Preteen brain development offers a unique window for life-impacting faith development.
Have you ever felt frustrated that your preteens are just not remembering what you’ve said? Does it seem like your lessons go in one ear and out the other? Here’s the good news: It’s not (necessarily) that they’re not listening. The reality is, preteens are going through major brain changes that will continue into their early adulthood. And these brain changes add a new challenge to your teaching.
How the Brain Develops
Let’s dive into the world of neurology and see what we can learn about how to better impact preteens, based on information from an article in Scientific American titled “Why Is Synaptic Pruning Important for the Developing Brain?”
To truly understand brain development, you must go back to the beginning. After all, these preteen brains have been developing for a decade.
Imagine the brain as a series of dots (nerve cells) called neurons. Synapses are what connect those neurons together; they’re what enable you to think and make connections. They help you connect that cute fluffy thing you see with the word “dog.” A typical brain has over 100 trillion synapses, so your brain is a lot like a tangled mass of spaghetti. But those tangled strands carry important information that helps you function.
Neurons and synapses begin to form in an embryo just a few weeks after conception. A 7-month-old fetus even begins to emit its own brain waves. From that point until birth, the brain of a fetus forms new neurons and synapses at an extremely high rate.
After birth, an infant’s brain continues to grow rapidly. The brain is exploding with synaptic formation or synaptogenesis. From birth to age 1, the number of synapses is multiplied by 10. Babies are making a ton of connections, to the point where a 2- or 3-year-old has around 15,000 synapses per neuron.
Of course, all this explosive growth can’t last forever. If you’re imagining your brain as a tangled web of spaghetti, you must also remember that your plate can only hold so much. At some point, you either have to stop learning new things, or you have to get rid of some of the spaghetti to make room for new noodles. And that’s exactly what’s happening to a preteen brain. During adolescence, a preteen or teenage brain has to determine what it can let go of so that the brain can continue to work efficiently. So the brain targets extra neurons and synaptic connections it doesn’t use anymore. This process is called synaptic pruning or cognitive pruning.
Scientists speculate that the brain decides what makes the cut based on how frequently synaptic connections are used. Think of it like cleaning out your closet. That blouse you wear every week is staying for sure. But the jacket you haven’t worn since 1999? It’s time to donate it to a new home. Once you clear out the old stuff, you can fit the clothes from a shopping spree.
In fact, one can actually see this pruning happen. Kirstie Whitaker, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, scanned the brains of people between the ages of 14 and 24 and found that the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) gets thinner throughout adolescence. The neurons that are used, though, are strengthened.
And then there’s a process called myelination. Myelin is what helps the remaining neurons and synapses communicate better and faster. Ultimately, myelination can make your neural firing 3,000 times faster. That’s not a typo. Three THOUSAND. So when you see an athlete doing something you can’t possibly do, it’s because all the practice the person put in has laid down myelin to enable a skill that you don’t have.
What Does This Mean for Children’s Ministry?
That’s a lot of brain speak, so let’s narrow down what it has to do with your ministry.
Remember first that preteens just don’t have the same brain as you. Their minds are cluttered; they’re trying to weed out things. That’s a healthy part of the development process, and through this process their brains will ultimately be more efficient.
But right now, multitasking is hard. Giving preteens new directions while they’re still following your last ones is complicated. And giving them directions for several projects all upfront and expecting them to remember them all—not ideal. Be patient. Be prepared to repeat yourself. It’s not that they’re not listening to you; it’s that their brains can’t handle multitasking.
For now, preteens’ empathy isn’t what it will ultimately be. As a spiritual mentor, that’s difficult for you. You want them to understand that when they make fun of William’s answer, it’s hurtful to William, just as it would be hurtful to them. But that empathy response is still developing. What you can do is reinforce a culture where “your thoughts and struggles are welcome.” You can repeat that mantra weekly and remind kids of it as needed when the conversation starts to veer toward unwelcome teasing. You can model it by never mocking a child or singling him or her out, even in jest.
The news of synaptic pruning isn’t bad. Remember, although the brain is deleting unused information, it’s becoming more efficient. It’s making room for better, deeper information, similar to what happens when you clean out your closet: It might be messy while it’s in process, but in the end, you have a better wardrobe.
What this means is you have an incredible opportunity during this phase. You have the chance to help preteens make new neural connections. As the old, unused connections fade away, there’s room for new, important ones.
Dig Deep Into Questions
Preteens are at a stage of life where they’re thinking harder and deeper about things. While a 4-year-old will take you at your word when you say God flooded the whole earth but saved a man and his family in a big boat, preteens are going to have some questions about that.
By embracing their questions and helping preteens make their own biblical discoveries, you’re building up new synapses. Better still, you’re helping them learn that the Bible is where to go to build those connections.
So what exactly does that look like? It means not giving them all the answers but guiding them to Scripture passages that can help them make their own discoveries. You can’t force a connection in preteens’ brains, but you can guide them into making those connections for themselves.
Here’s an example: In an effective curriculum lesson on why God lets bad stuff happen, preteens might explore the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being thrown into the fiery furnace. Kids examine the choices made by King Nebuchadnezzar, the three men, and the astrologers who tattled on them. Then they grapple with tough questions like: “Why do you think God lets us make choices—even bad ones?” They make their own connections of how each person’s choices led to the outcome in the Bible, and they see that although God ultimately saved the three brave men, he didn’t stop them from getting thrown into the fire in the first place.
Deep, meaningful discussion questions go a long way with preteens. Giving them a chance to connect the Bible to their own lives builds strong synapses between their lives and Bible truths. They make those connections through sharing personal stories within the framework of Bible exploration and through critical thinking questions without a clear “right” answer.
Put it into practice.
The main idea of synaptic pruning is that preteens are entering a “use it or lose it” stage of life. If they don’t have a chance to quickly apply what they’re learning—if they’re not using it as a regular part of their life—it’ll get pruned away.
Remember how we started with feeling like your message goes in one ear and out the other? That’s kind of what’s actually happening. While kids could never explain that this is happening, preteen brains are doing the work of weeding out which parts of your message are necessary to keep—and which aren’t.
So what that means is, preteens need to put the message into practice. Let’s say you have a lesson on kindness where kids learn about the good Samaritan. They talk about ways to be kind and then run a bandage relay to help them remember the story better. If they’re not actively showing kindness right then and there, though, a lot of that lesson will quickly fade away.
If the whole idea behind synaptic pruning is “use it or lose it”—use it. With meaningful service projects and life application, what you’re teaching has a better shot at making the cut.
Here’s another example from a curriculum I work on. In a lesson on the topic of “What’s the Point of Going to Church?” preteens unpack how the early church interacted—and then they do it. They make a prayer request wall for their room and pray for each other. Or in a lesson on why the Bible is hard to understand, preteens make emoji books that help them know which verses to look at for specific situations they face in life.
Make the Message Stick
Their brains are getting the message: This matters to my life. I’m going to use this, so I better hold on to it.
Not only that, but you’re building up myelin. Remember the trick to make your brain fire 3,000 times faster? That happens through practice. The more chances you give preteens to practice their faith in class, the better they’ll get at putting faith into practice outside class.
And don’t forget to push for that myelin to grow through the week. It’s time to rethink the traditional take-home. For one thing, take-homes often get lost before they ever make it home. For another, busy parents don’t always have time to put these ideas into practice. So look for creative ways you can challenge kids to practice what they’ve learned throughout the week that don’t require a take-home paper. For instance, BE BOLD uses something called Mystery Missions. Each week kids get a little card with a mystery mission. The card is folded and sealed, with instructions on when to open it. By adding an element of suspense, preteens’ curiosity is piqued, and they’ll want to keep the card until they can open it. When they open it, they’re once again getting to practice living out their faith— without having to rely on a parent to facilitate the time.
Repeat the big stuff.
You may know that preschoolers need repetition, but don’t miss out on the importance of repetition with preteens, too.
There are hundreds of Bible truths we could teach kids. But if you teach preteens hundreds of Bible truths, synaptic pruning will delete a lot of that information.
On the other hand, if you teach eight to ten Bible truths and you say them over and over, they’ll stick because they keep getting used. Preteens will connect those Bible truths with a variety of Bible passages and faith-related questions, and their synapses will be firing. These are the truths we want preteens to know:
- God/Jesus loves you. (John 3:16)
- The Bible is true. (2 Timothy 3:16)
- God helps us get along. (John 15:12)
- God is in charge. (Psalm 46:10)
- God is your friend. (Romans 5:11)
- God is at work today. (Romans 8:28)
- God is always with you. (Hebrews 13:5)
- God helps you to make good choices. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- God is all-powerful. (1 Chronicles 29:11)
Here’s the bottom line: Preteen years bring new challenges, but you can make a difference. By better understanding how their brains are changing, you can use repetition and practice to cement truths that will pass the test of “use it or lose it.”