Self-management is related to some executive functions such as:

  • Selective attention,
  • Conflict management,
  • Error detection and
  • Inhibition.

In other words, the ability to suppress dominant but task-interfering responses and to prioritize more task-oriented actions. Adolescents are not yet capable of effective self-management because the relevant brain areas are not yet fully developed.

Conceptual change
In childhood, ideas are very strongly determined by the ideas of parents, teachers or other adults. In adolescence, these bonds are increasingly loosened and much more mature relationships take their place. This process only begins around the age of sixteen and continues beyond adolescence. The system that increasingly enables adolescents to think independently is extremely important for success at school. In order to be able to achieve effective self-management, it is important to be critical of one's own prior knowledge. This means that someone must be able to critically reassess existing ideas, as well as errors, and revise them if necessary. However, this proves to be extremely difficult. Research shows that people ignore information that does not correspond to a theory that is plausible to them. Information that is consistent with existing beliefs activates brain networks related to learning, while inconsistent information activates conflict-management networks. This is important for secondary education. When students are confronted with information that conflicts with their existing ideas, they will ignore or block that information. Especially if the new ideas are presented in a superficial or implicit manner. On the other hand, when students are explicitly confronted with information that conflicts with their ideas, research shows that there are signs that brain areas relevant to learning are activated.

Conflict management
Conflict management plays an important role as students attempt to resolve contradictions between their plans, their understanding, the current state of an activity, and teacher feedback. It also plays an important role in changing conceptual ideas as students must decide whether to whether or not to adjust their current views based on new conflicting information.

Positive and negative feedback

It is striking that young people show less neural activity in the frontal cortex with negative feedback than adults, while they show more activity with positive feedback. The brains of young people are more focused on confirmation than on disapproval and more on reward, especially social reward, such as a pat on the back, than on punishment.


A student in HAVO three (15 years old)  is asked to do a sum that was assigned as homework in front of the class in mathematics. He muddles around and is told by the teacher that his solution is not good. The teacher tells him how to do it and also asks him to do the second sum. As if the teacher had not said anything to him, he makes the same mistakes again as with the first sum. A classmate may do sum 3. She knows how this teacher can react, so she paid attention. She starts sum 3 well. The teacher immediately compliments her. She continues and with a clue here and there she gets the sum on the board. The last sum goes well almost completely without help. The teacher praises her to the heavens.

What happened here?

The first student was not given time to adapt to the new circumstances. Despite all the explanations, the second time he did exactly the same thing as the first time. The teacher's criticism made little difference in this case. The second student was given that time because she initially only had to listen. Moreover, a gut feeling told her that it was better to pay attention now. She didn't understand much of the sum either, but at least she now knew how to start. The teacher responded positively to this and remained positive even though she did not get much further on her own. The student felt validated and so did the teacher, because his instructions clearly produced results. Things therefore went even better with the fourth sum.

One cannot simply say that praising helps more than showing disapproval. If the teacher had not made his disapproval clear at an earlier moment, the second student's gut feeling would have failed to materialize and she might have gotten off to just as bad a start as her predecessor. On the other hand, the teacher's positive feedback worked both ways in the here and now. Both student and teacher felt affirmed. In the case of the first student, probably only the teacher felt undervalued. All his explanations had led to nothing.

Learning and deciding

Decision making is an essential skill for learning. To decide you must be able to judge and to judge you must be able to reason, while to reason it is important to decide. Moreover, in order to make good judgments you need criteria. Criteria on which you base your judgment. And to reason you need facts. Factual knowledge about the matter in which you have to make a choice. The idea was that this process follows a very rational course. This is still reflected in the vision of educational developers that people process and store information in a structural, rational way. Research by, among others, the American neuropsychologist Damasio shows that this is not the case. Adults do not make decisions as rationally as previously thought. Adults compare new situations with a previous situation they have experienced and make a decision based on that. Not by rationally weighing all alternatives, but by making the decision based on feeling. A decision either feels good or it doesn't. A large number of possibilities or scenarios are rejected in advance, while others are given a mental plus. That makes the thinking process much faster. Adolescents have a problem here. They cannot yet rely on this system. On the one hand because they lack the necessary experiences to make the comparison, but on the other hand because it requires good communication between the various brain structures and that communication is not yet optimal for them.

Adolescents know how to rationally explain why a situation is undesirable or dangerous, but they do not feel it. No warning signal goes off if an unwise or dangerous choice is made. The possibility of a quick reward therefore often wins over a safe choice. This is especially true if that quick reward includes the admiration of peers. Adolescents behave differently than adults because their brains work differently. Not so long ago, scientists thought that brain development was complete around age 12. Now we know that that is not the case. Huge changes take place in the brain during adolescence. Communication between the different brain areas is not yet optimal in that age phase. The brain is still very flexible. Brain cells can easily form new networks with each other, which simplifies learning, but at the same time the connections are slower than in adults and the specialization of the different areas is not yet complete. In addition, the uneven development of the different brain areas hinders optimal synchronization. Finally, hormones and especially sex hormones have a major influence on behavior. The body changes and social identity changes. The result is that adolescents are less able than adults to foresee the consequences of their choices in both the short and long term. The relevant mental processes do not fully develop until late adolescence. Naturally, this has major consequences for both the way in which adolescents learn and the way in which teachers can best deal with them.