After puberty, the adolescent brain restructures and prunes itself. Key brain developments during that time include social dominance, social cognition, perspective taking, reward/risk analysis, and moral code development. Adolescents’ peers facilitate their brain development because their peers are the group through which they will negotiate adulthood. During COVID-19, adolescents’ interactions with their peer groups were limited, which impacted brain development.

The primary task of students from puberty to age 18 is to establish identity. When identity is not established, there is role confusion. From 18 to early adulthood, the task is to develop intimacy—close emotional relationships with other people. Without identity—a firm sense of who you are—intimacy is not possible. If intimacy is not developed, there is social isolation. Social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and, on average, a person who is socially isolated dies a decade earlier than their peers. We know that 93% of mass shooters are males and loners—they are socially isolated. Allowing students to be socially isolated increases the possibility of violence on your campus.

COVID-19 disrupted that process of brain development. Peers were not available often—except online, which inhibited the expressing of emotions and went against a principle of the MasterClass 7-38-55 rule: “The 7-38-55 rule is a concept concerning the communication of emotions. The rule states that 7 percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language.”

Adolescents use their peers to help develop their identity; expand social cognition and perspective taking (read the emotions of others); establish social dominance (Who will be the alpha?) in a competition for resources, safety, and belonging; cultivate a moral code (What will be the guidelines for my behavior?); and analyze risks versus rewards. All of this requires social interaction.

How can you build these activities into the school day?

Rethink Advisory Periods

In the research on male and female brains—not bodies—computers can identify 69–74% of the time whether a brain is male or female based upon structure (do not confuse gender identification with the physical brain). In male brains, there is more blood flow within hemispheres and less blood flow across hemispheres. In female brains, there is more blood flow across hemispheres, and female brains tend to process language in both hemispheres. Male brains tend to rely more upon the left hemisphere for language, and emotions tend to be processed more in the right hemisphere. Male brains have less communication between emotions and language. All of this is to say that female brains bond through conversation, and male brains bond through shared activities, particularly activities with movement.

Recently, a middle level teacher contacted me and said, “Our male students absolutely detest advisory period. They hate it.” I asked her what they were doing with advisory periods, and she said, “Topics for conversation.” I suggested they rethink that approach because while conversation is beneficial, it should not be the only focus.

What are shared activities that can be built into advisory periods? Is there a student committee by grade level that could advise on activities that could be done to increase social involvement? In the Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, edited by Joan E. Grusec and Paul D. Hastings, the researchers identify that, “Research on civic engagement … as a step toward becoming good adult citizens … [can be done] by participating in community organizations and engaging in volunteering and service.”

Identify the Networks of Cliques/Friends That Operate on Your Campus

One of the secondary schools with which I worked identified networks of students to strengthen the social safety net of the campus. They asked each student to identify their best friend, what made that person a best friend, what they liked to do with that friend, and what kinds of things they discussed. What they discovered is that students operated in cliques and that the best friends in a clique were the same for everyone in that clique. They also discovered those who had no friends. They then identified all the best friends in the school and (during a couple of lunchtimes) taught them how to be better friends and how to refer serious issues (suicide ideation, cutting, addiction, abuse) to a counselor. 

Also in the Handbook of Socialization, the researchers identify that “cliques become particularly prominent in early adolescence … and establish certain peers as leaders of the social system … In early to mid-adolescence, youth also begin to affiliate with crowds, or loose, reputation-​based groupings derived from perceived attitudes, interest, and behaviors … allowing them to ‘try on’ different identities … Thus friendships, cliques, and crowds become increasingly central contexts for adolescent socialization.”

All emotional wellness is based in safety and belonging. For a safer, healthier campus, it is important that the social network be supported.

Be Sure Every Student Is in a Dyad or Belongs to a Group

For those students who are loners, research shows they have likely experienced a great deal of rejection. Furthermore, because of environmental or genetic impacts—frequent mobility, separation from a parent, key adults who are unavailable, autism spectrum, anxiety—opportunities to develop social cognition may be limited. How do you have a friend if you have never had a friend? How does that work?

The use of dyads—two-person groups—seems to be one of the best ways to begin the process of socialization. As a principal, I made sure that no student ate alone at lunch.

In the classroom, dyads can be used to complete work. I liked dyads because I had fewer group dropouts. I told them they could both have the same answers but that each one had to do the work. It allowed for conversation, movement, and involvement. I had a 10th grade student who walked in the first day of school and told me that he was not going to do anything and not to ask. True to his word, he did not do any work. He was intelligent and a loner. There was a student in the class he liked who had academic difficulties. Often, I would put those two to work together. Both built a skill base and were less isolated.

Historically, particularly in secondary education, we have not worked to enhance the emotional/social development of the adolescent brain. In part, the research has only recently highlighted the incredible need for that in brain development. If you would like to identify indicators for growth, I recommend the book Social Skills of Children and Adolescents: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment by Kenneth W. Merrell and Gretchen A. Gimpel. Many of their indicators could be developed as online checklists.

As a profession, we can ignore social-emotional development, or we can actively work to enhance the process for better student outcomes.

Ruby K. Payne, PhD, is the founder of aha! Process Inc. and the author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty.