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Are Your Preteens Self-Conscious? It's All in Their Heads (Literally)

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A new study offers further evidence that as children grow, the brain changes to suit self-reflection. And that could lead to ramifications in addressing student behavior.

The study, published in the April 24 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, used longitudinal fMRI testing on a group of 10-year-olds over the course of three years. Under fMRI, 27 children (18 girls, nine boys) were asked questions about academics and about themselves. Scans revealed that when children reflected about their own social interactions (the non-academic stuff), the prefrontal cortex of the brain lit up.

Now here's where it gets cool: As 10-year-olds age in the brutal march toward puberty, that same area of the brain increases in activity. In other words, as children grow older, their brains change to increase self-reflection.

"Our findings illustrate the tight coupling between biological and social changes during puberty that may facilitate refinement of a unique, multifaceted, and relational self during adolescence," the study says.

Self-reflection, as measured through the experiment, includes answering questions primarily about social engagement. Do you make friends easily? Would you consider yourself to be popular? Are you the kind of person that gets teased a lot?

The researchers, led by Dr. Jennifer H. Pfeifer at the University of Oregon, did not find the same pattern in children with certain forms of autism, suggesting that the absence of this biological development may be the reason for their lacking certain social skills.

In an interview, Pfeifer says the study does not show whether the brain naturally develops in a way that leads to self-reflection, or whether social pressures influence the way the brain develops. (For example, studies of stress show that stressful environments can lead to permanent stress. And a 2011 study showed the effects of peer pressure on the brain, too.) Pfeifer suspects that it's a bit of both.

This study carries implications for behavioral interventions. It builds on research, done by Pfeifer and others, which increasingly shows biology, not just social interactions, playing a pivotal role in student behavior. The way administrators approach that behavior might change if they know they're not just fighting peer influence, but also hardwired mentalities.

"I think there can be perceptions of what's going on in early adolescence that, they're getting all caught up in their peers," Pfeifer said. "And it almost paints them in a disparaging way."

Pfeifer plans to continue the research, and see how another three years affects development. Such studies could eventually help educators understand how to time behavioral interventions to offer the most significant impact.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement.
You can also follow Ross Brenneman on Twitter.

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