Impulsive behaviours hinder learning

This post explores the reasons why many people in their teens and early 20’s find it difficult to focus on their studies. We will examine some of the forces that are acting on the teenager’s brain and show how this is a normal and necessary process. We will then begin to examine strategies to manage impulsive behaviours.


Educational success depends on many factors. Intelligence is one factor that is seen by many to play a part (see previous post), although exactly how big a part is open to debate.

Also important is the ability to remain focused in a learning situation for extended periods of time. Science now shows us that during the teenage years, there are changes taking place in the brain that will have a large impact on a teenager’s ability to stay focused.

The incentive system

In the developing brain, there is an incentive processing system that drives young people to become more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive and also more attentive to information coming from their social groups.

This system has been found to exist across cultures and even species, and may have evolved to encourage exploration of the environment in order to help prepare adolescents with the necessary skills for later independence.

While these attention-seeking, emotional actions are quite natural, they can lead a student to making irrational and impulsive decisions and behaving in disruptive ways. Typical behaviours could include skipping classes, being disruptive and not completing assessment tasks. These behaviours of course result in falling grades, conflict with teachers and administrators and possibly dropping out completely.

 The control system

In the adult brain however, there are cognitive systems used to control these types of impulses and to resist irrational behaviour. They are called the executive functions and they act to control harmful, irrational urges. These systems however, do not reach full maturity until the mid to late twenties (Geier & Luna 2009).

There is therefore a time period during which adolescents and students in their early to mid twenties will find it difficult to control their impulses and will be, at the same time, driven by nature to sensational, attention-seeking and emotional behaviour.


In the podcast below, cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore gives an informative introduction to the workings of the teenage mind. This talk was presented as a part of Ted Global in June 2012.

In the talk, Sarah identifies the pre-frontal cortex as the area of the brain largely responsible for:

  • Decision-making
  • Planning
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behaviour
  • Social interaction and
  • Self-awareness

She then demonstrates that this part of the brain is not fully developed in young people.

She then goes on to identify the limbic system as the part of the brain that handles emotion and reward processing, and she points out that it is hypersensitive in the adolescent brain.

These two areas of the brain will appear often in discussions on behaviours that can be strengthened to assist learning and life-development.

In summary

So we can see that there are sound biological reasons behind teenage impulsive behaviours and we can also see that these are a necessary part of the teenager later being in a position to make valuable contributions to their society.

On the negative side however, these behaviours may reduce educational outcomes and indeed are seen to lead to injuries (for example motor vehicle accidents resulting from speeding) higher mortality rates (including suicides) and substance abuse.

A call to action

If you are a parent, a teacher, or a teenager yourself, this understanding of what is happening inside the mind of a young person is the starting point towards moderating impulsive behaviours.

You can for example encourage the practice of identifying strong impulses when they first surface and then asking them to question whether these impulses are appropriate to the situation. Creating this space between the emotion and the reaction can be very effective in reducing inappropriate behaviours.

Coming soon

There are other ways to strengthen the executive functions and bring impulse behaviours under control and these will be covered in future posts.