Tuesday, December 10, 2019
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No downside for colleges recruiting middle schoolers

Colleges and universities don’t have any problem recruiting students as young as sixth grade to play sports for the school when they graduate from high school, but there are lots of negatives for the students, writes sports columnist and in-depth editor Ben Baker-Katz in The Evanstonian, the student newspaper at Evanston Township High School in suburban Chicago.

“We aren’t allowed to drive cars until we’re 16 because the government has decided we aren’t mature enough to handle that responsibility; why are we allowed to decide our future?” he wonders, adding that the word of a 12-year-old isn’t written in stone.

The crux of his argument is that sixth graders don’t yet have a fully developed frontal lobe, which is generally the part of the brain that helps adults make decisions, and are therefore more susceptible to the power of suggestion or fancy gifts coaches can promise. Plus this:

One ETHS senior, “who committed to Miami University (Ohio) as a sophomore, faced a commitment scare. During her junior year, the Redhawk program experienced some coaching turbulence. The coach to whom she committed left the program, and [she] didn’t know if the new coach would hold up the word of the departed coach.”

One solution, he says, would be to ban verbal commitments altogether and instead make colleges wait until students reach their junior year. Students today can’t sign national letters of intent until their senior year, but Mr Baker-Katz proposes a compromise: let them sign NLIs on the spot, during their junior year.

Then, kids as young as 11 years old wouldn’t be making life-altering decisions when their brains aren’t equipped to handle it. And while that’s a valid argument, the brain biology is actually slightly more complex than Mr Baker-Katz lets on.

  • The Neuroscience of Decision Making: Various Brain Regions Work Together During the Decision-making Process (Psychology Today 2015)
  • The Functional Neuroanatomy of Decision Making: Prefrontal Control of Thought and Action (Brain Research 2012)

According to a 2009 study out of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the frontal lobe doesn’t reach full maturity until about age 25, but it is definitely less mature in a 12-year-old student than it is in a 16- or 17-year-old one. Recent research has also found, however, that adult and teen brains work differently: adults think with the prefrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobe), the brain’s rational part.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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