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The Teenage Brain: Understanding Mental Health, Navigating Adolescence and Self-Regulating Emotions

Scientific understanding about how the brain rewires during the teenage years and the implications for that on how teenagers think, learn and function has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years or so - though there is still so much we don’t completely understand. Oakham School has taken a forward-thinking approach to incorporate the latest science to help its students develop emotionally and learn how to self-regulate their feelings.

No two teenagers have the same experience during the brain rewiring process which makes developing an approach that can be taught without making teenagers feel ‘different‘ a challenge but we believe that if we give our students the tools to identify how they’re feeling and why, and strategies to use to manage these feelings their general mental health will be more robust.

We spoke to Miss Viv Lamb, Head of PSHE for more insight into our programme. She said: “The School promotes keeping pupils mentally and physically well as a core skill and places a strong importance on looking after their wellbeing at all times, rather than just if they are finding things difficult. We have a spiral curriculum, so concepts like physical and mental health are revisited regularly so understanding can be deepened.”

Here are just some of the ways in which our overarching PSHE curriculum supports our students through their teenage year and how those ideas are integrated into School life.

Identifying their feelings

We start in the Lower School by making sure that all young people can accurately identify not just their own emotions but those of other people. During the brain rewiring many young people lose the ability to interpret facial expression and body language accurately and they can be more emotionally volatile.

How the brain works and how it links to learning

In Form 1 we look at the key structures of the brain.

We look at brain cells (neurons) and how they communicate through axons and dendrites using both chemical and electrical messengers. We examine how the more often we repeat an action/piece of information the stronger the pathways become and the more we remember. This is why we do prep, exams etc. to help strengthen those pathways.

We also look at how our ‘emotional brain’, the amygdala, behaves and how the ‘thinking brain’, the prefrontal cortex, behaves.

As adults we are most familiar with the work of the amygdala in our flight, fight or freeze response that kicks in if we are stressed or frightened. The amygdala is reactive, which is why later we can be embarrassed by the things we do – like screaming out loud when watching a film.

However, if we can employ the prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) it helps us think logically and find solutions to our problems and decide on the best one. It helps us think about how others will be affected by our decisions or how they may be feeling/will feel.

Self-regulation

Recognising our emotions is a healthy thing to do. We don’t want to ignore the amygdala completely, the ‘gut’ feeling that it gives us is a useful warning that we might be in a dangerous situation and need to take action. But if we use the prefrontal cortex to decide on a course of action, we are likely to be safer.

If we don’t take time to check in with our emotions, then everything can become overloaded and your emotional brain takes over as it thinks you are in danger when you are not. Everything boils up and we get angry, we cry etc. This is exhausting.

Self-regulating emotions means pupils will be able to calm themselves down when they get upset and handle frustration without an angry outburst. As a result, you should be less stressed and anxious so be in better place to learn and interact effectively.

Zones of regulation

This concept works on keeping you in a calm, happy place and best fit for learning effectively. You identify how you are feeling and use strategies to get you back into a place where you are calm and happy. For example, pupils who are angry may choose to take deep breaths or do some vigorous physical exercise, whereas a child who is anxious may look at talking to a family member or friend and focus on what’s within their control.

Teenage brain rewiring

There was a time when teaching about puberty was all about physical change. We now know that puberty is a process that continues until we are in our early 20s and during that time our brain is also growing and changing. During puberty the brain takes the opportunity to ‘tidy itself up’ to become more effective by removing neural pathways that have been weakly formed and do not appear to be used. To achieve this, activities can be moved from one area of the brain to another temporarily but this impacts on how teenagers sleep, their organisational skills, hormone levels etc.

Throughout the school we keep coming back to the impact of the teenage rewiring process has on teenagers. For example, it can change the way in which we respond to risk and reward and in turn our attitude to alcohol, drugs, gambling, cutting corners with learning etc. are all influenced by the rewiring process.

Activities to support wellbeing

Aside from taught PSHE, there is work done in Houses and tutorial sessions to encourage putting the theory into action through individual ‘self-checking’, for example working on developing a healthy sleep routine.

There is a myriad of activities to support self-care. The concept of self-care refers to any activity which require focus and takes your mind off any worries. The School encourages pupils to find hobbies that act as self-care; for some it will be art or music, and others it could be exercise or doing a jigsaw. Our varied activities programme supports this quest – from Lego to craft club and beyond. All Form 3 pupils do a course in mindfulness.

Someone to talk to

Houses obviously provide the space and opportunity to chat to adults who have your best interests at heart. However, whilst you may understand the theory of maintaining good mental health putting it into action isn’t always easy, so we have a mental health team ready to support and work 1:1.

The Pastoral Centre includes private, confidential spaces and trained Mental Health Experts and a School Counsellor on-hand. Students who are in Form 3 and above know that they can book an appointment themselves through the Oakham Start Page. Younger students go through their House team.

The Pastoral Centre also offers a place for quietness if pupils want space from busy School life.

Parents can find out more on this topic on the Parental Portal. Find out more about Pastoral Care at Oakham School.

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