The period of adolescence is marked by exponential growth in many avenues including cognitive development. This impacts teenagers emotions, thoughts, feelings, and spirituality. Within this article, I’ve included different ways we can integrate our knowledge of psychology alongside theology and how they interact within an adolescents cognitive development.
Stages In Cognitive Development:
Formal Operational Stage: Jean Piaget, this stage ranges from 11-20 year olds. This can be defined as: When individuals around the age of 11 develop the capacity for abstract, systematic and scientific thinking. We can specifically relate to this as our students are coming into Tribe as 10-11 year olds. As we dive into scripture, those abstract thoughts about inerrancy, incomprehensibility, God’s omnipresence students may need help breaking down these concepts even further. Another area in which I’ve specifically seen students struggle with the idea of suffering and how God uses it for His glory.
Propositional Thought: Adolescents’ ability to evaluate the logic of propositions (verbal statements) without referring to real-world circumstances. Children evaluate the logic of statements by considering them against concrete evidence in the real world. Some of the material we go through at youth group isn’t concrete, which can be hard for students to truly grasp. Students who don’t have propositional thought believe “either-or” statements are always true and “and” statement is always false.
For example, if we were to use poker chips in this situation and say these two propositions:
- Either the chip in my hand is green or it is not green
- The chip in my hand is green and it is not green
This is related to the real-world as students ponder relationships between… space, time, matter in physics, justice and freedom in philosophy.
Side Note: If adolescents have not reached gains in propositional thought, they will be further behind and will struggle to understand some of the concepts we are going through.
Information-Processing: Theorists refer to a variety of specific mechanisms, including diverse aspects of executive function – supported by brain development and experience – as underlying cognitive gains in adolescence.
Metacognition – CENTRAL to adolescent cognitive development. This is the expanding of the awareness of thought, leading to new insights into effective strategies for acquiring information and solving problems.
- This specifically applies to scientific reasoning generally but could also apply to biblical understanding. How does the bible apply to the question given in small group? This is about theorizing what influences the outcome of the task given.
Other Information-Processing Executive Functioning:
- Attention: Becomes more selective, better adapted to the changing demands of tasks, and planning improves.
- Inhibition – Irrelevant stimuli and well-learned responses in situations where they are inappropriate – improves. Gain in attention and reasoning.
- Strategies – More effective. Improves storage, representation, and retrieval of information.
- Cognitive self-regulation – Improves. Yielding better moment by moment monitoring, evaluation and redirection of thinking.
- Working memory increases – Speed of thinking and capacity processing increases.
Reflecting on these different executive functioning areas, students are growing in each one of them. Stretching their thinking is GOOD thing because they are capable of understanding more than we think they can. We can have grace with them in areas that they may be learning in a certain season of their life. Asking students to bring their Bible or a journal to youth group may be a struggle at first, but their ability to plan is improving (if I go to soccer practice prior to youth group and I’m supposed to bring my Bible I need to grab my Bible before soccer practice).
Consequences of Adolescent Cognitive Changes:
The constant change in adolescents brain development makes dramatic changes to the way that they view themselves or the way they think others are viewing themselves. Two areas in which are highlighted specifically where we see adolescents struggling with self-consciousness is:
- Imaginary Audience – Adolescents belief that they are the focus of everyone else’s attention. An example of this would be that adolescents’ would go to great lengths in order to avoid embarrassment. This is why they are so sensitive to public criticism.
- Personal Fable – Certain that others are observing and thinking about them, they develop an inflated opinion of their own importance – a feeling that they are special and unique. An example of this would be that students don’t think about what they are dealing with anyone has ever dealt with before.
Side Note: Personal fable is more prominent in adolescents who are involved with crime and drugs. These individuals think that “nothing bad will happen to them”.
Idealism and Criticism: When adolescents have the capacity to think about different possibilities or abstraction. This could look like an adolescent being raised in an atheist family coming to youth group for the first time. They may have possibly been invited by a friend, but even if they were just coming with the friend, the adolescent stage between 11-14 years of age is crucial in decision making or trying new things out. Some questions they may ask are..
- What would my life look like if I had a different.. Family? Different siblings? Different religion?
- Adolescents become over-critical as their “ideal” world doesn’t match up with the “real” world and life their parental figures have created for them.
Handling Consequences of Teenagers New Cognitive Capacities
|Sensitivity to public criticism||Avoid finding fault with the adolescent in front of others. If the matter is important, wait until you can speak to the teenager alone.|
|Exaggerated sense of personal uniqueness||Acknowledge the adolescent’s unique characteristics. Encourage a more balanced perspective by pointing out that you had similar feelings as a teenager.|
|Idealism and Criticism||Respond patiently to the adolescent’s grand expectations and critical remarks. Point out positive features of targets, helping the teenager see that all societies and people are blends of virtues and imperfections.|
|Difficulty making everyday decisions||Let the adolescent choose for themselves. If they ask for help, give them different options and to weigh out the good and bad of each, then encourage them to make the best decision.|
Each one of these areas are areas in which adolescents struggle with or question at one time or another during this period of exponential cognitive growth. As leaders, we encounter every one of these instances when we come to youth group. Whether this a student dealing with insecurity, criticism of a parent or loads of questions about a decision to make… these tools can help us lead students in the correct decision.
School Transitions – This can be a stressful and scary time for an adolescent, even one who is leaving our youth group and transitioning into a new school. Here are some ways we can understand and help students grow when this happens.
Especially for adolescents moving from 8th to 9th grade… individuals with academic and emotional difficulties often turn to similarly alienated peers for other support they lack in other spheres.
Supporting High Achievement in Adolescence
|Child-rearing practices||Authoritative parenting|
Joint parent-adolescent making
Parent involvement in adolescents’ education
|Peer influences||Peer valuing and support for high achievement|
|School characteristics||Warm, supportive teachers who develop personal relationships with parents and show them how to support their teenagers learningLearning activities that encourage high-level thinkingActive-student participation in learning activities and classroom decision making|
|Employment schedule (high school only)||Job commitment limited to less than 15 hours per weekHigh quality vocational education for non-college-bound adolescents|
Side Note: Parents tend to think once their adolescent advances into high school, they need to be less involved in their adolescents educational career. However with the help of parental guidance, adolescents exceed far greater when parents are more involved academically even through their senior year of high school.
Studies from as early as the 1980’s illustrate that heavy media usage is linked to executive-function difficulties. When adolescents engage with this multitasking while on a device they have a harder time filtering out irrelevant stimuli when they are not multitasking.
Children younger than 10-11:
- Regard rules as fixed/absolute
- Base moral judgements on consequences
Children 12 or older:
- View is more realistic
- Base moral judgements on intent/motivation
Side Note: Often times adolescents, especially make certain decisions (good or bad) based on their own personal moral judgment. If they’re on the brink of becoming 12 they may fall under either category but if they are older than 12, it helps the leader understand the decisions being made more clearly.
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