Student Well-Being

How to Turn Adolescence From a ‘Missed Opportunity’ to a Foundation for Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 18, 2019 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One in 4 Americans is a teenager or young adult, and the period represents some of the greatest peril and promise of their lives. A new report by the National Academies of Science suggests supports or inequities in adolescence are particularly likely to “get under the skin” of adolescents developing who they will be as adults.

“The adolescent brain undergoes a remarkable transformation that underpins amazing advances in learning and creativity,” said Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and chair of the committee that wrote the report, in a statement. “As a society, we bear a collective obligation to unleash the creativity of the adolescent brain while cushioning adolescents from experiences that could endanger their future well-being.”

Emerging research identified adolescence and young adulthood—the period roughly from ages 10 to 24—as a second “critical window” of brain development after the early years. During this time, students become better at social learning, pattern recognition, and more responsive to changes in school and academic climates. Teenagers have been found to gain or lose as many as 20 IQ points during this period, making testing potentially less valid at the exact time it is used for critical decisions about their educational trajectory. Math or reading gender gaps can close or even flip.

Teenagers’ brain malleability, the research committee found, means that interventions during secondary school can help students overcome trauma or adversity in their early life. But adolescents also become increasingly aware of and damaged by bias, stereotypes, and institutional or social inequities, the report found, which can create “missed opportunities” for learning and becoming more resilient. Instructional interventions considered effective with younger students can suddenly backfire, and adolescents also have the greatest risk for developing mental illnesses or becoming involved in the justice system.

Improving Adolescent Supports

Building a foundation for learning in the teenage years requires changes to four intertwined systems, the report finds: child welfare, education, health care, and juvenile justice.

Beyond addressing fundamental resource gaps between schools serving poor and wealthier students, the report suggested five changes in education to boost the academic potential of middle and high school students:

  • Education systems should create flexible, purposeful pathways from secondary school and higher education to careers.
  • Teachers should provide “culturally sensitive” classrooms, which may help prevent stereotype threats that can interfere with students’ performance and connection to school.
  • Schools should, in addition to basic content, help students learn “practical knowledge and nonacademic skills, such as decision-making, adaptability, and psychosocial skills.”
  • Schools and communities should work to support students’ mental and physical health.
  • Districts should actively help teenagers and their families understand and navigate the education system, such as understanding curriculum pathways or applying for college.

Photo source: Getty


Do you have a question about education research, or just want to know what the evidence says about that pesky instructional problem? Let me know! Drop me a line at, or

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.