Adolescence is an in-between time, says professor Barton Hirsch, an expert in adolescence who teaches a graduate course entitled Adolescent Development. "Children are transitioning away from an overwhelming dependence on grown-ups and developing the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that that they will ultimately need as an adult. "Perhaps the greatest changes that take place are creating a new sense of self and finding a place in the world," he notes.

But in the 21st century, adolescence is different than it was in earlier times.

Much of the process of identity formation has moved from the teen-age years to the stage of "emerging adulthood," from about age 17 to the late 20s, notes professor Dan McAdams, who studies human development over the life course. "Adult roles of marriage and work have been pushed forward as jobs require extended schooling and people marry later."

As a result, the middle school and high school years, which are usually seen as adolescence, are now viewed in less positive terms-as a time of emphasis on peers, a time of risk with perils including drinking, drugs and delinquency, says McAdams. While 30 years ago, adolescence was somewhat romanticized as "a time of tremendous opportunity and a grand adventure of finding identity," today adolescence is viewed more as "a period to get through unscathed," he says. "Even the most laidback liberals are skeptical that adolescents should be left to their own devices. There is more emphasis on how parents, schools, churches and communities are providing more vigilance."

New research on brain development helps to account for the more sober view of adolescence. More brain development occurs during adolescence than was previously thought. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for inhibition and impulse control, is still developing during the adolescent years and even into the 20s. "Adolescents begin to face many of the passions and temptations of the adult years, including the complexities of romantic and sexual relationships, and the availability of drugs and alcohol, but the systems in their brain that prevent them from acting on their impulses are not yet fully mature," explains associate professor Emma Adam.

As adolescents continue to make their way through this tricky period, researchers in the School of Education and Social Policy continue to study new ways to guide adolescents' energy in positive directions, to enhance their learning and development.
By Marilyn Sherman