Why do smart teens make bad decisions? And how can we help?


In this third article in our Career Skills series, teacher, teacher trainer and ELT author Rachael Roberts explains the science behind teenagers’ poor decision-making. She also outlines how teachers can present strategies to help them make the right choices under pressure. 

You may also like to read the following articles by Rachael: 

Let’s face it: Teens don’t always make the best decisions

When you have class discussions with teenagers about resisting peer pressure or making good choices, most of them are clear about what’s the right thing to do. Yet, when it comes to it, teenagers are well known for making absolutely terrible decisions. It’s almost as if all sense goes out the window.

In fact, when under pressure, or stressed, or excited, teenagers are literally not in their right minds – especially when they’re trying to impress or be accepted by peers. 

In this brief guide, we’ll look at some strategies you can put in place to help your teenagers make better decisions both in and out of school. 

Adolescent brain development and decision-making

Adolescence is a time when the brain is developing very fast. Hundreds of thousands of neural connections are being pruned away, and new ones are being formed all the time. Because the pre-frontal cortex will not be fully formed until the mid-twenties, or even later, teenagers rely heavily on the amygdala when making decisions, particularly when they’re  under pressure. 

The amygdala is a relatively primitive part of the brain. It’s responsible for the fight or flight response, and emotional, impulsive, or even aggressive reactions. This is the part that’s in charge a lot of the time. 

This makes it much harder for teenagers to anticipate the consequences of their choices, resist peer pressure, delay gratification, or resist impulses. None of which makes for great decision-making.

What teachers can do to help teenagers make better decisions

The pre-frontal cortex, and the connections between that part of the brain and the amygdala develop through being used. So, the more we can support students in making rational decisions at a time when their amygdala isn’t being triggered too much, the more likely it is that they will be able to pull back in the heat of the moment and make a better decision.

1. Practicing in a stress-free environment

By discussing topics and possible scenarios in class, we can help teenagers consider, anticipate and even rehearse decisions they may have to make.  This will help them identify the choices they really want to make later on. 

Later, when they are under pressure to do something, a better decision will come more naturally. For example, if they anticipate being put in a difficult situation where there may be peer pressure, they can plan in advance how to handle it, and what to say or do.

2. Developing awareness

We can also teach them about what’s happening in their brains. This will help them recognize the impulse to do something that at some level they know isn’t in their best interests, and are better able to resist it. Teach them to ‘count to ten’, or remove themselves from a situation to cool down, or phone a trusted friend or family member for advice—or simply consider what this person would be likely to advise them.

3. Encouraging self-reflection

Learning to make good decisions is a process, and necessarily involves making bad ones along the way. So, perhaps the final thing we can teach them is the value of learning from experience, and making decisions based on that past experience. 

Join Rachael Roberts for a webinar on teamwork skills in the teenage classroom

Career skills webinar with Rachael Roberts

In many ways a successful teens class is a successful team. The very best classes involve students collaborating, contributing, encouraging, helping, listening, negotiating, managing conflict, planning, problem solving and sharing ideas: all teamwork skills.

In this webinar, Rachael will look at a range of practical activities to help your teenage class bond better as a group, help individual students to both identify personal strengths they can already bring to a team, and develop those abilities they are not yet confident about. 

She will also look at ways of dealing with conflict in teams, and how you can teach students to deal with conflict appropriately and positively.

Register at 9:00 am (GMT)

Register at 16:00 pm (GMT)

For more information, resources and webinars, check out our careers skills page. 

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