Brains Under Construction: Supporting Students in the Arts
The more I learn from the ongoing research on adolescent cognitive development, the more I realize the degree to which high school students are expected to make major decisions for which their brains are not quite ready. It’s no wonder that the college decision process, as well as the consideration of careers, is so overwhelming for many if not most 17- and 18-year-olds. I remember my son at that age: he couldn’t imagine going into any field other than music. Yet the plethora of choices and decisions without clear guidelines to facilitate the process proved to be highly confusing and enormously time-consuming for him. In fact, it became the inspiration for the creation of MajoringInMusic.com, in an effort to ease some of that angst for other students - and their parents.
According to the American College of Pediatricians, young people’s brains are, “under construction….The frontal lobe, the judgment center or CEO of the brain, allows the individual to contemplate and plan actions, to evaluate consequences of behaviors, to assess risk, and to think strategically. It is also the ‘inhibition center’ of the brain, discouraging the individual from acting impulsively. However, the frontal lobe does not fully mature until approximately 23 – 25 years of age.” The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry goes on to say that the significant differences in how adolescents’ brains deal with decision-making and problem-solving compared to adult brains can even be seen in “pictures of the brain in action.”
How, then, can we support college-bound arts students as they face decisions and choices they’re not developmentally ready to make?
Since college-related decisions are inherently tied to career decisions for students in the arts, how can we help them figure out where they want to spend four years of their lives, possibly far from home and conceivably at a price that will dictate their plans after graduation? How can we help them think about their career paths when the area of their brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving (frontal cortex) is still “under construction?”
Neuroscience research offers useful insights for parents, educators, counselors, other mentors, and even the students themselves. We can use these to support students in the following ways:
- National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Jay Giedd suggests that how a young person spends their time “may help guide the hard-wiring, actual physical connections in their brains.” Through regular and consistent interactions with adults, youth can be guided early on to spend time in creative activity such as the arts (as opposed to unsupervised time playing video games, watching movies, or feasting on social media).
- Knowing that their brains are still “under construction,” we adults can reconsider our expectations about what “mature thinking” and “appropriate decision-making” look like. Even some of the most proficient students in the arts may be confused and uncertain about pursuing their art after high school. At MajoringInMusic.com, we often hear from students, especially at our workshops, who have been involved in music throughout high school but who are uncertain about the degree to which they want to pursue music in college and beyond. We encourage these students to consider liberal arts colleges with strong music departments. The pressure to declare a major is postponed at least a year, they’re encouraged to explore a variety of interests, and the pursuit of music along with another unrelated field is encouraged.
- We can urge all students, including those already convinced about pursuing an arts major in college, to create a list of personal criteria for determining the kind of college environment that best fits their needs and interests. Relying on school rankings or hearsay to direct their choices and decisions is a misguided approach that can lead to major disappointment, self-esteem issues, and transferring or even dropping out.
- To facilitate ongoing brain development, we can advise students to enrich their studies through cultural and life-enhancing experiences such as study abroad, internships, entrepreneurial classes and experiences, and taking their art out into the community.
As neuroscience continues to reveal new insights into brain development, we have a responsibility to incorporate these findings into our work with aspiring musicians, writers, dancers, actors, and visual artists as they face their futures. Our shifts in thinking can only facilitate their ability to make sound choices and decisions that will pave the way for their blossoming into adulthood.