Last month, I had the great privilege to travel to Jamaica to present my talk, “What were you thinking? Understanding the Teen Brain,”at the “Recession-Proofing Your Education” Conferences in Kingston and Montego Bay sponsored by Versan Educational Services. Versan is an international educational organization that advises, places and trains students for boarding schools and colleges around the world. Ms. Sandra Bramwell, the founder and director, is one of the most energetic, eloquent and kind-hearted women whom I have ever met. She is also a visionary. The conferences were attended by over 175 parents, teens and guidance counselors as well as radio stations.
Each time I give this talk, I am always curious what the audience members will find most interesting and relevant to their lives. Sometimes people are curious about the recent findings in brain research that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until the mid-twenties. Sometimes people are interested in learning more about teens and sleep. And sometimes, people would just like to what is ‘normal’ teen behavior and what is not.
At both of my talks in Jamaica, the attendees were especially interested by two issues that are related to executive functioning skills.
1. A 2011 NIMH-funded study about emotional recognition found that adolescents showed a 50% accuracy of correctly naming emotions versus the adults in the study who showed 100% accuracy. This finding means that adolescents misinterpreted the facial expressions that they were shown in half the cases. When I emphasized that this result implies that teens are reading situations incorrectly about half of the time and then responding to that misreading, people were amused but also concerned. We talked about how understanding facial expressions correctly relies on executive functioning skills which are still developing. Teens wondered if they could speed up the course of development. “Miss,” on young man asked, “Is there any way to speed up the development process if I work really hard? I would like it to be finished by the time I am 20, not 25.” “Well,” I said, “You can work hard on strengthening your executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, judgment and self-awareness but your brain will grow at its own rate and you can’t really make that go any faster.” He was visibly disappointed.
2. Time management: I talked about backwards design, which seemed to be a new concept. We looked at how challenging it can be to get ready and out of the house on time for school in the morning. With the eager participation of one mother and daughter, we traced their morning routine as it unfolds now with all of its bumps and then rearranged it by going backwards from the time of arrival at school. The audience found this technique very useful.
I really appreciated the frank feedback that the Jamaicans gave right after my talk—“I liked the part about learning how to make better decisions but not so much about the brain cells”—and their warmth and humor. It was refreshing (and a bit comforting) to see that parents and teens in the Caribbean have many of the same questions and concerns that we have here in the USA.