that help girls and boys deal with sexual feelings and support positive communications with parents would be especially useful for early adolescents. Programs that stress future life planning and support high educational goals would be especially useful as the boys and girls mature into middle and late adolescence.
Interesting new research on the development of the brain during adolescence also points to the important biological changes youth undergo. Based on a series of brain scans, neuroscientists have documented that the development of the brain continues beyond the early years into adolescence. In fact, the frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for functions such as self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization, and planning, may undergo the greatest change between puberty and young adulthood (Begley, 2000). This work points to the importance of opportunities to develop and practice these skills during the early and middle adolescent years. We discuss this need in more detail in the next section.
The most important cognitive changes during this period of life relate to the increasing ability of youth to think abstractly, consider the hypothetical as well as the real, process information in a more sophisticated and elaborate way, consider multiple dimensions of a problem at once, and reflect on oneself and on complicated problems (see Keating, 1990). Indeed, such abstract and hypothetical thinking is the hallmark of Piaget’s formal operations stage, assumed to begin during adolescence (e.g., Piaget and Inhelder, 1973). Although there is still considerable debate about when exactly these kinds of cognitive processes emerge and whether their emergence reflects global stage-like changes in thinking skills as described by Piaget, most researchers are now convinced by evidence that these kinds of thought processes are more characteristic of adolescents’ than of younger children’s cognition. The emergence of these skills, however, is a gradual process that takes place over the entire adolescent period and depends on having extensive experience in learning how to use these skills and then practicing them repeatedly and applying them to novel and increasingly complex problems (Clark, 1988; Keating, 1990). Too often, however, such opportunities are not provided in secondary schools, particularly in high-risk and poor neighborhoods (Coleman et al., 1966; Coleman and Hoffer, 1987). Out-of-school community programs may help fill this gap.