Reading “Inventing ourselves – the secret life of the teenage brain” by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore; week 1

Reading “Inventing ourselves – the secret life of the teenage brain” by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore; week 1

“When I tell people I study the adolescent brain, the immediate response is often a joke – something along the lines of : ‘What? Teenagers have brains?’ For some reason it’s acceptable to mock people in this stage of their lives. But when you think about it, this is strange: we wouldn’t ridicule other age groups in the same way. Imagine if we went around openly sneering at the elderly for their poor memory or lack of agility.”  (Blakemore S-J 2019 “Inventing ourselves; …… the teenage brain.” Chapter 1 “Adolescence isn’t an aberration”)

This opening paragraph of Dr. Blakemore’s book sums up the purpose of our reading group, ‘Follow the Arrows’. Dr Blakemore has spent her life researching and building evidence that we can use as educators, to understand young people better and create better ways of meeting their changing needs.

The reading  group is a new initiative, to help bridge the current gap between published evidence and practices around behaviour in schools. 

‘Follow the Arrows’ book group (when we were looking for a name, one of the group was struck by the COVID19 signposting in her local supermarket) is a social response, an open access group, with regular meetings over internet video. You’re very welcome to join us for an hour or so of reflection every fortnight. Our first title was Perry and Szalavitz’s “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog”. In mid-June we took up my proposal to read Blakemore’s book, reading the first four chapters for week 1. 

The reading group includes educators from a wide background, working across the range of children’s needs, all with an interest in finding accessible evidence to provide a firm basis for our work. We’re interested in looking below and beyond the headlines for the kind of information that can transfer to schools, strengthening the two-way conversation between research and practice. 

Perry and Szalavitz’ book leaned towards the transfer of evidence from the psychiatrist’s clinic for severely traumatised children to school where many children, including trauma-experienced children, are looking for support. It presented powerful evidence on effective, non-medical, educational and kind ways of supporting the learning of these children. 

The first reading

First comments on “Inventing ourselves” were that it’s very readable, with ‘not too much heavy science’ in the first four chapters. It was also noted that Blakemore referred to the common knowledge about ‘normal’ teen behaviour and talked about herself as a teenager; this was seen as a positive aspect of these opening chapters – that we should remember ourselves at fifteen and reflect on what sort of teachers we needed then, since teenagers aren’t aliens, they are us. 

The finding that adolescents take more risks when they were were with their peers than on their own, and the science behind, it was new knowledge to some. To others, the stronger effect of peers than adults on social learning and emergent behaviour was known, but the book adds added significance to school practices, such as coaching and mentoring, vertical streaming and vertical tutor groups, taken up by some successful and inclusive schools as transformative practice. It also raised the question; how much should adults intervene and how should they do it? Standing back from the direct action of low- or zero-tolerance approaches and allowing children and young people the space to and develop, such as in my own Solutions Focused approach, matches up to the evidence.  

We noted the evidence that social exclusion and isolation have a serious and long-lasting adverse effect on adolescents. Leading on from this, a reading group member brought up the issue of the effect of school exclusion on looked-after children and young people, the potentially traumatising effect of behaviour policy based on isolation and removal and how this group could be expected to react – a group of children and young people which is heavily over-represented in exclusion figures in the UK. In the school context, there’s evidence here to support those responses to children with additional needs arising from the effects of trauma, disability, or where they are in their developmental trajectory, which prioritise human relationships over reward/punishment micromanagement of behaviour.  

Now, with the COVID19 ‘follow the science’ mantra ringing in our ears, and the evidence of the serious effects of the pandemic on the mental health, wellbeing and educational engagement of many children and young people, we have a golden opportunity to bring evidence to bear on how we go about entering the new world. ‘Follow the Arrows’ could point to the road ahead and I’m looking forward to tonight’s meeting, on chapters 5 to 8 and to writing my next report. 

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