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Learning Styles and the Adolescent Brain: ParenTalks Highlights

The first ParenTalks presentation of 2021 examined evidenced-based research into how students learn best, their learning styles and areas of strength, natural changes in the adolescent brain, and strategies to help parents support their sons against the backdrop of distance learning and social barriers brought on by the global pandemic. 

“What has changed so much in the last year and a half in our education system is that we have removed our adolescents from their peer group in the learning environment,” says Dr. Kathie Nunley, mother of four, former high school teacher, educational psychologist, and featured ParenTalks guest. “That has made a huge impact in the whole way that this adolescent brain functions. The population that is most affected by this whole pandemic and virtual learning are adolescent learners.” 

parentalks zoom - Learning Styles and the Adolescent Brain

Dr. Nunley is also a researcher, speaker, and bestselling author. Her books include: ‘A Student’s Brain’ and ‘Differentiating the High School Classroom’, a bestseller. 

Her research focus has centred on brain-imaging and teaching in mixed-ability classrooms.  

The fourth ParenTalks event of the 2020-21 academic year also featured regular contributor, Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07, family physician and hospitalist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).  

Topics covered in the live webinar event on February 26, 2021, included: 

  • The biology of adolescence in the brain
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Importance and impact of peers
  • Sleep, nutrition, and physical activity
  • Ideal learning environments


“What we want to focus on is what is the child’s strengths. That’s where you’re going to make the biggest difference. The greatest trajectory into adulthood is in strength-based approaches to teaching and parenting. 

To retain information, sleep is the number one learning aid out there. And it’s sad, but the vast majority of our students, especially our adolescent students, are horribly sleep deprived. If you wake up to an alarm clock, you are sleep deprived, what you should be doing is going to bed sleeping until your body naturally wakes up, that is your sleep. All of the brain growth happens during sleep, all of the weeding out of old neurons happens during sleep, even the cerebral spinal fluid that pulls all the garbage out of our brain — that depends on sleep. 

One of the best ideas I can share with parents, I think for ideal learning environments at home is do not use bedrooms for homework. 

A big hallmark of adolescence is that their behavior is very different alone than with their peers.” 


“The types of behaviors and the types of risks that people take, tend to in my experience kind of peak in the transitional, emerging young adult population — the 18 to 25 range. And that’s when a lot of older adolescents and young adults tend to have access to both the resources and the opportunities to take some really significant risks. 

They’re no longer as supervised in their home or school settings, and their options for riskier behavior are there. And even in the way that a lot of them approach their educational futures. 

Starting the conversation with your children while they are still teenagers about how to identify their risk-taking style and their risk-taking strategies and the kinds of areas where their internal heuristics are weakest, is probably a good way to cover against this. That helps a lot of teenagers get some of the skills that they have in terms of insight and self-reflection going into adulthood, where the situations and the magnitudes of risks that they’re going to be exposed to are going to be more significant.” 


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