The last two decades have seen major advancements in the understanding of the developing brain. New technologies have enabled a fuller appreciation of the dynamic remodelling processes occurring during adolescence and the unique learning opportunities such change affords. The adolescent period, beginning at the onset of puberty and extending well into the third decade of life, has been termed a ‘second window of opportunity’ (UNICEF, 2016) because of the changes in neural connectivity, making adolescence as significant as the first few years of life for learning and development.
Scientists used to think that the brain was more or less developed by late childhood and that the adolescent brain was simply an adult brain with less ‘miles on the clock’, less experience. However, we now know that the brain does not mature by getting bigger, rather it matures by rewiring, making more connections and coordination between brain regions. In the last two decades science has shown that networks in the frontal region that underpin judgement and decision-making, abstract and strategic thinking and the control of emotions and behaviour are still developing well into the mid-twenties. Scientists believe that this delayed maturation is deliberate and, evolutionary wise, linked to the individual’s need to be able to adapt to their environment during the transition process from child to adult. In this regard, because of the unique ‘plasticity’ (malleability) of the adolescent brain, these years represent an opportune time to strengthen cognitive, emotional and social capacities.
It is not just the science of the brain that has seen great advances in recent years. New knowledge has emerged across different disciplines from philosophy to biology. Alongside academia, practitioners are developing new knowledge everyday about what works and why it works. The greatest opportunity is to connect these different sources of knowledge to create a holistic approach that fits the purpose of what you do.