Making the most of the adolescent brain to create safe school communities

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I scandalised book club recently by confessing that I walked the wrong away around the ASDA one way system. In my defence, this wasn’t an act of deliberate defiance so much as a reflection of my lack of visual awareness; there were arrows, yes, but no obvious movement of people one way as the store was quiet.

I didn’t enjoy the sharpness of the reminder I received, however, and I resolved never again to foray out of my preferred Lidl, where there are no one-way arrows and we are trusted to manoeuvre our trollies widely around each other, in suitably alert fashion. I just wish they’d stock Risotto.

The episode raised for me a couple of issues in relation to school settings, post lockdown. The first is that some pupils will inevitably break the rules, not out of malign intent but because old habits die hard and they’ll miss the arrows. The second is that this could give rise to conflict, depending on how the reminder is given and received.

I’m an adult and I’m pretty sure that my inhibiting pre-frontal cortex is fully developed, unlike that of the adolescent, yet still the ASDA episode was a just a bit activating and my store boycott is ongoing (it will be hurting them, I know) – even if does mean sometimes going without Risotto.

Of course, I might have reacted differently if my mood had been sunny when I entered the store, but I don’t like shopping – any more than the typical adolescent likes being told what to do by adults in school. We must remember that challenging adult authority is the work of adolescence; it’s one of the ways that independence is ultimately achieved.

Unfortunately, it also increases the adolescent’s risk of exclusion, as does risk-taking behaviour. We’ve moved onto ‘Inventing Ourselves’ at book club now – Sarah-Jayne Blackmore’s brilliant, iconoclastic take on the adolescent brain. She demonstrates that when adolescents are alone, they are actually no more likely than adults to take risks. It’s only when they are with peers that their propensity for risk-taking dramatically increases. That’s why car accidents are much more likely to occur when teenagers have passengers than when they are driving solo.

Our problem is that adolescents are with many peers, when in school, and therefore risk taking behaviour is a strong driver. How many young people smoke behind the bike shed (or equivalent) at home?

That’s your ‘typical’ teenager – acknowledging of course that not all are risk-takers. Throw into that mix heightened vulnerability, the adolescent who has marinated in a stressful, chaotic home for the past few months, and the imposition of stringent rules at school becomes an even more complex undertaking.

It’s going to take highly regulated adults, skill and, for me, a psychologically informed approach to pull this off, without high levels of exclusion (which is admittedly the easier option).

What we can’t do is loosen the rules; a shifting boundary is no boundary at all and the stakes here are high. Smoking behind the bike sheds is one thing; spreading infection, frightening others, risking life – that’s quite another.

These high stakes only add to the difficulty of this work, however; Blakemore is clear that adolescents are more likely to take risks in ‘hot’ contexts, when emotions are running high. The atmosphere within the country is febrile – we can’t allow that to infiltrate our school communities.

I’m certainly not against Tom Bennett’s call for clarity and the explicit teaching of new rules and routines.  We just need to be alive to its risks and ready to mitigate those. If there is too much heat around boundary-setting, then the climate created will be adolescent-unfriendly and vulnerable-adolescent-toxic. It will be counter-productive; escalating.

This is where I think Kim Golding’s ‘two hands’ of discipline becomes a no-brainer. We use both as good parents, after all, and we will need both in school – if the climate is not to feel draconian and punitive.

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Perhaps this is what is meant by the ‘warm-strict’ approach – but I’ve always felt that the warmth in that needs articulating – it lacks a clear pedagogy. For me, Golding’s  ‘connection before correction’ provides just that. You can read about its neurobiological evidence base here or listen to me translate it into a school context here. Put simply, it’s about validating a young person’s feelings, the inner self, whilst at the same time setting clear limits on behaviour. It’s not soft but it is kind and it’s for those most vulnerable young people whose needs ‘Just tell ’em’ can’t meet.

In addition, we could be thinking about using peer influence to our advantage, through, for example, peer mentoring schemes. Blakemore highlights the “remarkable impact” of a student-led anti-bullying programme undertaken by 56 schools across New Jersey. In each, a small number of trained students publicly opposed bullying and conflict by designing posters, their names and photographs included next to the slogans. Another activity involved their giving out orange wrist bands to those who they observed engaging in friendly behaviours. She concludes:

The study reveals the real-life power of peer influence in changing social norms of acceptable behaviour and conflict in schools.

The researchers measured the ‘social connectedness’ of the students involved in the project and found that the impact was greatest when a greater proportion of them were highly connected, or ‘popular’. Clearly, some students have more peer influence than others, which is something that we should discretely but strategically factor into our planning.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think about how this campaign could be used to promote safe school communities, in the context of Covid. Perhaps those who return first could be making the videos, designing the safety posters, training as mentors. After all, we’ve been clapping for the NHS, painting our rainbows, servicing food-banks, volunteering in a whole range of ways, like never before – with Covid-19 has come some real campaigning zeal, fuelled by compassion.

There is an abundance of that within our young people. If we can only harness it, if we can avoid simply dragooning them then I am certain that our school communities will be the richer and the safer for it.

(Comprehensive peer mentoring toolkit here.)

Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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