Changes in the Student Brain: A Review of Age of Opportunity

Finally, a game changing book in understanding the developing brain of millennials. In Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University, shares a large body of brain research that shows that adolescence brain development is starting earlier and lasting longer.
The research he shares shows that this period of adolescence is as important as the first years of life in terms of learning. The adolescent brain, it seems, is extremely ripe for development. This, of course, is extremely important information for middle and high school educators. This time period for students is vital to supporting long term development and learning breadth because the brain is still maturing.
Adolescents are also very vulnerable at this stage. Toxic situations can cut a deep groove in the development of the brain. Teens are still developing advanced abilities such as logical reasoning, planning and self regulation. As educators, we must recognize this and help students develop these skills. We can not assume that these skills are fully developed. Many of these functions are what Dr. Steinberg calls, “Experience dependents,” that must be practiced and reinforced.


Two areas of the brain are being developed during adolescence, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. During adolescence, these two areas are learning to work together. Dr. Steinberg outlines three phases of adolescent brain development:

  • Phase One: Start the Engines. The limbic system is in control here. These changes are controlled by hormones so start and finish will be controlled by the onset and completion of puberty. Wild mood swings characterize this phase.
  • Phase Two: Developing a Better Braking System. The prefrontal cortex becomes more organized during this time. Teens develop, “Advanced thinking abilities,” during this phase. This usually happens between ages 14 to 16.
  • Phase Three: Putting a Skilled Driver Behind the Wheel. During this phase the prefrontal cortex and limbic system as well as other areas of the brain become more interconnected.

As we know, learners are influenced by rewards. Not just monetary or physical rewards, but rewards that include belonging, of earning a laugh or admiration. These intrinsic and extrinsic prize mechanics, coupled with an immature prefrontal cortex, leads to increase risk taking. Risk taking increases when young people are influenced by social pressures. Age of Opportunity reveals research of the effects of peers on risk taking. Research shared in the book shows that simply knowing that peers are watching, can lead to risk taking behavior.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Steinberg after reading his book. I asked: What is the most important thing that teachers can do tomorrow to help students? He urges teachers to challenge students more. In his research and experience, he found that American high school students are often bored and unchallenged. He suggested for educators to develop both critical thinking and soft skills in students. It’s not what we teach but how we teach that is important. Dr. Steinberg would like his new brain research to reach teachers so they can inform their practice. Mindset is also important. Teachers and students need to have a mindset that says that success is a function of hard work instead of inherent intellectual ability. In the interview. Dr. Steinberg also stressed the importance of physical activity to move blood to the brain throughout the day. Finally, Dr. Steinberg recommended starting secondary later in the day in order to accommodate the changing biological clock in adolescents.
The research Dr. Steinberg presents is vital for teachers and parents. The book is enlightening and quick in pace. Definitely an informing and thought provoking read for middle and high school teachers looking to improve their practice to deliver with instruction our students deserve.
Watch Dr. Steinberg talk about Age of Opportunity at the Microsoft Visiting Speaker series.

Aimee Bartis Author

Aimee Bartis

Aimee Bartis is a veteran teacher and an Educational Technology Specialist in Texas.

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