If you live with a pre-teen or adolescent, like I do, you know that their decision-making skills are not always the best. Fooling around on the iPad during homework time, forgetting the lacrosse stick, doing the wrong assignment and pushing the limits with a sibling to the chagrin of parents are several examples of the under-developed prefrontal cortex manifesting itself for all to see. In school, the prefrontal cortex may decide to heat up a cookie in the Panini machine, slide down a slope of ice instead of using the walkway, or hide a friend’s sneaker in the locker room. How dare those tweens!
So, how do we help the prefrontal cortex make better decisions? How can we help this area of the brain orchestrate thoughts and social behaviors in ways that best determine good from bad?
Yes, opportunity is the recipe for helping pre-teens develop those all-important executive functioning skills.
Lately, I have read many articles regarding risk-taking, allowing a child to fall down in order to return to his or her feet, and—although this one may be hard to swallow if you are looking for peace and quiet in your home—the benefits of arguments among siblings.
In school, opportunity comes in the form of problem-solving. Posing challenging problems and issues for students to solve allows them to exercise the prefrontal cortex. Building circuits in fifth grade, designing windmills in sixth grade, working out blocking and stage action in a seventh and eighth grade play, and designing and building robots in eighth grade are terrific examples of problems to be solved. In each situation, collaborating with others and trial and error are critical elements in the process.
As we look toward next year, adding a Makerspace to the Middle School program will be a great opportunity to augment problem-solving experiences. This space (a renovated classroom) will be filled with opportunities to design, create, discover, explore and solve problems. This area will house a 3D printer, coding devices, basic robotics equipment and good old-fashioned LEGOs®. Each week, Middle School students will have the opportunity to visit the Makerspace under the guidance of a teacher. In conjunction with a new, modest Middle School library, a Learning Commons will emerge in Conover.
Our job as educators and parents is to set a framework for the prefrontal cortex to experience collaborative decision-making in a safe, nurturing environment. Adolescents are going to make mistakes, but increased opportunities to make those mistakes are the only way to, ultimately, raise happy, healthy, peaceful adults.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.