Middle School Neuroscience


Middle schoolers are awesome because their brains are awesome. Middle school is the most intense period of brain development after infancy. That’s right – your self-conscience, TikTok-ing students are also super brain-powered learning machines. 

Early adolescence is a crucial time for physical growth (woohoo puberty), and, more importantly, middle school is a crucial time for rapid growth in the brain’s grey matter – the brain tissue used for information processing. Fact of the day: Your students have more grey matter in their brains than you do. (but, at least, you have more grey hairs – aka wisdom).  

As educators, understanding (and helping students understand) brain development can empower deeper learning, greater self-awareness, and more effective teaching techniques. TomTod’s Educator Exploration this week breaks down the teaching tips from neuroscience that you can use in your classroom.

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Subscribe to receive Educator Explorations in your inbox! Find more resources for middle schoolers in our Daily Adventures.          ~TomTod Team


The first three middle school educators to email us at dailyadventures@tomtodideas.org will win a free copy of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by author and neuro-researcher Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

This is the must-read book for all TomTod staff. It is a great accessible and helpful guide to adolescent neuroscience research!

Email TomTod with your name, address, and your school/subject! Then get a curl up with this great book!



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This music teacher’s original song hilariously captures how it feels to teach during COVID-19


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This short video on the adolescent brain summarizes the highlights of middle school brain development.


The middle school brain is a super-powered-learning machine

The brains of early adolescents are full of grey matter and the power to learn. Basically, the middle school brain is like a super-fast race car with terrible brakes being-driven by a student driver. Our job as educators is to help our students become experts at driving their own super-powered brains by developing neural connections in their prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for organizational thinking and emotional regulation. According to neurologist and teacher, Judy Willis during adolescent brain growth spurts “there  is a ‘use it or lose it’ reality happening every day at the neural level, where brain cells and their connections either ‘sprout’ or get ‘pruned.’”

Try these neuro-science backed teaching tips in your classroom to help students ‘spout’ stronger neural connections.

Focus on metacognition 

Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. The research highlighted in Edutopia’s Metacognition article by the brain-based teaching expert, Donna Wilson found that “students who do not learn how to manage themselves (through metacognition) experience more setbacks, become discouraged and disengaged from learning, and tend to have lower academic performance.” Here are 3 easy ways to teach metacognition: 

  • Model systems of organization and share your thought processes on planning or fixing mistakes with students. 


  • Teach strategies students can use to ‘drive their own brains’. Like self-calming, goal setting, and organization skills.


  • Give students voice and choice about what they read or learn to increase motivation and then ask them to explain their choices or teach what they learned to others.

Teach students about their own brains

Instead of just talking about growth mindset, we can empower students by teaching the science behind developing a growth mindset – neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and make new neural pathways throughout our lives. Edutopia’s Engaging Brains article by Donna Wilson, references a 2009 study found that  “seventh graders who were taught that learning changes the brain and that intelligence is expandable…did better on math tests than peers who did not receive that instruction.” Use TomTod’s Project Plan of the week, Explore Your Awesome Brain, to help students discover the science of adolescent brain development and reflect on how this science can help them learn and succeed.

Equip students to deal with stress and emotions

Every teacher knows if students are feeling angry, embarrassed, or sad, they are not going to learn their best. New scientific research is finding just how important and difficult emotional regulation is for the students. Dr. Jay Giedd from The National Institutes of Health notes on AMLE’s blog that ‘The Young Adolescent State of Mind’ is best understood through insights from new neuroscience research. Dr. Giedd explains that “increased sensitivity in the limbic system results in adolescents’ motivation to avoid threat and either fight, flight, or freeze.” The adolescent brain is hypersensitive to emotions therefore educators can help students learn better by teaching students strategies to self-regulate their emotions.

One effective strategy to teach self-regulation is to teach students the neuroscience behind their emotions. In an interview with NPR, brain researcher, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, shares why teens should understand their own brains.   Blakemore suggests students should be learning about the neuroscience happening in their brains because “they should understand why they might be particularly self-conscious or susceptible to peer-influence, or more likely to take risks. The teenage years are a really important time in terms of vulnerability to mental illnesses….It’s important for teens to understand the biological reasons and the social reasons why that might be.Talking with your students about their emotions from a neuroscience perspective can help them feel more understood, less alone,  and more in control of their emotions and decisions.

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Adolescent brain development is a HUGE topic (we barely scratched the surface!). 

Understanding and applying adolescent neuroscience in your classroom is a powerful tool to help students learn.  We hope these strategies help you better understand your students so you can teach them to drive their super-powered brains.

Want to go deeper on adolescent brain development? Check these in-depth resources recommended by the TomTod staff:






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Thank you and Adventure on!

– The TomTod Team

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