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“Are you smarter than a 5th-grader?” I’ve always enjoyed that television show. It’s so amazing to watch those little kiddos spew out information on such a wide variety of subjects. As an educator, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching cognitive development in children. The average healthy 10 to 11 year old is quite adept at regurgitating oodles and oodles of factoids of which they have been fed a constant stream since entering school. It’s been awhile since I was in 5th grade though so I continue to be amazed!

What I can also share about the average 5th grader is that while they are capable of soaking up loads of information and spitting it right back at you, they are not yet so savvy when it comes to higher order thinking. These skills are just emerging, so really, a more accurate title for the show might be: Can you remember more general trivia than a 5th grader? Most of us can’t, and that’s what makes the show so fun.

Are you smarter than a 9th grader?

Perhaps the producers could come up with a more challenging version of the show by incorporating some higher level questions—application, evaluation, and analyzation, They could increase the age level of the panel to perhaps 8th or 9th graders who in addition to being able to no doubt recall more information, would be able to manipulate it as well. Yes, the sequel could be called, “Are you smarter than a 9th grader?” That would be exciting, wouldn’t it?

NO! The creators of such game shows have done their research. There could never be a show called “Are you smarter than a 9th grader” because EVERYBODY is smarter than a 9th grader!

The show would never get beyond the pilot. (Okay- a little hyperbole, there are exceptions, but as a rule, this is their developmental M.O.)

First of all, 9th-grade-panel members would no doubt oversleep and either be too late or never show up at all. Secondly, if they did show up, what audience could possibly bear to watch a group of hopeful 14-year-olds repeatedly beat out by a bunch of money hungry adults seeking to profit off and expose teenagers who, by their nature, have numerous temporary cognitive limitations but specifically in the area of memory?

Be careful! It’s a very tempting question, especially for those who recently discovered that their sweet, non-argumentative 12-year-old was kidnapped and replaced with a highly opinionated, know-it-all 14-year-old.

“Okay- Purposeful Parent, get ahold of yourself!”

The teen brain…

The purpose of this blog is to shed some light on the reason why our 14-year-old, who received an A in history last semester, suddenly does not know the whereabouts of tomorrow’s history assignment, or whether or not he even completed it, or whether or not he ever received it? Or why suddenly, after years of being able to put her backpack in the same spot every night, and take it to school every morning, your daughter has no recollection of where it is this morning or even where she last saw it.

Or why he says he doesn’t remember that you asked him to take out the garbage, or that you requested five times to PLEASE take off his boots before tramping through the living room.

It feels like the change happened overnight, doesn’t it? Well, if you think about it, the signs have been there. You just thought your child was more annoying than usual. Well, parents and teachers, this is what you need to know: As I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs it is during the ages of 12 to 26 that the human brain
is undergoing a major upgrade. This rewiring is highly sophisticated and absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, in order for this upgrade to take place, parts of the brain previously accessible and highly functioning are regrouping and may be out of order for some time. It should help you to know that for the most part, your child is not choosing to be forgetful, or inattentive; this change is not in their control.

And the process works like a charm! Think about i. If it didn’t work, wouldn’t the human brain have pruned and replaced this freakish process a long time ago as it does with any other process it finds obsolete? Teenagers have been “Teen-agers” since the beginning of time; it is evolutionarily necessary and, like it or not, it is the only avenue to their ultimate independence and their ability to eventually move away from the nest.

Knowledge is power

So, in addition to the many other changes… the teen must abide. They also have to cope with a sudden impairment in their working memory—their ability to store and retrieve information in the short term. And if you think you feel frustrated, imagine what it is like for them! As a high school teacher, I spent many hours with young folks trying to help them understand that this sudden onslaught of forgetfulness was normal and that indeed there was nothing WRONG with them.

Year after year my newbies came into their teens completely blindsided. (Oh, with the exception of knowing about the reproductive system. We do make that a priority don’t we?) Would it not also be beneficial if parents and teachers gave kids a heads-up about what to expect regarding changes in memory, judgment, impulse, and mood as well? I sure would have benefited from this! How about you?

So, here is your parenting tip: Self-knowledge is an essential component when helping a teen make a healthy transition from childhood to adulthood. There are many good resources on this subject, but one of my favorites is an article published in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic. The article, entitled “Beautiful Brains” was the first I had read that provided an accurate explanation of the teen upgrade but also framed it in a manner that was optimistic and hopeful—something any parent of a teen can appreciate!

The author, David Dobbs rebukes the premise that teens are ‘dopey’ and instead directs us to understand that this stage is highly adaptive. At no other time are we so capable of embracing novelty. He explains that there will be inconsistencies in memory, impulse, and mood and refers to them as ‘misfires’ caused by fatigue, poor diet or challenges during the rewiring process. So once again, we must help our child maintain balance as they try to navigate their changing bodies and minds. Self-knowledge is key here! And remember, we can maintain expectations but we need to be very flexible during these years. Be kind, courteous, and firm, and remember
to choose love over fear.

“Love me when I least deserve it because that is when I need it most”
—Swedish proverb

About the author

Kate MartinKate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015. 

She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. 

For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.

Buy the Book by Kate Martin: The Best Thoughts To Think Five minutes Before