themselves feel devalued as their favorite activities are taken away.

By finding a smaller high school and encouraging extracurriculars, baby can have a healthy high school experience. I just hope she doesn't have a high stakes test when it's over.

No comments:

Post a Comment