Adolescence offers an opportunity for increased learning, but it also is a period of heightened stress due to the many biological and social changes students face. These various stressors can both directly and indirectly disrupt learning processes in still-developing adolescent brains.
This Alliance for Excellent Education report underscores the importance of culture, experiences, and environments during this period of life and explains why adolescents need to learn in safe, supportive, and culturally responsive environments.
The report also offers recommendations to help educators, policymakers, and parents as they engage, motivate, and prepare middle and high school students for future success.
Increasingly, educators are becoming aware of the impact that school culture, learning environments, and learning experiences have on educational outcomes. Findings from recent neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychological research provide a more indepth understanding of why school culture matters for each student and why it is especially important for adolescent students to learn in environments that are safe, supportive, and culturally responsive. Multiple environmental factors—from community values and social expectations to poverty, prejudice, and inequity—influence classrooms, schools, and student learning. Learning environments also have expanded to include digital technology as today’s adolescents increasingly use online spaces to learn and build relationships.
This report examines learning and development research that supports the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) Science of Adolescent Learning (SAL) Research Consensus Statements 11–16. The report highlights the following essential findings about adolescent learning and development:
- Now, more than ever, educators know that supportive school cultures should promote ambitious learning goals, positive relationships, and critical thinking. As adolescents continue to develop their own identities along a number of dimensions and seek to understand the complex social systems and societies around them, educators and leaders must ensure that adolescent learning environments connect meaningfully to adolescents’ cultural values and community experiences.
- Neuroscientific evidence is advancing a greater understanding of the relationship between stress and learning. When the brain reacts to stress, it redirects the individual’s attention and efforts to attempt to respond to the cause of stress. This reduces the individual’s capacity to remember concepts and adapt to social situations, such as confrontations, effectively. Stress affects the learning of adolescents in particular because the brain structures involved in stress regulation still are developing.
- Historically underserved and marginalized students often experience additional learning obstacles as a result of stressful experiences related to poverty and inequity. Increasing evidence shows how poverty can affect learning and the brain, absent appropriate support. This includes the impact of prolonged exposure to stress, inadequate access to nutrition and health care, and polluted environments. In addition, discrimination, bias, microaggressions, and stereotype threat can affect the learning and academic outcomes of students who identify with historically marginalized groups, regardless of their socioeconomic status or academic ability.
This report also recommends ways in which educators, policymakers, and advocates can support the learning and development of adolescent students, including historically underserved students and marginalized students, by applying SAL to policy and practice. By understanding the full range of cultural and environmental factors that affect adolescent learning, including technology, bias, and poverty-related conditions, educators and leaders can support adolescents as they learn to navigate increasingly complex social and political systems, leading to their academic and postsecondary success.