Last month’s column focused on important developmental events that transform a child’s dependent brain into an adolescent brain that will inevitably reach for adult autonomy. To simplify a complex process, the interim Tween Brain is sufficiently mature to understand the basic dynamics of many of the challenges it confronts. But while it formerly looked to adults for appropriate resolutions to such challenges, it now begins to develop its own resolutions—and it pressures adults to implement them. This shift poses important challenges to parents and educators.
An infant is a toddler, relative to walking—and a tween is a fumbler, relative to problem solving. No offense meant to either. Walking inefficiently is OK when you’re one and resolving challenges inefficiently is OK when you’re eleven. The stakes do get higher however. Childhood behavioral error typically causes minimal damage. Adolescent behavioral error can result in serious injury or pregnancy.
Tween, the common term for this developmental period, omits the first two letters of between, and yet the verb to be is central to what’s occurring within our brain between late childhood and early adolescence. Our brain is shifting its focus from a receptive to a responsive cognitive mode, from the mastery and use of existing adult responses to the creative exploration of its own identity, explanations, and responses.
Tweens thus have a current being integrity that parents and educators should recognize and respect. Let tweens be who they are. They are neither really smart children nor incompetent adolescents. They’re just trying their best to enhance the maturation and integration of some very complex cognitive systems that can only mature through experience.
It doesn’t require a parental or curricular revolution to seek tween analogs of adult challenges that can be individually and collaboratively explored in a non-threatening family or classroom setting. For example, genuinely involving tweens in the collaborative establishment and regulation of family policies and classroom management procedures helps to prepare them for more complex family, work, and community management issues they’ll later confront (Sylwester, 2003).
Encouraging them to explore creative alternative approaches to family and school tasks that have several appropriate resolutions helps to prepare them for an adult life that is characterized more by personal preferences and choices than by imposed rigid procedures. Teaching them about their brain and cognitive processes (such as the brainstorming analogy in last month’s column) helps them to understand and accept the validity of their current developmental status. Viewing error as a bump on the road to solution reduces their fear of risk. All such simple parental and instructional shifts enhance tween brain maturation in a supportive environment.
Competence in most human capabilities emerges over time. For example, we’re born capable of mastering any language in the world, but we’re not born proficient in any. Early cognitive development thus focuses more on mastering speech skills and basic vocabulary, and later development focuses more on mastering the culturally appropriate elements and aesthetics of language. Tweens need to know what’s appropriate, but they also need to explore it within the context of those with whom they’ll live their adult life. They thus learn their native language via adult interaction, but tend to develop their own adolescent jargon, and they will often talk differently with peers than with adults—in person, on cell phones, and online. They similarly begin a shift from the pure individual mastery of basic movements to the collaborative aesthetics of movement characteristic of dancing and sports.
Their adult life won’t be spent primarily within their family circle, and so they increasingly seek non-kin peer friendships. Parents tend to steer them into the youth groups sponsored by the organizations to which the family belongs, but adolescents typically bring home a mixed bag of friends. These interactions often add new elements to the mix of personal and family factors that develop their identity. Some parents laud this expansion of values in their child, and others worry about the potential erosion of family values. Truth to be told, parents have about a dozen years to make the best possible case for the inculcation of their values before their child enters the marketplace of values.
Electronic friendships without geographic limitations have recently entered that marketplace. Such online sites as MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga, and personal blogs simplify their electronic search for new distant friends. Adults are properly concerned about predators, but the reality is that most tweens don’t want adults poking around in their world—even though they broadcast their innermost thoughts throughout the broad electronic world. Parents usually don’t peek into their child’s diary, but what about logging on to their child’s blog? This is the first generation of parents and educators to confront this ethical issue. My advice is to spend a couple hours surfing this world. It will either allay or increase your fears, but at least you’ll have a first hand knowledge of the dynamics of the phenomenon.
School Assessment. State standards and assessment programs for tweens are problematic. It seems legitimate for such testing programs to expect elementary students to master the cultural knowledge and skills that are requisite for effective problem solving, and it seems legitimate to expect upper adolescents to explain the decisions they make in curricular tasks—but I’m dubious about what a high stakes testing program for intellectually fluctuating tweens accomplishes.
As suggested above, the frontal lobe maturation level of early adolescents is analogous to the sensory lobe maturation level of preschool children—but we shouldn’t think pejoratively of the relatively low competence level of either group. Language capabilities don’t emerge instantly, and neither do problem-solving capabilities. We informally evaluate the cognitive development of our preschool children, but typically encourage them to proceed at their own pace until they enter school, unless they’re well behind the norm.
Educators should at least consider a similar policy for the tween years. Cooperative learning activities, portfolio and other informal diagnostic assessments, and continuous careful observation by teachers would encourage creative exploration and reduce the stress of high stakes tests in students who are already going through a stressful maturation period.
Students attend school for 13 years. Shouldn’t they have recess at some point? Recess in its true historical sense is a very active student-centered time—an opportunity for students to explore rather than to perform, to socialize rather than to memorize, to be rather than to do. Thinking of the tween years in traditional recess terms might do a lot to help design a less rigid tween school environment and curriculum that puts the be back in tween.
It seems strange to me that we’re currently observing the disintegration of the middle school movement at the same time that the cognitive neurosciences are validating what genuine middle schools do best by viewing the tween years as key transitional years in a 20 year developmental trajectory.