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Children Are Not Little Adults

Recognizing the complex characteristics of childhood and adolescence.

In the 1930s, Jean Piaget formulated his cognitive development theory, suggesting that children progressively gain knowledge and form mental representations of the world. Piaget's work also established that children possess distinct modes of thinking compared to adults.

Fast forward nearly a century, and advancements in various fields have contributed significantly to our understanding of the underlying causal mechanisms of cognitive, social, and emotional development. 

Brain processing underlies everything we do, regardless of our age. But how exactly does the brain develop?

Brain development is lengthy, commencing before birth and continuing through adulthood. During the initial years of life, the brain forms connections between neurons as children explore their surroundings and create associations between objects and words, movements and balance, or actions and rewards. The learning curve during these early years is extraordinary. We observe children reaching irreversible developmental milestones, such as transitioning from crawling to walking. They acquire language and reasoning skills, constantly expanding their repertoire of cognitive tools. During adolescence, a process called "pruning" occurs, whereby connections are reduced, resulting in a smaller yet more effective network. These changes may appear less dramatic from an outsider’s point of view. Teenagers resemble adults.

Throughout development, sensory pathways are the first to develop, followed by language skills, with cognitive functions developing last. These enable us to handle information, inhibit wrong behavioral responses, and switch smoothly between tasks. They underlie all types of reasoning, which are essential for effective decision-making.

However, due to their delayed development, children and teenagers may sometimes lack the capacity to make choices in ways that adults would deem appropriate.

After delving into the study of decision-making in children and teens some years ago, I discovered that the broad picture is much more nuanced. The decision-making capabilities of children and adolescents are highly context-dependent. While children may demonstrate reasoning abilities on par with adults in some games of chance, they may also take risks that adults would avoid. This is because each decision activates specific brain pathways that may or may not be fully developed at a particular age. There is also significant behavioral heterogeneity, with some children capable of complex reasoning that some adults may not be able to perform. These variations result from a complex interplay between genetic inheritance and environmental factors.

Still, cognition is a one-way street: it continually improves into young adulthood.

As we continue to study the development of cognition and its impact on decision-making, we are also increasingly focused on the interconnectedness of emotions and social behavior. Neuroscience has revealed that various regions and neural networks in the brain are responsible for different aspects of emotional processing. Moreover, the brain's "social brain" network plays a crucial role in processing information about others and anticipating our intentions concerning them. Processes involved in cognition, emotion, and social behavior are intertwined and all subject to development. As a result, specific ages are often associated with distinct emotional, social, and cognitive states. 

As part of my work, I conduct experiments using computer games in educational institutions ranging from pre-K to college. These games require children to formulate strategies, such as hiding from other players or exchanging cards like Pokémon cards. To carry out each study, I typically visit a preschool, followed by an elementary school, middle school, high school, and college campus over several weeks. Interacting with children in this sequence within a brief period helps me to appreciate the critical developmental changes we undergo. Young children are incredibly curious, open, and intrinsically motivated, but this behavior abruptly fades around the seventh to eighth grade. Middle school is a period of self-doubt and identity search, where children become more self-conscious and reserved with adults, appearing less motivated and even bored. Finally, they emerge as young adults towards the end of high school and in college.

The biological and emotional changes children and adolescents experience are often insufficiently understood in educational environments, resulting in programs that fail to optimize learning. This is especially noticeable during middle school when a significant proportion of students begin to lose interest in school. As the curriculum grows more intricate and the workload increases, many pre-teens and teenagers struggle to cope. Despite requiring more sleep, they are often asked to start earlier in the morning and spend more time on homework at night. Consequently, the inability of adolescents to manage the numerous social and educational demands can result in mental health issues.

The weight of college applications, which often require preparation years in advance, places a significant burden on teenagers. Our society's obsession with competition has resulted in imposing rigid expectations on teenagers to shape them into well-rounded individuals. These expectations include excelling academically, playing a musical instrument or sport, making significant contributions to their community, and possessing leadership skills. However, these attributes may not come naturally during adolescence. Admission standards often favor those who mature faster or find means to act as if they were, leaving many teens overwhelmed, disheartened, and stressed. This process forces them to fixate on their dream school, which can lead to shattered hopes and disappointment when they are rejected at a time when their ability to handle failure is not yet developed.

What can we do to support the development of our children and teens? Having a deep understanding of their cognitive, emotional, and social growth is crucial for creating environments that maximize their ability to acquire essential life skills. To do so, it is imperative to reexamine the educational landscape and create one that considers the various constraints associated with development while also allowing for flexibility to accommodate the diverse range of developmental trajectories. Creating environments that align with the needs of children and teens is a complex task, further compounded by the ever-evolving societal landscape.

Changes introduce unknown factors that must be thoroughly examined, such as the impact of social media on emotional and social behavior. Moreover, it is essential to anticipate how the upcoming generation will engage with artificial intelligence and how it will shape their learning experience. Interestingly, children might be better equipped to navigate this new challenge than adults.

Can we consider children as miniature versions of ourselves? The answer is no, as they possess distinct biology, experiences, and cultural environment. Although the biological changes that children and teenagers undergo are like those of previous generations, the environment in which current and future generations of children grow up has significantly evolved from that of their parents. Despite our innate fear of change, introducing new technologies into the lives of children may have positive implications if we study them carefully to harness their potential in the right manner. This is a crucial challenge that we must confront.

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