Teens and Decision Making

First published 2008. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

Use the lesson and student worksheet below to reinforce comprehension of the student article “Teens and Decision Making: What Brain Science Reveals.” 

Dear Teacher:

This latest installment of Heads Up reports on important research, which shows that the teen brain is “under construction”—and how this fact impacts decision making. Students will gain insight into how rushed decisions—acting quickly before thinking something through—result from the influence of feelings and emotions (rooted in the more mature limbic system of teens) over logic (rooted in the yet-to-mature prefrontal cortex).

The information within this issue can help teens see the value of taking a moment to think before they act as a means to making smarter and more rational decisions. These steps can help protect them against making “bad” decisions, such as using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, all of which carry serious risks of health and other consequences.

I urge you to share this important article with your students, and hope you will use the thought-provoking activities below to help your students apply what they’ve learned in their daily lives.


Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
National Institute on Drug Abuse


In This Installment

The latest science on:

  • How decisions happen differently in the teen brain versus the adult brain
  • Why emotions have an edge over logic in teen decision making
  • How teens can “shape” their brains by choices and actions


NATIONAL STANDARDS: Science (NSES, NRC): Life Science: Regulation and Behavior; Science in Personal and Social Persectives: Risks and Benefits; Language Arts (IRA/NCTE): Evaluation Strategies; Evaluating Data

KEY CONCEPTS: Recent scientific discoveries show that while one’s brain reaches maximum size somewhere between ages 12 and 14, development continues all the way through one’s early twenties. A key area of development is the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsibe for planning and sizing up risks and rewards. This area is not fully matured in adolescents—as a result, the faster-maturing limbic system, the emotional control center, gains an edge during decision making.


  • Have students brainstorm examples of decisions that a person might make. Ask them to identify emotional versus logical aspects of each decision.
  • As a teacher of teens, you’re aware that your students are going through important developmental stages as they mature into accomplished, independent adults. During this time, it is critical for them to understand the concept that different areas of the brain mature at different rates, a fact that has profound functional and behavioral implications.


  • Use the student worksheet to reinforce key information presented in the article. 


  • How might the science of adolescent brain development explain the fact that teens can be more influenced by the immediate emotional rewards of a choice, and less concerned with consequences—even though they may logically recognize these consequences?
  • How is synaptic pruning affected by choices and actions?


  • When faced with a spur-of-the-moment decision, why can pausing for a moment make a difference?


  • Have students list choices and behaviors they find challenging and rewarding, and identify the desired short- and long-term benefits of each.

Take the quiz on the Student Worksheet.

1. teens; 2. brain; 3, neurons, neurotransmitters; 4. prefrontal cortex; 5. axons, dendrites; 6. synapse; 7. b; 8. a; 9. a; 10. b; 11. a. 12. a; 13. c. 

ANSWERS TO STUDENT ARTICLE VOCABULARY: 1. d; 2. b; 3. a; 4. c; 5. e.

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