Your students probably have better judgment than you think

Experts say risk-taking in adolescence is both misunderstood and overstated

Young adults are not the poor decision makers we make them out to be, argues John Higgins, writing for the Seattle Times' "Education Lab Blog."

The nonprofit Dana Foundation, which seeks to promote a better understanding of the brain, calls the idea that teens lack the ability to control their impulses a "neuromyth," as Higgins points out. 

In part, the misperception stems from a kernel of truth—impulsive behavior does jump in the teen years. The part of the brain that controls emotions and weighs risks is not fully developed until individuals reach their mid-20s.

Three ways to improve self-control

Yet, experts say a careful observation of the way young adults actually behave suggests a more nuanced understanding of how the brain develops. "In peer-related settings, we do see adolescents self-regulate wonderfully," says Abigail Baird, a psychology professor at Vassar College. "Think about it: most teens would never violate something that their peers thought was uncool," she notes.

In a post on its website, the Dana Foundation encourages adults to respect young adults' ability to make thoughtful decisions by giving them freedom, while still establishing clear consequences for inappropriate behavior.

Additionally, making mistakes as in adolescence is an important part of neurological development, argues Baird. "Not having extraordinary self-regulation enables some developing teens to gain experience and this experience ultimately helps the frontal lobe mature," she says (Sukel, Dana Foundation, 1/13; Higgins, "Education Lab Blog," Seattle Times, 1/16).

The takeaway: Though young adults appear more impulsive, one expert argues they regulate their behavior, especially in social settings.


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