Archive for the ‘brain development’ Category

risky behavior by middle schoolersI once had a middle schooler in my small group, whom I will call Brad (not his real name). Brad would come to small group every week with a new story that shocked me. Now normally I tend to question the validity of the shocking stories that are told me weekly by some students, as most of them are designed to just get a reaction from me, but this student was different. Not only did he have a shocking story, but he had the wounds and scars to back it up. No, he wasn’t getting abused by anyone (unless you count himself as “anyone”). He was into BMX biking. He would take his bike everywhere and go off anything that could be a ramp or grind on anything that could be a pole. Everything was an opportunity for adventure to him… And most of those adventures resulted in bleeding legs, bruised faces, and scabbed arms. He was very proud of his “war-wounds,” but one week I just had to ask him, “Why do you keep doing those things if you always end up hurting yourself?!” He simply replied: “Life would be boring if I didn’t bike.”

I don’t know if you’re a parent or a youth worker, but regardless, I bet you have witnessed a lot of risk-taking behavior in your middle school students. It may be physical risk or emotional risk (e.g. middle school dating), but it’s risk nonetheless. Have you ever seen so much risk-taking in a student’s life that it started to drive you a little crazy? I know I have. But what I want to encourage you with today is that maybe… just maybe… it’s part of God’s design.

Brain development fascinates me. Specifically, development that affects the way I do ministry is what fascinates me. I learned very early on in ministry that during puberty, a person’s brain is still not fully developed. One of the biggest parts that has yet to grow is the frontal lobe. What is the frontal lobe responsible for? Oh, just a few important things – rationalizing, decision-making, responsibility, wisdom, empathizing, speculation, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that it’s kind of important.

So before you get frustrated at your student for not thinking properly, think about what’s happening in their brain. They may not be using the frontal lobe of their brain, which in turn makes it really hard to rationalize and think (or, speculate) about the consequences in the nearby future. I know this may still frustrate you, but remember that God created all things, and declared that what he created was in fact “good.” So bear with me for a moment while I attempt to expose the “good” that this can bring to our students.

Let’s do a case-study for a moment. Let’s say Brad in all of his non-frontal-lobe goodness decides to think about what he’s hearing at small group about the love and grace of Jesus and how God has a bigger plan for his life. He starts to think that giving his life to Jesus is a great idea. If his frontal lobe was in full use, he may begin to speculate what his friends may say if he becomes a Christian and give in to the fear that keeps him from making that decision. He may even begin to rationalize that he has a good thing going and doesn’t need God. You see, while the frontal lobe development is a GOOD thing, it can also hinder students from making a tough decision, including following Jesus. Maybe this has something to do with Jesus’ statement on the brain development of human beings: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

Mark Oestreicher (who blogs here) writes in his new book, “A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains“:

…Teenagers’ natural risk-taking behavior and lack of inhibitions and “good” decision-making is what allows them to discover the boundaries in the world. They’re able to step over the line in a way we normally wouldn’t, which helps them discover where the line actually exists (11).

Basically, the later-development of the frontal lobe helps students learn in ways we can’t teach them with our words. Their experiences guide them to deeper truths about life and free them up to make important identity decisions. As Marko later states in the book, “I see the creativity of God all over this” (12).

Oh, and you know Brad, the risky student I mentioned above? After a couple years of discipling him, he told me at a retreat that he wants to take his experience with bikes and turn it into a ministry where he provides bikes to villages in Africa to help them with transporting clean water (and teaching the kids to do tricks, I bet!). How cool is that?!

In what ways have you seen the risky-behavior of students be a positive thing instead of a negative thing?


“I just sort of understand things better now. I guess I don’t have to think about things as much to get the point someone is making.” This was the response that one of my 8th grade guys gave me after I asked him to describe one way he was different today than he was a year ago. The cool thing is that Caleb unknowingly tapped into a fascinating fact about adolescent brain development.

Now, before I lose you as you wonder, “Why do I need to know anything about adolescent brain development?”, let me give you a couple hypothetical situations.

-You’re frustrated in the car after school with your middle school student because he got detention a third time for throwing food all over the floor in the lunchroom. You wonder how your student couldn’t foresee the consequences that were coming before he did it a third time.

-After teaching your middle school kids about the substitutionary propitiatory atonement achieved by Jesus at the cross, all you get in response is blank stares and “Huh?” (I imagine I just got a couple blank stares from some of you with that one as well!)

-You ask your 6th grade student what “love” means to them, and the answer you get is something about presents from grandma and not having to do chores.

Have you ever been there? While those are all hypothetical situations, I can confidently confess that I have been utterly embarrassed by some of my middle school students’ responses after what I deemed to be a deep-probing question or teaching point. Even after years of working with this age group, I’ll still get a fresh reminder that these kids do not think like adults… yet.

Simple thought, right? We should probably know that already. But I’m still amazed at how many youth workers and even some parents teach and talk to students as if their brains are as fully developed as an adult’s. Our instincts say, “Talk to them like an adult and eventually they’ll get it,” while human biology says, “Whoa, hold on a second!”

There is a lot of fascinating research out there with big implications for how we interact with our middle school kids. The most respected research comes from a guy names Jean Piaget, who constructed a stage-theory of cognitive/brain development. The question in front of us is, “How do people develop as thinkers?”

Here is a brief synopsis of the stages (Ages are approximate):

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (age 0-2)
    • Learning = Experience. Private and uncommunicative. Kids don’t think about actions; they simply respond.
  2. Preoperational Stage (age 2-7)
    • Language formation is key; highly imaginative; literal-minded in the extreme
    • Kids struggle to discern what is real or simply fantasy
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (age 7-12)
    • Think in terms of concrete objects – what is present or what they know
    • Understand visual problems with props or objects better than word problems that involve hypothetical situations
    • Need something they are familiar with to help them understand something they haven’t encountered yet
  4. Formal Operational Stage (age 12+)
    • Learners can examine abstract problems systematically and generalize about the results
    • New abilities: speculating, empathizing, doubting, emoting, self-perceiving
    • “Practice in solving hypothetical problems and engaging in scientific reasoning may be the catalysts for formal operational thinking” (Yount, “Created to Learn” 90).

Middle school kids in the concrete stage are going to be very limited in their perspective of life. They need to experience learning at their hands. In other words, hypothetical what-if questions are not going to be very effective. This is also another reason the student in the situation at the beginning of this blog could not foresee the consequences of throwing food in the lunchroom. Speculation is an abstract thinking skill that hopefully develops with puberty.

Most of what we teach in church is abstract in nature. Think about it. How many times do you hear the word “love” or “faith” on a Sunday morning? I think we neglect the fact that our younger middle school students don’t have a framework for understanding these abstract ideas yet. They only know what they’ve experienced. (And, as a side note, if the only experience they have of a “father’s love” is a neglectful or absentee dad at home, they will struggle to understand the unconditional and ever-present love of the heavenly Father).

Let me give you an example. Steve Gerali wanted to test the theory of Piaget’s research in a local middle school. He went in to a class of 6th graders and asked the students if they loved animals. Of course they all said, “Yes we love animals!” Then he asked them if they loved their parents. They all said, “Yes we love our parents!” Finally he asked them to explain the difference between the love they feel for animals and the love they feel for their parents. Nobody could answer the question. They had no idea. Their brains had not experienced the divine gift of abstract thinking that God gives them with puberty.

Sometimes I hate to think about my early years of teaching middle school students in the church. I know I was teaching biblical truth, and I’m confident God still planted seeds, but I never really stopped when I was teaching to define some abstract terms I used. In middle school ministry, the fact of the matter is that we’ll have both concrete-thinking 6th graders and abstract thinking 8th graders. They both have unique needs you must address.

Something I try to do often is use props and object lessons. This takes new abstract ideas and connects them with something the concrete thinkers can touch and feel while the abstract thinkers speculate about what it means. For instance, two weeks ago I was teaching our students on the value of community in the church. Now, instantly we have an abstract term: community. It has lots of meanings. So I decided to focus on the importance of having a close support group of Christian friends. I used Ecclesiastes 4:12 – “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” To illustrate this verse, I stretched a rubber band as far as possible until it broke in my hands. I explained to the students how it represents us when we are alone in life and do not have community. Then I twisted three rubber bands together and stretched them as far as possible. And guess what? It didn’t break. (Harrison Fowler didn’t believe me, so he tried it and couldn’t break it either… thankfully!).

A simple object lesson like that one can demonstrate truth better than simple vocal explanation. There are lots of creative ways to do this! I encourage you all to explore different options you can teach biblical truth in creative ways.

There are many more implications of this research for how we teach and guide our students, but I will leave it up to you to explore. How have you seen the transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking in the puberty years? What methods have been successful for you as you adjusted to your students’ concrete and abstract thinking abilities?