Victoria Pascoe is a project associate at JSI where she works on issues relating to family planning and reproductive health. She is interested in sexual health and education and teaches a school-based health curriculum on puberty and adolescent development to 6th graders in Massachusetts.

The somewhat wary yet energetically charged group of 12-year-olds responds with a resounding “pituitary gland!”  The chorus dies down a bit and predictably becomes interspersed with giggles as we progress to body parts and reproductive anatomy in this “parroting” game we use to break the ice. When I ask if they know what the pituitary gland does I’m met by blank stares.  I explain that it is a small gland at the base of the brain; it releases hormones that trigger changes that occur during adolescence. For this brief overview of puberty, that’s as far as we delve into the role of the brain in the complex reaction of physical, cognitive and social changes that adolescents experience.

However, advances in neuroimaging technology over the past decade have shown that hormone production is just the tip of the iceberg in what is the complex and dynamic adolescent brain. Research* suggests that the prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for functions like impulse control, planning and decision-making, and risk assessment — continues to develop and mature throughout adolescence. These insights into the neurobiology of the adolescent brain are improving our understanding, shifting our conversations and informing how we relate to adolescents. This new knowledge is important for us to have about a stage of life that can be confusing for teens, who are weathering these changes, and also for their parents, who often struggle to understand and relate to them during this time.

Many resources have been produced to help parents and educators understand the implications of the new findings. Less has been said, however, about how this information translates in the health care setting. How can this information better inform the work of health care providers working with teens?  To address this need, JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. (JSI) developed “Inside the Adolescent Brain: New Perspectives for Family Planning Providers,” an online course on the neurobiology of adolescent brain development to improve reproductive health care for adolescent patients.

Family planning providers sometimes feel mystified, discouraged, or frustrated in their work with young clients, and communication barriers threaten the open and honest dialogue that is essential to minimizing risky behaviors. This course guides providers though the interplay between sexual and neurological development, adolescent risk-taking behaviors and decision-making, and effective approaches for counseling and educating adolescent clients. For providers to successfully interact with teen clients, it is crucial that they reorient their expectations of adolescents, create a safe environment for care, and use adolescent-specific counseling and communication techniques.

JSI’s online course prepares family planning practitioners to support adolescents and effectively provide them with the health information they need to navigate this often tumultuous period. Facilitating improved communication and strengthening relationships in this way will not only result in improved health outcomes but also will foster positive experiences in the health care setting, for both practitioners and teens alike.

* For more information on this research, refer to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s Report – The Adolescent Brain: A Work In Progress

This course was funded by Office of Population Affairs/Office of Family Planning, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The course is available for FREE on JSI’s eLearning Management Platform here

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