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New All4Ed Report: Embracing Adolescents’ Risk Taking, Peer Dependence, and Changing Motivations Can Improve Educational Outcomes and Academic Engagement

WASHINGTON, DC—Ever wonder why teenagers are so quick to adopt Instagram, Snapchat, and other forms of social media? Or take up X Games sports such as skateboarding and snowboarding? Released today at the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) 2018 Conference, a new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) explains how changes in the brain make adolescents more likely to be influenced by their peers, take risks, and even become disengaged in school as their motivations change.

“Unlike younger students, adolescents are not motivated by stickers and extra time at recess,” said Bob Wise, All4Ed President and former governor of West Virginia. “Additionally, the opinions of their peers become more important and adolescents increasingly seek novel and thrilling experiences—all while the role of adults shifts from a providing role to a supporting role. By understanding these changes in adolescents, educators, parents, and policymakers can ensure that students are engaged in their education, motivated to succeed, and take positive risks that further their education, as well as their development as individuals.”

According to the report, Science of Adolescent Learning: Risk Taking, Rewards, and Relationships, changes in the adolescent brain affect what motivates adolescents and, subsequently, how they learn. Specifically, adolescents are more sensitive to social recognition, which leads them to higher instances of reward-seeking and sensation-seeking behaviors, especially if peers support that behavior.

But while adolescents’ “risky” behaviors often are associated with negative choices such as crime or drug use, educators can provide adolescents with school-based opportunities to take risks associated with positive academic and social outcomes—such as trying out for the school play or starting a business.

To help educators and policymakers navigate the changes students experience during adolescence, the report offers several recommendations. For example, to help build supportive relationships with students, educators can use lunch time, student advisory periods, and other less structured time to build supportive relationships with students separate from discussions about classes and homework.

School and district leaders can provide opportunities for students to engage in high-quality service learning and work-based learning that motivate students and provide them with opportunities to build positive relationships with peers and adults in their community. Policymakers can promote diversity and prevent racial isolation, incentivize teen mentorship programs, and encourage schools to offer college courses and provide pathways for students to earn industry credentials and obtain work experience while in high school.

Science of Adolescent Learning: Risk Taking, Rewards, and Relationships is the second of four reports in All4Ed’s Science of Adolescent Learning Consensus Statement series. The first report in the series examined changes in the body and brain while future reports will focus on valuing culture, experiences, and environments and how identity and empowerment influence student learning.

Science of Adolescent Learning: Risk Taking, Rewards, and Relationships is available at

For more information on All4Ed’s Science of Adolescent Learning initiative, visit

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The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring all students, particularly those underperforming and those historically underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.