Enter the Learning Zone

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Could knowing more about brain science be the key to reducing the number of young people presenting as homeless in Scotland? A homelessness charity's new project takes young people and the professionals who work with families in crisis on a journey deep into the teenage brain to learn how to end arguments better.

Does the body rule the mind or the mind rule the body?

So sung Morrissey 40 years ago this year in the song ‘Still Ill’, taken from The Smith’s classic self-titled debut album.

Morrissey isn’t, as I’m sure you know, a scientist, much less a professional working with families in conflict, yet his lyric touches on something that runs through new work created by Cyrenians Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution. This new work is designed to help: young people who want to boost their emotional health; and practitioners looking to help families understand how adolescence can affect relationships.

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SCCR and Minister for Children and Young People Natalie Don at Learning Zone launchSCCR and Minister for Children and Young People Natalie Don at Learning Zone launch
SCCR and Minister for Children and Young People Natalie Don at Learning Zone launch

The Smiths’ lyrics touch on an age-old question of particular relevance to the teenage years, a time when it can feel as if your brain has, well, a mind of its own. The changes teenagers’ bodies undergo during puberty are so great, it can disorientate young people, while these changes’ effect on their mood and behaviour can confuse parents and carers.

Here’s the thing. If all of us – especially the teenager going through puberty, their caregivers, and the professionals working with both – had greater knowledge of what effect adolescence has on young people, society and families would experience a great deal less conflict.

I’m talking about science here, specifically neuroscience, the science of the brain. At SCCR, we work with families and we tend to find explaining ‘the science of conflict’ can take the heat out of family conflict.

Let me give an example. A common complaint parents and carers make is that their young person is lazy. He or she stays up late and then sleeps in for an excessively long period the next day.

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What caregivers who find this irritating don’t know is that they’re not arguing with their young person; they’re arguing with biology.

Young people tend to stay up and sleep in late because of a brain chemical (or ‘neurochemical’) called melatonin. Melatonin is sometimes known as ‘the sleep drug’ as it is involved in helping people to sleep. The brain of young people secretes melatonin at a later time in the day than children and adults, hence why they go to sleep later.

What The Learning Zone does is take you on a journey that begins in the brain. We learn about ‘synaptic pruning’, during which unnecessary connections between nerve cells are eliminated to make the brain more efficient and streamlined for adulthood.

If a baby feels loved and cared for by its parents, the associated brain cells and brain regions for love, social connection and emotional regulation will grow, and we will have an easier time managing our feelings and giving and receiving love as adults.

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However, if a baby feels afraid and unloved, the brain cells and areas in the brain associated with love and connection won’t grow. They will therefore find regulating their emotions and connecting socially much harder as adults.

As you can see, when we start to look at how the brain changes during childhood and adolescence, we quickly find ourselves talking about emotions.

If our emotional health isn’t robust, our feelings can spill over into moods that lead to behaviour that impacts on others. We start to see how our relationships are often directed more by changes in our bodies we’re often unaware of. Many of the typical teenage behaviours adults dismiss as ‘bad’, we now realise, are in fact a consequence of those changes brought about by adolescence.

Once we’re aware of that, whether we’re a young person or their caregiver, we can start to take measures to mitigate arguments. The Learning Zone contains advice on how to strengthen relationships, self-soothe and bolster wellbeing.

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We’re living through a period in which the mental health of our young people is suffering. With that in mind, we can see that there is a significant need to widen awareness of mental health and wellbeing within schools to support young people.

The Learning Zone answers that need.

Our service, Cyrenians Centre for Conflict Resolution, developed The Learning Zone to reduce the numbers of youth homelessness. The leading cause for youth homelessness in Scotland remains ‘relationship breakdown’. As a national centre for best practice in mediation and early intervention, we believe that it’s important that families have the tools to resolve their own arguments before they get to the stage they seriously impact upon home life. The Learning Zone gives young people and parents alike a better sense of how adolescence often drives arguments – and what to do to calm down disputes.

The Learning Zone comes in different forms that cover the same ground: a workbook young people can read through alone or with an adult they’re working with such as a teacher or youth leader; a school pack for teachers; and a new section of the SCCR website based on the workbook and school pack.

Whichever way you chose to interact, the Learning Zone caters to two distinct audiences: young people aged between 14 and 18, and professionals working with families to mitigate conflict. Currently, the Learning Zone sections for young people and for professionals who work with families are available via the website; the section for parents and carers will become available later in 2024.

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The launch of The Learning Zone represents a significant milestone in SCCR's mission to reduce familial conflict and prevent youth homelessness in Scotland. By empowering young people and professionals with knowledge, skills, and resources, The Learning Zone paves the way for healthier, more harmonious family relationships.

‘What difference does it make?’ to quote another Smiths song. For many families, it might just make all the difference.

Colin Waters is Digital Media and Content Manager for Cyrenians Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution.

You can download the workbook for young people here.

You can download the school pack for teachers here.

You can visit the young person’s Learning Zone here.

You can visit the professionals’ Learning Zone here.

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