Giving Compass' Take:

• Research in brain development in adolescents indicates that during this time, children are malleable to self-discovery experiences such as community service and social action projects. 

• What are the ways that schools can foster these types of experiences for students? 

• Read more on how America's youth are keeping up the momentum on activism. 

Middle school often gets a bad rap. It’s a time when students begin questioning rules and the world around them, becoming increasingly focused on fairness, equity and forming closer, yet fewer relationships.

In the classroom, this might play out as a student getting upset when a teacher tells her to stop chewing gum despite a classmate chewing gum beside her. Or it might emerge through the development of cliques and increased drama among friendships. Middle schoolers are frequently described as defiant, rebellious or melodramatic—and these characteristics often challenge educators.

There’s a scientific explanation for all of this.

It is common knowledge that the body goes through significant physical changes during adolescence, but it is less recognized that the brain is also developing and changing significantly. In his book, “Age of Opportunity,” Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology and expert on adolescents, says that the brain during early adolescence is like driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes. I see this often in my students, a brash reaction with little thought or evidence of self-regulation, and Steinberg’s analogy always helps me reframe my reaction.

During this time, the brain is undergoing a process called synaptic pruning, where it is deleting unnecessary and unused synapses, so the experiences a student goes through during this age range is literally impacting the structure and composition of the brain. It’s a critical window of time when regions of the brain are evolving.

This malleability during adolescence is similar to the developmental period from birth to 3-years-old, and the impact of experience during these stages is likely to have enduring effects.

Designing experiences that promote self discovery through service and learning is critically important during the adolescent years as research shows how sensitive the brain is to experience during this age range. Most middle schoolers have an inherent desire to do good, to see themselves as community leaders and to continue learning about the world around them.

Read the full article about adolescence and social action by Megan Vroman at EdSurge.