Of Toddlers and Teenagers: Ellen Galinsky Breaks Through Adolescence with Brain Science and New Book - Early Learning Nation

Of Toddlers and Teenagers: Ellen Galinsky Breaks Through Adolescence with Brain Science and New Book

Just as Early Learning Nation showcases the ways families, researchers and grassroots nonprofits and organizations are building an early learning nation—one community at a time—our Community Cultivators series highlights how innovators across all sectors build and sustain global communities from the ground up. We hope the series inspires your own early childhood work.

Ellen Galinsky’s The Breakthrough Years is the product of nearly a decade of exploration into the adolescent mind. A companion piece to Galinsky’s previous landmark book, Mind in the Making, which addresses early childhood development, it reaches a surprising conclusion about adolescence. Rather than an ordeal of sullenness and rule-breaking, it is a process of exploration necessary for human development.

In other words, don’t fear the teens in your life. Instead, prepare to be dazzled by their developing, adaptive, creative minds.

Subtitled “A New Scientific Framework for Raising Thriving Teens,” the book draws upon extensive research, including a nationally representative survey of 1666 adolescents , interviews with 56 parents and 52 of their adolescents from that sample (many of whom articulate variations on the theme Don’t label us as a whole generation—we’re not as lazy, media-addicted, risk-taking or selfish as adults think), a follow-up survey of this group during the pandemic, a study of executive function skills in 22 schools, interviews with 45 researchers and review of hundreds of papers.

Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to Galinsky about her book and the findings relevant to researchers, educators and parents—no matter the age of the child in question. Here are some highlights:

Lived experience informs research, which in turn affects practice. Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, conducts a type of research called civic science. “The beauty of it,” she says “is that you’re putting together what research says and what people say who have experienced the issues you’re studying. So, you’re putting together two—or actually or three different worlds—because I’m in there too, making sense of it all.”

But conducting research isn’t enough. Researchers need to communicate the findings so that they can be understood and put into practice. That’s why The Breakthrough Years initiative doesn’t end with the publication of the book. In fact, the team will bring together cohorts of superintendents, principals, teachers and learning specialists from all over the country. Galinsky says, “We’re going to ask them, ‘Given what we know, what training and tools do you need?’ and then we’ll develop new training and tools together.”

How we as adults see an age or stage affects how we respond to it. If you think in terms of the terrible two’s, you will respond one way, and if you see this as a time of beginning to develop autonomy, you’ll respond another way. The same is true of adolescence. Galinsky writes, “Expecting a difficult time… is linked with actual difficult times later on”; additionally, “Providing feedback that includes expectations of success… can spur students to put more time and thought into their schoolwork.”

Asked how adults can overcome negative expectations, Galinsky points to an episode in the book concerning an adolescent who cut a hole in the backyard trampoline. “This child had ADHD, was struggling in school and needed help,” she summarizes. “Her mom was great in joining her world to inform how she helped her.” Galinsky refers to this as the skill of Perspective-Taking, saying, “If we can understand their perspective and ours, we’re going to do so much better.”

👉New Science on Navigating the Breakthrough Teen Years (The Raising Good Humans Podcast)

It’s all about autonomy-support. Studies show that if adults help children (from toddlers to teens) take an active role in solving the problems they face, rather than fixing them for them, children will be more likely to develop executive function skills (see sidebar).

Galinsky cites the wisdom of a 14-year-old who said, “If the leash is too tight, we won’t know what to do when that leash is gone.” Another teen she spoke to was not doing his schoolwork. When he got home from school, he went right for the video games. After the usual yelling and punishments failed, Galinsky reports, the family tried a method she developed called Shared Solutions, which involves the family problem-solving together. The teen came up with the idea of entering the house through a different door. He changed the environment, and that changed his behavior, but the decisive factor was that he took ownership of the situation.

“If we can help them learn to solve the problems they face,” Galinsky says, “then we are giving our children a huge gift.”

Our mindsets matter. In interviewing parents about a time when they “lost it” with their children—when they weren’t the parents they wanted to be— Galinsky found two mindsets of importance. Those with an Adversity Mindset see the situation as a threat, believing that things won’t change and they can’t figure out how to handle it. “You can know great strategies, like Shared Solutions,” says Galinsky, “but if you see a conflict with a child as a threat, you are less likely be open to using them.” The more productive alternative is the Possibilities Mindset—the belief that:

  1. Things can change
  2. This problem is a challenge, not a threat
  3. I can figure out how to respond

Childhood development is a continuum. Experts tend to slice up childhood into early years (which typically go up to eight years old) and adolescent years (which can start as early as nine or ten into the twenties, since adolescence begins at puberty and ends when young people assume adult responsibilities).

Six Principles for Promoting Executive Function Skills In Early Childhood and Adolescent Programs
  1. A goal-directed, whole-person approach
  2. Steadfast, well-founded belief in the program
  3. Genuine commitment to creating a community of learners
  4. Intentionality in meeting the needs of all
  5. A relevant, challenging and reflective learning environment
  6. Prioritizing well-being

From The Breakthrough Years, drawing upon the research of Adele Diamond and Daphne Ling, University of British Columbia

The early years are foundational but starting early won’t yield the intended effects unless good programs continue into adolescence. After all, Galinsky notes, the early and the adolescent years are both sensitive periods of development, times of rapid brain change when children are especially receptive to learning from experience. Both are also times when the skills that are so linked to success now and in the future—executive function skills—are being developed and strengthened.

👉10 Years of Keeping the Fire Burning in Children’s Eyes

Development is multifaceted. Naturally, writing this book brought Galinsky back to her own teenage years at home in West Virginia and at the National Cathedral School, in Washington, D.C. “I’m grateful for my adolescence,” she says. “I had an incredible mother. It didn’t occur to me that our family was so different until I started spending the night with friends and realized she really listened to us. She was interested in our world and what we were thinking and learning. She was not saying, ‘Only grades are important.’”

In The Breakthrough Years, Galinsky amplifies the lament of Beth Bye, commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, that adults often “forget about the salience of child development knowledge when we’re hyper focused on academic performance.”

The teenage mind and the toddler mind are both works in progress. Learning by trial and error is integral to the process. As Galinsky explains, “Toddlers need to say, ‘No, no, no.’ They need to stand up for themselves. They need to try things, even if we as the adults know they won’t work. They need to figure out what their competencies are and who they are at this stage. And the same for teenagers.”

👉Sign up for Galinsky’s newsletter, Research for Families to Thrive By

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us