The UK Government is trying to break the link between child poverty and educational disadvantage. This study examines the extent to which poverty impacts on younger children’s experience of school and looks at life in primary schools in Northern Ireland from a child-centred perspective.
- How most children experience school is determined by the level of disadvantage they face. Poorer children in the study accepted that they were not going to get the same quality of schooling, or the same outcomes, as better-off children.
- Children and parents identified the main costs of school as uniform (including shoes), lunches and school trips. Children in disadvantaged schools were very aware of all the costs and of the difficulties parents faced in finding as little as 50 pence or a pound for school events.
- The experiences of school for children from poorer families were narrower and less rich. For example, children in disadvantaged schools had limited access to music, art and out-of-school activities that children in advantaged schools generally took for granted.
- All of the children agreed that education was important, but for different reasons. In advantaged schools, children saw education as a way of ensuring a good life as an adult. Children in disadvantaged schools were more likely to view education as a way of avoiding problems in the future.
- All children worried a lot about testing but those in the advantaged schools felt under parental pressure to do well and worried most.
- Boys as young as nine in disadvantaged schools were disenchanted with school and starting to disengage. They are being particularly failed by the education system due to the interaction of:
- educational disadvantage faced by children growing up in poverty;
- the difficulties faced by teachers in disadvantaged schools; and
- differences in the ways that boys and girls are socialised.
The role of education in providing a route out of poverty is at the centre of many policies to end child poverty. Improving educational attainment is important for the individual child, but it is also vital if the goal of eradicating child poverty in a generation is to be met. The Government has also committed itself to involving children and young people in decision-making, particularly in relation to education.
The cost of school
Despite government policy aimed at keeping the cost of primary school uniforms as low as possible, all the parents interviewed reported spending about £50 on each child’s uniform, not including the cost of shoes. Some of the older children were keenly aware of the cost to their parents of school uniforms. Some schools, even in highly disadvantaged areas, displayed an inflexible attitude to uniforms.
School trips also proved expensive and few parents realised that schools are not allowed to charge for trips during school hours. Most saw the ‘donation’ that was asked for as a fixed charge. Residential trips, particularly those outside the region, were seen as too expensive by all the parents interviewed, even those who were relatively well-off.
Children and parents generally welcomed healthy eating policies in schools but felt that school dinners had not gone far enough towards providing tasty healthy options. The poor quality of meals in some school canteens meant that children who might rely on their school dinner as the main meal of the day refused to eat what was on offer. For families who were not entitled to free school meals but had several children at school, the cost of school dinners made them prohibitive.
Reasons for going to school
Younger children (four- to six-year-olds) all saw school as a place to learn for learning’s sake, or as many of them put it “to get smarter”. They said that making friends, meeting friends, playing and “having fun” were the best things about school.
Older children’s understanding of why they went to school had developed. So seven- to nine-year-olds still saw school as about learning and having fun, but started to say they went to school to learn so they could get a job when they were older. For ten- and eleven-year-olds, school was all about getting a good education in order to get a good job.
While all agreed that school was important for their future, the older children in the more advantaged schools tended to say they enjoy attending school. They had positive reasons for saying that school was important, to ensure a good life as an adult. Children in the disadvantaged schools, however, were less likely to say they enjoyed school and more likely to cite negative reasons for why school was important, such as to avoid problems in their adult lives.
These comments illustrate the difference:
“School is important. On a scale of one to ten, school is about eight and a half … It’s important because we have to get a good education and if you want to go to university you have to get good GCSE and good A-level marks.”
(Ten-year-old girl, advantaged school)
“Well, if you didn’t go to school you wouldn’t be able to learn. You wouldn’t be able to know anything when you grow up. Every time you go to speak to somebody, you’d be, like, d’oh!”
(Eleven-year-old girl, disadvantaged school)
Different experiences of school
Older children in disadvantaged schools complained about being shouted at by teachers. While both boys and girls complained about being shouted at, the boys were more likely to say that it was “unfair”. The girls tended to make excuses for the teachers and blame themselves to some degree for being shouted at. Children in more advantaged schools did not complain about teachers shouting at them.
As well as the attitudes of teachers, children in the disadvantaged schools complained about a range of issues:
- the compulsory nature of school;
- the length of the school day;
- the quality of the food; and
- rubbish in the playground.
Boys across the range of schools, but particularly those in the disadvantaged schools, complained about the length of the school day and about how brief they found break times. Girls complained about not having enough time to eat lunch and play but not about the length of the school day generally.
Tests were the single most cited reason for worrying about school. All the children worried about tests, but children in the advantaged schools were far more worried and under greater pressure to do well in all their tests. The children who planned to do the Eleven Plus (which remains in place in Northern Ireland until November 2008) said they found it “stressful”, that they worried about their parents’ expectations and feared they would “let them down” by not doing well enough.
All the children, whether or not they were doing the Eleven Plus, were aware of the distorting effect of the test on teaching in the year before it. In particular, those preparing for the test complained their curriculum had narrowed considerably and they were no longer included in some school trips and missed out on music, art and PE lessons. Those who were not doing the test complained that they were often set work to do by themselves while the teacher concentrated on those taking it.
“I think they just need to pay attention to everyone … because when we’re doing the tests, other people are doing easier stuff and we’re working hard but they aren’t working as hard as we are. I mean they should still be learning, they’re just doing stuff that they’ve already done and it’s not as if they’re learning any more.”
(Ten-year-old girl, socially mixed school)
Table 1: Boys already disengaging from school
Advantaged Schools Disadvantaged schools
“I don’t think there is very many bad things about school.”
“I don’t like school, ‘cos you have to work. I think it’s too long.”
“I think you need to go to school and I really like school but I think we need more sports.”
“No one likes it in our class, none of the boys like it, don’t they not?”
“See if you want to have a good job, you have to have a degree in Maths and English and science and everything.”
“All the boys in our school, all the boys in the school don’t like school. I wish school wasn’t invented!”
“You get a good education and all so you can get a good job when you’re older.”
“I hate school, doing work and teachers shouting at me.”
“It can be good to learn if they make things fun to learn.”
“If you don’t go to school, your Dad will go to jail.”
Source: The impact of poverty on young children’s experience of school (Horgan 2007).
Activities outside school
Children in the more disadvantaged schools were considerably less likely to participate in after-school activities. Some disadvantaged schools did offer some free after-school activities, but children were unable to take up these activities if they did not live within walking distance of the school. By contrast, in the better-off schools, parents, relatives or other carers picked the children up in cars from after-school activities. In the more advantaged schools, some children were able to recite a list of out-of-school activities for each day of the school week.
“I go to netball on Monday, and dance class on Tuesday, piano on Wednesday and then on Thursday go to choir.”
Several ten- and eleven-year-old children in the more advantaged schools, in response to being asked about out-of-school activities, said that they “couldn’t be bothered”. These children, most though not all of whom were entitled to free school meals, were also among those who said that they “couldn’t be bothered” to go on school trips. These children seemed to be experiencing what Tess Ridge terms “exclusion from within” (Ridge, 2002).
Headteachers in the more disadvantaged schools, including the rural ones, were concerned to ensure that activities that could enrich a child’s life, such as art, sports and music, were available to all. Schools went to great lengths to make sure that children who had some musical ability would get music lessons without having to pay for them. By contrast, headteachers in more advantaged schools expressed concern that so much that used to be free was now subject to a charge. Some were fatalistic about the effect of these charges.
“The music tuition that we have … [is] not really accessible, practically not accessible, to children from lower income backgrounds.”
(Headteacher, advantaged school)
Early disengagement from school
A significant number of boys in the most disadvantaged schools were already starting to disengage from school at the age of nine or ten. Some of the differences in how boys from different backgrounds experienced school can be seen in Table 1. Older boys in the disadvantaged schools were the only children who talked in a positive manner about truanting. Older girls in disadvantaged schools spoke disapprovingly of boys who “tell their Mummies they’re going to school but they don’t really, they just stay off”. There was no discussion of truanting in the advantaged schools.
Boys in the advantaged schools complained more than girls about the amount of work, particularly homework, they had to do. In all schools, boys seemed more concerned than girls about being able to get outside to play, both during and after school hours. Girls in the disadvantaged schools were as likely as boys to complain about being shouted at, but only boys concluded that this led them to hate school. And it was only in the disadvantaged schools that the length of the school day, the amount of work and teachers shouting at them led to boys saying they hated or really did not like school.
About the project
Two hundred and twenty children aged four to eleven took part in group interviews, in both disadvantaged and advantaged primary schools across Northern Ireland. Parents and teachers were also interviewed. Focusing on disadvantaged schools rather than pupils avoided stigmatising children living in poverty. The schools in the most disadvantaged areas had between 50 and 75 per cent of their pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), while schools in the most advantaged areas had between three and 14 per cent of their pupils eligible for FSM.
Studies looking at out-of-school activities (Wikeley et al. 2007) and at efforts to help disaffected children to re-engage with learning (Frankham 2007 and Thomson and Russell 2007) also emphasised the importance of building the right kinds of relationships. For example, a key feature of successful projects working with excluded children (a small minority of those facing social disadvantage) was to build close relationships, not just with young people but with their families, addressing the family circumstances as well as the child’s learning needs, and making education a shared enterprise between family, educator and child. This work relies on highly skilled and dedicated workers, often without professional qualifications but able to put the required level of commitment into building productive relationships with families living in tough circumstances (Frankham 2007).
The children talked about:
- what they thought of school and its costs;
- how important education was to them;
- how they thought schools worked; and
- how they experienced school.
Afterwards, what the children said was analysed to see what it showed about the impact of poverty on their school lives, as well as about the different experiences of those living in poorer and better-off circumstances.
Ridge, T. (2002) Childhood Poverty and Social Exclusion: the child’s perspective, Policy Press: Bristol.
Settling down on the shiny black sofa in the front room of their student house in Jesmond, Newcastle, Ailsa McNeil and her flatmates discuss what they would do once they had left university.
‘The idea of moving into the financial world of London and working long hours inside a massive company does not appeal to me,’ said McNeil, placing a textbook down on the cream carpet, among scattered magazines, scarves and revision notes. The 20-year-old had a final-year exam for her economics degree the next day.
People in their late teens and early twenties, she argued, were far keener to have a ‘good life with a standard amount of money’ than ‘slog’ their guts out like their parents. ‘I saw my mum and dad work really hard, but my work ethic is different,’ said McNeil. ‘I want to do well but I want to have great fun in life. Money and work are not the be all and end all. If you put all your effort into your job you lose sense of what you are living for.’
McNeil is not alone. New research has found that a similar attitude to work is burgeoning among the group of people known as Generation Y – usually defined as those between the ages of 11 and 25. A study of more than 2,500 people born after the early Eighties found that they were rebelling against their parents’ values and were determined not to lead lives that revolved so heavily around the world of work.
Instead, they were ready to resign if their jobs were not fulfilling and fun, with decent holidays and the opportunity to take long stretches off for charity work or travel. Salary and status were not high on the priority list, according to the study by Talentsmoothie, a firm that consults companies in banking, professional services and the law on the changing workforce.
Here is a group that has never known, or even witnessed, hardship, recession or mass unemployment and does not fear redundancy or repossession, according to researchers. The result is a generation that believes it can have it all and is not embarrassed to ask for it; a generation that will constitute the majority of the workforce within a decade.
That is why major companies, embroiled in the battle to attract the very best graduates, are doing whatever they can to lure them in. ‘The previous generation saw work as a primary part of life,’ said Madalyn Brooks, HR director at Procter and Gamble. ‘When they left education, work was a dominant part of what they did and they were not looking for time out. Now we are seeing the growth of a different profile of candidate. They have grown up in relatively affluent families. They want to be sure that they can strike a balance between work and their personal life, and so the opportunity to take time off, to travel, to work for a company with a strong social responsibility record, these are all concerns that we increasingly hear when recruiting talent.’
Procter and Gamble has already adapted its recruitment efforts and what it offers to meet the needs of Generation Y. Instead of just stressing higher salaries, this international company is highlighting the opportunity for flexible hours, the chance to work from home, the offer of up to a year of ‘family leave’ to look after children or elderly parents, and the promise of regular three-month sabbaticals. Similar packages are being offered by companies across Britain.
In his open-plan office in the centre of Aberdeen, Simon Chinn, 25, a senior consultant at a recruitment agency, rushed between meetings last week. He admitted that one thing that attracted him to the firm, Thorpe Molloy Recruitment, was the fact that it was flexible when employees asked for time off. In two cases colleagues travelled for a year before returning to the same job.
Chinn argued that it also played an important role for the candidates he was helping to recruit. ‘There is an oil service company in Aberdeen that has a very attractive benefits package,’ he gave as an example. ‘There is a good pension, gym membership in the office, opportunities for travel and sabbaticals. People can take time out and come back to the job. That does attract the best talent.’
The fact that young people changed jobs more frequently, argued Chinn, meant they were less willing to put up with long hours or poor holidays. Officials in the US have estimated that a typical member of Generation Y will have 10 jobs by the age of 38. ‘People think, why stay in a job you do not enjoy?’ he said.
In Newcastle, McNeil and her flatmates reached a similar conclusion. ‘If a company offers more flexibility, it is a sign that it has the type of culture you would want to join,’ said the undergraduate, who has signed up to the Milkround, a graduate recruitment network.
The fact that she now receives more than 20 emails a day from employers makes her feel more confident about her future options: ‘It is as if people expect to get a job. I also think that, unlike our parents, we feel like we have financial back-up if things go wrong. But I guess that could change if we enter a recession.’
It is the lack of a significant downturn in the economy over the past decade and a half that is driving the new attitude, say experts. Generation Y: what they want from work, the research from Talentsmoothie, concluded: ‘They have only ever known economic prosperity. They have many choices: gap years and extensive travel are the norm. They can join a company, or set up their own. They have seen their parents in stressful jobs, working long hours, and realise that hard work for big companies apparently does not bring prosperity and happiness, or make the world a better place. They want their lives to be different – and this shows. If they are dissatisfied, they resign.’
The study found that 85 per cent of Generation Y wanted to spend 30 per cent to 70 per cent of their time working from home. More than half wanted a flexible working arrangement.
The top priority when choosing a job was ‘doing work that I love’. ‘Earning lots of money’ was far behind, in seventh place. When it came to walking away from an employer, a lack of motivation was the top reason followed by a work-life balance leaning too far towards the job. ‘The Boomer generation [who are over 45] created the culture of long working hours and Xers [aged between 28 and 45] reluctantly accepted it,’ the report said. ‘But not Generation Y. While they are not work-shy, they don’t live to work. They will get the job done on time … but on their own terms.’
The confidence, it said, came from a feeling of security: ‘Unlike Xers and Boomers, they are not remotely daunted by the spectre of unemployment.’
Simon Walker, a founding director of Talentsmoothie, said this generation considered work something to do, not somewhere to go. ‘As long as they achieve what they need to they are not worried about being seen to do it at their desks,’ he said, explaining why things were different for the older generation. ‘I am 40 and when I was 10, 12, 14, there was the winter of discontent, Thatcherism and miner strikes. Three million were unemployed, so subconsciously employment was seen as precious and there was no such thing as a secure job. For the next generation, there was full employment, unprecedented economic growth. Their attitude is: “If I can’t get one job, I will get another one.” They are not preconditioned, like many of us, to be cautious of authority.’
In fact, the research found that younger workers were far more willing to challenge managers and were undeterred by traditional hierarchy. Walker said he was trying to help ‘Boomer’ and ‘Xer’ managers to understand the new attitude and not get frustrated by it. Much of what the workers were demanding, he said, such as work-life balance, personal development, exciting jobs and motivating managers, would be welcomed by older workers as well. But the clash of values was causing friction in offices.
In one case, outlined in the study, a chief executive of a large insurance firm emailed thousands of employees to inform them about a major decision. Sitting at his desk in the middle of the huge office, James, 24, who had recently joined the firm, told his older colleagues he disagreed with what had been done. He quickly decided to share his feelings with the head of the company and sent his thoughts directly to him in an email.
Within minutes, a reply popped up on James’s screen: ‘I have been running this company for 10 years; I think I know what I am doing.’ Still undeterred, he hit back: ‘I realise this is an uncomfortable conversation but I am not the only one that disagrees with you.’ Luckily he was able to convince the boss that he was not simply being rude.
The overconfidence of Generation Y is proving a challenge for employers. This summer the Association of Graduate Recruiters will host a conference, at which delegates will debate how far firms need to go towards accommodating the desires of younger workers and how seriously they should take the concept of Generation Y.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, recently described young workers as ‘opinionated’ and more demanding of employers. He said: ‘One colleague who recently faced a barrage of questions about what her firm will give one young man, was forced into reacting with the question, “And what are you going to give us?” ‘
While warning that those who did not make an effort to respond to the needs of this group would end up ‘dead in the water’, Gilleard added: ‘Just how far do employers lean over backwards before they end up being horizontal?’ Others felt that companies should not ‘overreact’ to the new values and attitudes, warning that things could soon change again.
Helen Bostock, global head of campus recruiting for the investment bank Credit Suisse and a board member of the AGR, said: ‘A few years ago I recall the dotcom bubble when everyone was trying to reinvent themselves with an entrepreneurial culture. Now it is generational theory. What happens is that employers get sucked into the whole thing, then the pendulum swings one way or another. One thing that is consistent is that there is always something we are tackling. If it is not work-life balance, it is diversity, inclusion or something else.
‘In reality large graduate recruiters take much longer to change and there is a danger that employers will overreact and reinvent themselves as something they are not.’ Bostock gave the example of the ‘dress-down’ craze, when thousands of firms encouraged their employees to come to work in more casual attire each Friday. ‘That does not happen now, people have largely returned to the world of suits,’ she said.
Given her global role, Bostock argued that Generation Y differed from country to country and warned that the time for UK graduates to be complacent about job opportunities would soon come to an end.
‘There are highly talented individuals from China and India heading our way,’ she said. ‘They are hungry, focused on work and focused on academic success. Just look at the number of high-achieving Asian women studying maths and science compared with home-grown students. This generation is facing different challenges.’
Walker said he planned to look at how attitudes differed across the world. He argued that ‘generational attitudes’ were partly dictated by age but also circumstances. In China, Generation Y was made up of only-children, as a result of the one-child policy, who grew up through difficult economic times. They would have very different values to their British counterparts, he said.
In Britain, meanwhile, there would be people of all ages who shared typical Generation Y attitudes, he argued, but they would be far more common within the age group. One of those attitudes, according to research by Walker and others, is an overwhelming desire to be fulfilled in their jobs.
A study in 2004 carried out by Common Purpose, an organisation that offers training for leaders and managers, found that those who were not getting satisfaction at work were hitting a ‘quarter-life crisis’. Searching for Something concluded that employers had to accommodate young workers’ wider ambitions or risk losing them by the age of 30.
‘We see young people that are searching for some sort of meaning in life and if you can’t align their values with the organisation they might leave,’ said Julia Middleton, the group’s chief executive. ‘I think life is cyclical – and there is a return to people searching for meaning and searching for values.’
Middleton agreed that economic prosperity had fuelled the values of Generation Y. ‘If you haven’t had money or faced the serious threat of not having money, you take money much more seriously,’ she argued. ‘We have a generation that has not felt the threat for some time.’
Now, for the first time in many years that threat is returning. While it may come as an uncomfortable shock for those self-assured members of Generation Y, it could also create a whole new work ethic among the toddlers and babies that constitute Generation Z; born after 2002 they still have a long way to go before they are thrown into a whole new world of work.
I don’t want my parents’ life
Aditi Horsburgh, 25, works as a PA in London
My dad works in the hotel industry, and that is a 24-hour job. He has always worked really hard. A lot of the time he could not take holidays or spend time with us. I appreciate what he did, but I don’t want that to be my life. I don’t want work to be so full-on that you cannot enjoy your family. I think my father’s attitude came from the fact that he did not have much when he was growing up. I am in a different situation. My parents worked very hard to give me what I wanted, and I am really grateful for that. I know that if I want to carry on with that lifestyle I will need to work, but I want to find a balance. I did a degree in business studies at Bristol University. Then I went to India to work for two years before doing an MA in media in London. I was looking for a job and I got in contact with Portfolio, a recruitment and headhunting firm for senior executive appointments in the leisure and hospitality industries. They offered me a job as PA to the chief executive and I hope they will train me up to become a consultant.
Obviously I want something to pay the bills, but I am also interested in the work environment. I want to work close to home so I don’t have to commute too much. I value my free time and I love to travel. The company I work for is quite flexible with time off. I am taking three weeks in the summer to go glacier tracking in India. Others have gone on three-month sabbaticals.
From the Baby Boomers to Generation Z
As the war ended and the servicemen returned on a high, the Baby Boomers were conceived en masse. Born between 1946 and 1964, their early memories may include watching Bobby Moore lift the World Cup, the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon and the Vietnam War. As they grew up they donned mini and maxi skirts and bell-bottoms, listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on vinyl, smoked cannabis, maybe dabbled with LSD, and took the new contraceptive pill. Next came Generation X, born between 1965 and 1982. Raised on television and early computers, they have been unkindly labelled by some the ‘me generation’ of the Eighties. They were the punks of the Seventies, listening to the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. Lots were teenagers when cassettes made way for CDs. They wore leg warmers and ra ra skirts, shoulder pads and snoods. Most remember the Cold War, the miners’ strike, the birth of Thatcherism and the yuppie. Some smoked cannabis or took mushrooms while City high-fliers splashed out on cocaine.
The Baby Boomers’ children are Generation Y. Dubbed the ‘internet generation’, they owned computers and mobile phones, write blogs, listen to their iPods and download music. Born between 1982 and 2002, the older ones will remember the rise of boy-bands and Brit Pop. They loved Take That and the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur. Some of them dabbled with ecstasy and witnessed the rise of the super-club. They watched shows such as Big Brother and Pop Idol as reality television took off. They roamed the streets in hoodies.
A lack of memory of life before the war on terror defines Generation Z. They are toddlers and babies, born after 2002. They probably spend their time learning baby yoga.
One fine May morning not long ago my oldest son, 17 at the time, phoned to tell me that he had just spent a couple hours at the state police barracks. Apparently he had been driving “a little fast.” What, I asked, was “a little fast”? Turns out this product of my genes and loving care, the boy-man I had swaddled, coddled, cooed at, and then pushed and pulled to the brink of manhood, had been flying down the highway at 113 miles an hour.
“That’s more than a little fast,” I said.
He agreed. In fact, he sounded somber and contrite. He did not object when I told him he’d have to pay the fines and probably for a lawyer. He did not argue when I pointed out that if anything happens at that speed—a dog in the road, a blown tire, a sneeze—he dies. He was in fact almost irritatingly reasonable. He even proffered that the cop did the right thing in stopping him, for, as he put it, “We can’t all go around doing 113.”
He did, however, object to one thing. He didn’t like it that one of the several citations he received was for reckless driving.
“Well,” I huffed, sensing an opportunity to finally yell at him, “what would you call it?”
“It’s just not accurate,” he said calmly. “?’Reckless’ sounds like you’re not paying attention. But I was. I made a deliberate point of doing this on an empty stretch of dry interstate, in broad daylight, with good sight lines and no traffic. I mean, I wasn’t just gunning the thing. I was driving.
“I guess that’s what I want you to know. If it makes you feel any better, I was really focused.”
Actually, it did make me feel better. That bothered me, for I didn’t understand why. Now I do.
My son’s high-speed adventure raised the question long asked by people who have pondered the class of humans we call teenagers: What on Earth was he doing? Parents often phrase this question more colorfully. Scientists put it more coolly. They ask, What can explain this behavior? But even that is just another way of wondering, What is wrong with these kids? Why do they act this way? The question passes judgment even as it inquires.
Through the ages, most answers have cited dark forces that uniquely affect the teen. Aristotle concluded more than 2,300 years ago that “the young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine.” A shepherd in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale wishes “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” His lament colors most modern scientific inquiries as well. G. Stanley Hall, who formalized adolescent studies with his 1904 Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, believed this period of “storm and stress” replicated earlier, less civilized stages of human development. Freud saw adolescence as an expression of torturous psychosexual conflict; Erik Erikson, as the most tumultuous of life’s several identity crises. Adolescence: always a problem.
Such thinking carried into the late 20th century, when researchers developed brain-imaging technology that enabled them to see the teen brain in enough detail to track both its physical development and its patterns of activity. These imaging tools offered a new way to ask the same question—What’s wrong with these kids?—and revealed an answer that surprised almost everyone. Our brains, it turned out, take much longer to develop than we had thought. This revelation suggested both a simplistic, unflattering explanation for teens’ maddening behavior—and a more complex, affirmative explanation as well.
The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain—a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s—showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. The brain doesn’t actually grow very much during this period. It has already reached 90 percent of its full size by the time a person is six, and a thickening skull accounts for most head growth afterward. But as we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.
For starters, the brain’s axons—the long nerve fibers that neurons use to send signals to other neurons—become gradually more insulated with a fatty substance called myelin (the brain’s white matter), eventually boosting the axons’ transmission speed up to a hundred times. Meanwhile, dendrites, the branchlike extensions that neurons use to receive signals from nearby axons, grow twiggier, and the most heavily used synapses—the little chemical junctures across which axons and dendrites pass notes—grow richer and stronger. At the same time, synapses that see little use begin to wither. This synaptic pruning, as it is called, causes the brain’s cortex—the outer layer of gray matter where we do much of our conscious and complicated thinking—to become thinner but more efficient. Taken together, these changes make the entire brain a much faster and more sophisticated organ.
This process of maturation, once thought to be largely finished by elementary school, continues throughout adolescence. Imaging work done since the 1990s shows that these physical changes move in a slow wave from the brain’s rear to its front, from areas close to the brain stem that look after older and more behaviorally basic functions, such as vision, movement, and fundamental processing, to the evolutionarily newer and more complicated thinking areas up front. The corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres and carries traffic essential to many advanced brain functions, steadily thickens. Stronger links also develop between the hippocampus, a sort of memory directory, and frontal areas that set goals and weigh different agendas; as a result, we get better at integrating memory and experience into our decisions. At the same time, the frontal areas develop greater speed and richer connections, allowing us to generate and weigh far more variables and agendas than before.
When this development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.
Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry who uses neuroimaging to study the teen brain, used a simple test that illustrates this learning curve. Luna scanned the brains of children, teens, and twentysomethings while they performed an antisaccade task, a sort of eyes-only video game where you have to stop yourself from looking at a suddenly appearing light. You view a screen on which the red crosshairs at the center occasionally disappear just as a light flickers elsewhere on the screen. Your instructions are to not look at the light and instead to look in the opposite direction. A sensor detects any eye movement. It’s a tough assignment, since flickering lights naturally draw our attention. To succeed, you must override both a normal impulse to attend to new information and curiosity about something forbidden. Brain geeks call this response inhibition.
Ten-year-olds stink at it, failing about 45 percent of the time. Teens do much better. In fact, by age 15 they can score as well as adults if they’re motivated, resisting temptation about 70 to 80 percent of the time. What Luna found most interesting, however, was not those scores. It was the brain scans she took while people took the test. Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused—areas the adults seemed to bring online automatically. This let the adults use a variety of brain resources and better resist temptation, while the teens used those areas less often and more readily gave in to the impulse to look at the flickering light—just as they’re more likely to look away from the road to read a text message.
If offered an extra reward, however, teens showed they could push those executive regions to work harder, improving their scores. And by age 20, their brains respond to this task much as the adults’ do. Luna suspects the improvement comes as richer networks and faster connections make the executive region more effective.
These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they’re still learning to use their brain’s new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire. Abigail Baird, a Vassar psychologist who studies teens, calls this neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.
The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!
This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the “teen brain” put it, presents adolescents as “works in progress” whose “immature brains” lead some to question whether they are in a state “akin to mental retardation.”
The story you’re reading right now, however, tells a different scientific tale about the teen brain. Over the past five years or so, even as the work-in-progress story spread into our culture, the discipline of adolescent brain studies learned to do some more-complex thinking of its own. A few researchers began to view recent brain and genetic findings in a brighter, more flattering light, one distinctly colored by evolutionary theory. The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.
This view will likely sit better with teens. More important, it sits better with biology’s most fundamental principle, that of natural selection. Selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. If adolescence is essentially a collection of them—angst, idiocy, and haste; impulsiveness, selfishness, and reckless bumbling—then how did those traits survive selection? They couldn’t—not if they were the period’s most fundamental or consequential features.
The answer is that those troublesome traits don’t really characterize adolescence; they’re just what we notice most because they annoy us or put our children in danger. As B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, puts it, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”
Soren Gordhamer is the organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conferences. Along with its annual event, it is also holding a Wisdom 2.0 Youth Conference for parents and others focused on supporting young people in the digital age. You can follow him at @SorenG on Twitter.
“Dad, can I use your phone to play games?” asked my son recently as we drove through the southwest on a beautiful summer day. I was taken by his question. On one hand, it was a lovely day, and I had been greatly enjoying our conversation. On the other, why not let him play a game if he wants? I check my email continuously — why shouldn’t he also be able to play games continuously?
My son’s question is one that millions of parents are asked each day, whether about a phone, computer, Wii or Xbox. The essential plea is the same: “Mom or dad, can I please direct my attention to a screen?”
Parents of older children face similar challenges — for instance, whether it’s acceptable for their teen to text at the dinner table, or whether it’s tolerable for a teen to peer at his laptop when someone is trying to address him. Essentially, we wonder, just how much technology should be allowed in our lives and those of our kids?
SEE ALSO: Kids & Technology: The Developmental Health Debate
Few parents are going to completely forbid their children from interacting with today’s amazing gadgetry. However, it’s essential that we focus on a conscious, rather than habitual, use of modern technology.
1. Technology No Longer Has Boundaries
We first need to recognize that times are extremely different today than in previous generations. Once upon a time there were built-in limitations: Kids played games in arcades or tethered themselves to home devices.
Now, as long as someone in the family has a smartphone, games and other ways of being digitally connected are always an option — whether we’re carpooling, standing in line at the market or sitting at the dinner table. And kids know it. Without fail, they tote along their PSP or cellphone or, like my son, ask to use a parent’s phone.
Furthermore, young people take to technology like no generation before them. According to a Nielson report, adult U.S. mobile users sent an average of 357 texts per month in the second quarter of 2008 versus an average of 204 calls. Teens, however, are sending or receiving an average of 3,339 texts a month, an 8% jump from the previous year.
2. Know When to Cut it Off
New technologies, from computer games to the Xbox, can be a great way for kids to learn strategy and develop hand-eye coordination, but as parents and caregivers, we need to know when enough is enough. According to a University of Bristol study, children who spent more than two hours a day at a screen had a 60% higher risk of psychological problems than children who clocked fewer viewing hours.
Just how much time is appropriate? A 2009 Kaiser study reported that children aged 8-18 engage with media 7.5 hours per day, on average. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that kids spend no more than 1-2 hours per day in front of a screen. Quite the discrepancy.
While one could argue that kids with too much technological engagement might find themselves unable to pace the work environment of the future, parents nonetheless have the responsibility to determine when too much screen time becomes unhealthy. It’s not that screens are bad, only that they need to be used in moderation. If our children are not getting exercise, face time with friends or other creative stimulation, their screen time will likely be more detrimental than purposeful.
3. The Difference Between Preference and Addiction
There is a huge difference between an addiction and a preference. A kid may prefer spending an evening surfing the Internet, simply because he or she enjoys that activity more than going out with friends or playing sports. This person functions fine without a gadget or device but might prefer it when given the chance.
In addiction, however, the person seemingly cannot live without something and experiences a deep void when it’s unavailable. How many young people today might show signs of addiction, versus simply a preference when it comes to technology? Indeed, 38% of surveyed college students indicated they couldn’t last 10 minutes before switching on some sort of electronic device.
Of course, adults often experience the same challenge. A new study found that 53% feel upset when denied access, and 40% feel lonely when they’re unable to go online, even for a short period of time. One person interviewed indicated that the 24-hour device-less experience was “like having my hand chopped off.”
Despite the attachment, a striking study of young people revealed that about 38% of those 10-18 years old feel overwhelmed by technology. For 25 -to 34-year-olds, it was slightly less at 34%. Essentially, the younger the age, the more one’s relationship with technology feels strained.
The young people in our lives may be more overwhelmed than we think, perhaps even looking to adults to help them define the difference between preference and addiction.
4. Focus on Technology That Truly Connects Us to Our Kids
To what extent are we connecting with our kids? Are we engaged with them, giving them our full attention (whether the activity is online or off), or are we living largely isolated from one another?
Recently, I was shopping at a Whole Foods in Santa Cruz, Calif., when a woman walked briskly by me, her high heels clicking rapidly across the floor. Most surprising was not that she could move that quickly in high heels, but that following close behind her was a child about 6 years old, playing a game on a small computer.
The young boy held the device right up to his face, only glancing up occasionally from the screen to make sure he did not run into his mother. The two sped through one aisle then the next, the child completely immersed in his game, oblivious for the most part to the world around him. Though physically near each other, mentally they lived in two different worlds.
On the other hand, a properly chosen game could just as easily connect, instead of distance, mother and child. As parents, we need to focus on that which unites versus isolates a family.
5. Model the Balance
In recent years, I have built a business largely by making connections with people online. Twitter and Facebook have opened up doors for remarkable engagement, and the next generation will benefit enormously from the increased means of communication available to them. Today’s social channels create ways of connecting with like-minded people — an opportunity our parents never had.
It makes little sense for parents to deny young people access to the amazing technologies of our time. At the same time, kids that can’t last 10 minutes without checking their email is cause for concern. When they can’t engage in a sustained conversation with a friend, enjoy a walk in nature or simply rest under a tree, the dangers of technology can outweigh the benefits.
The path ahead is one of conscious engagement, one in which parents join kids in games and other means of technological engagement, all the while making sure their children connect in other ways as well. The question is not, should people live connected or disconnected lives? Instead ask, how do we live connected in all aspects of our lives, whether online, talking to a family member or taking a walk outside?
The desire to be connected will not go away. But the ways we connect should expand to include more activities. That way, time spent digitally connecting will be one form of many.
Final comments on Channel 4’s / Jamie Oliver’s Dream School.
Well, dream school has certainly been a roller coaster, it’s had it’s good points and it’s bad points, but overall it has reflected the real challenges of young people who struggle with education. Something I’ve done almost every week for the last 18 years.
I covered the first five episodes in depth ( see http://leejackson.org/blog ) but after being away in Japan for two weeks I’ve had to play catch up a bit as channel 4 isn’t on Japanese TV or an Airbus A380! So I thought I would wrap it up by leaving you with some of the final thoughts shared at the end of the series…
“…My guess for what its worth…Teachers could do with less rules and regulations and more freedom to try what works for their classes” – I totally agree Jamie we need to really let teachers teach (and not just say it as a sound bite).
“I can’t say the kids weren’t hard to reach but a few things worked – practical teaching styles, a wide ranch of subjects, but most importantly finding individual passions and unlocking their creativity – nice one Jamie! I always start my motivational schools talks talking about passion, once they find their passion it spills out onto the other lessons too.
“They’ve all got lots to offer but they’ve been let down by an education system – there has to be a something wrong with an education system that lets 300,000 young people leave every year with nothing to show for it. This series was a plea on their behalf, they can be inspired by education and that is not a dream – the education system isn’t perfect, that’s for sure Jamie. That’s why we need creative head teachers not afraid to push staff to break the mould, but with league tables always present – will that be possible?
The student Jenny said these amazing, tear filled words “I went through school and everyone said that ‘i couldn’t’, and now everyone here is saying that ‘i can’ – I’ve been given the chance of my life and i never thought that would happen to me” – we must NEVER say to a young person ‘you can’t make it’, yet it seems that in the education system there are still people who do. There’s no room in education for a cynic. Seriously there isn’t, I mentioned this in a teacher training session a few weeks ago and everyone agreed, except of course the cynics! But the headteacher’s face was beaming when I said it!
“In dream school I was surprised at how brilliant they could be, but I was also surprised, at times, at how unteachable they could be too!” – that’s the fun of teaching young people – never a dull moment, but some brilliants moments too!
Well done Jamie and Channel 4, a great series with, I hope, lasting impact on those young people’s lives through the scholarships and mentoring.
Now you should have a short break and do it all again, now that’s real education 🙂
Let’s do another series with real teachers, speakers and mentors, now that would be fun.
Jamie’s dream school episode 5. “Sperm, Shakespeare and surgery!”
A big move this week as we (at last!) move out of the classroom a bit more. Jamie has really got it now as the penny drops that a lot of “challenging teens” are kinesthetic learners (they learn by ‘doing’).
We must let young people move around if they are to learn. Often when I work in school I get asked to do a presentation followed by a workshop, and the first thing I do in the workshop is stop taking and get them moving around the room. It’s a must and it’s biologically sound… e.g. did you know that testosterone levels in lads reaches it’s peak mid morning, and that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘randy’ (!), it makes them restless. Lads, in particular, get fidgety, but we routinely tell them to sit down and be quiet. Something we may have to re-think, if we are to reach the unreachable.
Jamie and his teachers really grasped this concept this week as we saw them doing cooking, surgery, art and acting (at The Globe theatre). Simon Callow struggled to get them engaged with Romeo and Juliet but when they had to read the words live on stage at The Globe, then it all changed for them. They came alive, even the grumpy lads who couldn’t connect with it in the classroom, acted their hearts out. Great stuff.
And when cooking Jamie realised that a ‘pre-amble’ before an activity is a waste of time and he twigged that he had to get them chopping vegetables straight away, he did, and it worked. And some of the young people started to love cookery, a possible career choice for some of them.
Robert Winston was on form this week as he put the lads semen under the microscope (interesting new lesson Mr. Gove!) and also brought in a surgery team to show them how surgery and medicine works in the real world. It was great and Chloe was very passionate and went on to do some work experience in an operating theatre, it was a bit of a shock for her but, again, it’s real world stuff and it might be an job option for her.
It was also good to see one of my childhood heroes back on TV – Daley Thompson, what a legend. He got the young people into the diving pool and deliberately got them out of their comfort zone and after a lot of practice and encouragement they started to love it. Proof indeed that we should always push young people beyond their current mindset – but we must support them while they are being pushed, and not leave them in the lurch! “They are not very confident, so little victories are good for them” Daley said.
Unfortunately in the human rights lessons with Cherie Booth/Blair they were very chatty again, constantly interrupting and talking over each other, almost back to earlier episodes, which made me think…I wonder whether some of the young people have no inner monologue?! I had a friend who hasn’t got one – she speaks out loud almost every thought, making it exhausting being with her. Can we help our young people to think a little more before they speak? I wonder when they watch the program whether they see themselves in a different light?
I’m not having a go at them I just wonder whether their lack of restraint was the biggest factor to their underachievement? Answers on postcard please.
Academia exists for the pure pursuit of knowledge but education in school surely should be more practical than that?
I think this program is proving that. Keep going Jamie you are doing well!
And at first it’s a disaster! Constant chatting from the class (often known as “low level disruption”) causes some big problems in some very ‘wordy’ lessons. Andrew Motion the former poet laureate really struggled to be heard – he only lasted half a lesson and then decided to call the class off – something that teachers and schools speakers can’t do in real schools. You keep going until the bell goes, that’s one of the skills of teaching, pushing through until you get a breakthrough or at the very least, the bell rings!
Jamie made lots of insightful comments in this episode as the learning deepens for him too…”you have to be like an octopus” was one of my favourites, how right he is. Teaching challenging teens is the ultimate in multi-tasking.
E.g. In one of the Latin classes the young people brought a squabble into the class room with them, always an issue in schools as we don’t know what has just happened outside of class, or at home – only a few weeks ago I was in a school speaking to Year 10 and it just felt “odd” I couldn’t really put my finger on it, it wasn’t an easy day at all. Then later I found out by accident that they were due an imminent OFSTED inspection which they were only expected to ‘scrape through’, as a visitor the staff hadn’t even told me, and their stress was rubbing off on the young people, it was all very tense.
And then anger shows its face again…
“If anyone is rude to me, I’ll be angry” says Harlem the shortest tempered of the teens, she doesn’t realise that being angry and aggressive is a choice she makes! I still find that amazing. We as humans make thousands of choices everyday and getting angry is one of them. Harlem seems to think that once she gets angry then there’s no going back – the red mist rules her life. I really hope she gets some help, or she just won’t ever get a chance to work or even live a normal life 🙁
Then it all gets too much…
…the head teacher John “Dabs” gets really emotional and rightly so – teaching is a tough job, teaching is much more than a job, it’s a life choice, and you could really feel his pain in this episode. It was good to see a teacher cry on TV, it shows the rest of us why they do their job. They want to make a difference.
So, in the light of this, Jamie had a word with them all about the constant talking and disrespect that sent the Headteacher over the edge, and amazingly it seemed to work (!) the lessons got better. Even my least favourite teacher David Starkey seemed to get through to them.
One key to the difference was that the teachers started to have some one to one time with the students and it really paid off. The individual attention had a big impact on their learning. Should our teachers spend more time one to one, rather than in big classes? Challenging stuff.
Then one of the students said “I can’t write with everyone talking”, so maybe peace and quiet is a key to learning too, how do we help our young people focus? I talk about this alot in schools, focus is so important. The research shows that distractions, are, err, well, distractions!! Our young people (and us adults) must learn to switch off their phones, Facebook chat and their music and learn to study in quiet when a task needs doing. It’s not very fashionable to say it, but it works!
Anyway, I’ll leave you with Jamie’s lessons from this week…
“We had our moments, but we had our breakthroughs”
“All the teachers are learning just as much as the students”
I agree Jamie, and this is becoming a great show that everyone should watch.