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New Report Explores Why Adolescents Seek to Change the World and How Educators and Adults Can Support Them

WASHINGTON, DC— Changes in their brains, combined with a greater awareness of peers and events around them, make adolescence a key time for students to figure out who they are, what they aspire to be, and what they want to do in the world, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed). The report, Science of Adolescent Learning: How Identity and Empowerment Influence Student Learning, explores the research explaining these changes and offers ways that educators and policymakers can support students during this critical time.

“Physical changes in adolescents are readily apparent. Less obvious are the subtle changes they make internally as they develop and experiment with various feelings and reactions to the world around them,” said Deb Delisle, All4Ed’s President and CEO. “During this critical time, educators can support adolescents by creating safe spaces for them to employ still-developing skills, provide support and guidance as they grow, and help them learn about their brain development. Most importantly, adolescents should never be made to feel as though they are the only ones experiencing a range of emotions or reactions to situations previously familiar to them.”

According to the report, a variety of skills emerge during adolescence, attributed to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, that allow adolescents to contemplate their identities and provide opportunities for educators.

“Connecting academic learning experiences to adolescents’ identity development can raise the value of those experiences for students, increasing the likelihood that they will remember what they learned and motivate them to advance their learning in those areas,” the report reads.

Historically underserved and marginalized students face unique challenges as they develop their identities and seek purpose for their lives, the report notes. Often, the larger society in which these students live rejects, demeans, or ignores the identity groups to which they belong. Additionally, course material in school rarely reflects the history and contributions of people with whom they identify. Thus, the possibility of their finding relevance in their coursework hinders a much-needed focus on their academic pursuits.

The report offers a variety of recommendations for educators to support adolescents. For example, basic needs, such as food, acceptance, and feelings of safety, are important. So is creating time and space to model, teach, and practice or role-play times of stress, anger, pain, or discomfort. Authentic learning experiences, such as field trips or guest speakers with diverse backgrounds, allow students to connect with the real world. Conversely, practices that isolate students for academic catch-up or discipline are at odds with adolescents’ social and emotional development.

Policymakers should seek opportunities to support work- and project- based learning and help all students, especially first-generation college students, feel that postsecondary education is within their grasp. For example, supporting dual enrollment programs—in which high school students take college courses—reduces college costs and helps students recognize their academic promise.

By understanding the range of neurological developments and environmental factors that affect adolescent learning, educators and policymakers can support adolescents as they navigate increasingly complex social and political systems, ensuring adolescents’ academic achievement, postsecondary success, and overall healthy development.

“During adolescence, students are seeking opportunities to be change agents in the world,” said Delisle. “Over the last year, we’ve seen students from Parkland, Florida and across the country become tremendous advocates for school safety. It is incumbent upon us, as adults, to provide students with support and guidance while also equipping them with the knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in our society.”

Science of Adolescent Learning: How Identity and Empowerment Influence Student Learning is the last of four reports in All4Ed’s Science of Adolescent Learning series. The first report examined changes in the body and brain. The second report focused on adolescents’ risk taking, peer dependence, and changing motivations. The third report explored how culture and multiple environmental factors influence classrooms, schools, and student learning.

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The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization committed to improving educational outcomes—and lives—of students, with a focus on those in middle and high school. We embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion and specifically advocate on behalf of all students who are historically underserved or marginalized.