It wasn’t me, it was my teenage brain

The Sunday Times, 12/04/15, new research is helping pupils to learn why they feel and behave as they do, and how to cope with it. HMC member Julia Harrington, headmistress of Queen Anne's and her school features.

When one of Julia Harrington’s pupils gets into trouble, she will often ask them, a trifle wearily: “Why did you do that silly thing?”

Recently the headmistress of the fee-paying Queen Anne’s boarding school in Caversham, Berkshire, where former pupils include the actress Jenny Seagrove and the cartoonist Posy Simmonds, has received a surprising response to her question.

“They say, ‘I don’t know why I did it, Mrs Harrington. My prefrontal cortex must have let me down. It was out of order that day.’ ”

Harrington laughs at such a wisecrack. She sees it as a sign that her ambitious experiment — to get pupils to use the latest science about the teenage brain to control their moods, improve their memories and even win at netball — is succeeding.

Queen Anne’s is one of five schools taking part in BrainCanDo, a project to help teenagers understand why they behave the way they do and how they can harness that knowledge to boost their learning and stay healthy.

“We are developing a tool kit to work through different aspects of brain function. For the past year we have given it to the teachers and said, ‘Go and use it where you can,’ ” says Harrington.

“My job is to help teenage girls understand what is going on in their heads. Their brains are going through a massive process of development, with neurons being regenerated and brain pathways strengthened, which is very exciting. But too many teens come away from that process feeling at odds, unable to function properly in the adult world.”

Harrington, who got the idea for the project after attending lectures by the psychologist Anna Scarna, an expert on the teenage brain, is one of many head teachers concerned about a national rise in mental health problems among young people, including eating disorders, anxiety and addiction.

“The aim of BrainCanDo is to tell children how to use their knowledge about what is happening to their brains to deal with stress or improve their memory or handle their moods,” she says.

At its simplest, it means pointing out to pupils that it is part of normal development for teenagers to feel moody, depressed and anxious as their brain goes through its massive changes.

Teenagers can be told that talking about how they feel can calm such turbulent emotions — and the science shows how, says Harrington.

“Emotions are in a very primal part of the brain. Speech is in a more sophisticated part and talking has been shown to calm emotions such as anxiety. That is why therapy works,” she says.

“We all remember that hellish time in adolescence when you feel you are the only one going through it. Whereas if you understand that it is a journey and you can choose how to react, you can process what is going on.”

In a more academic vein, the research is also looking at how to strengthen the girls’ memory and improve their performance. Music, according to Harrington, is hugely important in influencing the emotions of teenagers.

Since the research started at Queen Anne’s, some teachers have used the fact that the teenage brain expects and likes predictable patterns in music to help girls memorise what they learn. Lyrics have been adapted to include the subjunctive mood in Spanish, for example, to help them come to grips with that.

In PE, girls are practising netball to the sound of loud, discordant music, which raises their stress levels. “When they then play in competitions, they are used to feeling nervous and on edge, so they perform better,” says Harrington.

One of the biggest studies within the BrainCanDo project is on what Harrington calls “the contagion factor”. This comes into play as teenagers move away from their parents. Their need to achieve independence drives them to crave the company and respect of other teenagers.

According to Harrington, emotional behaviour can spread swiftly among groups of teenage girls. Such contagion can influence motivation in class as well as behaviour.

As part of the study, carried out with academics from Reading University, the brains of the girls in the contagion factor research will undergo neuroimaging scans to see if they are becoming more similar as the emotional links between the girls get closer. The results will be shared with the pupils.

“This will help students understand when they go to university how to deal with the stresses of being in different groups of people,” says Harrington.

The research may be new but the message she expects them to take away is as old as the hills: “Beware emotional contagion. Be your own person. Don’t go with the crowd.”

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