How Youth Learn
How Youth Learn

Adolescent Development: Research Highlights PDF SHARE
SEE ALSO: Conditions of Learning |Mind, Brain & Education |Teenage Brain | Mindsets
Motivation & Mastery | Social & Emotional Learning

Are Romeo and Juliet the quintessential adolescents?

What Makes Someone An Adult?

High school students in Boston and New York City share their reflectons on what it means to become an adult, to be mature, to be ready for "life" after graduation.

See also:

M.I.T. Raising Teens

The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development (Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins University, 2009)

Search Institute: 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents

On the yes side, they were rebelling against family traditions, in the throes of first love, prone to drama, and engaged in violentand risky behavior. But the truth is that there was no such thing as adolescence in Shakespeare’s time (the 16th century). Young people the ages of Romeo and Juliet (around 13) were adults in the eyes of society—even though they were probably pubescent.

Paradoxically, puberty came later in eras past while departure from parental supervision came earlier than it does today.

Since the mid-1800s, puberty—the advent of sexual maturation and the starting point of adolescence—has inched back one year for every 25 years elapsed. It now occurs on average six years earlier than it did in 1850—age 11 or 12 for girls, age 12 or 13 for boys. Today adolescents make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and the scientific study of their development toward adulthood has also increased in magnitude.

Changing scientific perspectives

Through the mid-20th century, scientists saw adolescence from a deficit perspective: a process grounded in biology, in which a child developed from a primitive to a civilized state (G. Stanley Hall, 1904, Anna Freud, 1969). The psychologist Erik Erikson (1950, 1959, 1968) described it as a series of stages that began with an inherited maturational map and progressed through a crisis of identity. Others, like Piaget (e.g. 1970), treated nature and nurture as separate, not integrated, parts of the developmental process.

By the 21st century, however, evidence emerged supporting a much more dynamic and integrative model of adolescent development, which also amplified the understanding of human development across the life span (Steinberg & Lerner, 2004). In this light, young people’s biological development and increasing brain capacity between 10 and 20 years of age was seen to influence the multilayered and changing contexts of their lives, and vice versa. Family, peers, school, and community all played parts in this dynamic system (e.g., Collins et al., 2000; Gottlieb et al., 2006)—and that had enormous implications for educators.

We now know that adolescents are experiencing changes in the way they think, not only about abstract concepts but also about themselves and their potential. Teenage youth can think about their own thinking (“metacognition”) and, as their social perspective develops, they can consider how that thinking relates to the views of others. Within the ecological contexts of their families, peers, social groups, schools, and neighborhoods, they are beginning to develop and negotiate “identity orientations” with respect to their gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, abilities or disabilities. Themes of attachment and autonomy (McElhaney et al., 2001; Holmbeck, 1996), risk and resilience (Coleman & Hagel, 2007) fairness and morality (Damon, 1988; Eisenberg et al., 2011) weave throughout the adolescent years.

How adults can make a difference to adolescent development

In and after school, at work, and at home, the adults with whom youth interact play important roles in their positive development. When we listen well to young people and appreciate their perspectives, we build the trusting relationships that lead to their resilience and growing accomplishment.

School serves as the primary environment in which adolescents develop relationships with peers as well as key cognitive skills. For some youth, it also provides safety and stability. Some of the same qualities that characterize families of adolescents who do well—a strong sense of attachment, bonding, and belonging, and a feeling of being cared about—also characterize adolescents’ positive relationships with their teachers and their schools (APA 2002).

Whatever their role, adults make a measurable difference to the healthy development of youth, research shows. The following suggestions are adapted from the American Psychological Association’s 2002 reference booklet for professionals, Developing Adolescents: