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Physical, social, emotional and cognitive development

Adolescent developmental domains are intertwined and strongly influenced by experiences and environments.
Physical Social Emotional And Cognitive Development
© Griffith University

Adolescent developmental domains are intertwined and strongly influenced by experiences and environments.

The developmental changes that typically occur in adolescence have been documented extensively in literature that is widely accessible. Importantly, each area of development is intertwined with the other–physical, social, emotional and cognitive development–along with sociocultural and environmental influences and experiences. A summary of some of the key developmental aspects of adolescence and the nature of these changes follows.

Physical development

In early adolescence, the body undergoes more developmental change than at any other time, apart from birth to two years old. The rate of growth is rapid and uneven, with a different pace and rate of change for each individual. Physical changes include increases in height, weight, and internal organ size as well as changes in skeletal and muscular systems.

Puberty occurs in early adolescence, triggered by the release of hormones which lead to the development of primary sex characteristics (genitalia) and secondary sex characteristics (eg breast development in girls; facial hair in boys). The increased hormone production affects skeletal growth, hair production, and skin changes.

Physical changes are visible to all and highlight the range and pace of change. This sometimes leads to adolescents feeling more or less mature than others. Physical development growth spurts occur about two years earlier in girls than boys.

Social development

Adolescent social development is often described as the process of establishing a sense of identity and establishing a role and purpose. It is an outwards sense of oneself. Body image is a key factor in developing a sense of self and identity, especially for girls, and the family and increasingly peers play an important role assisting and supporting the adolescent to achieve adult roles. Risk-taking is a natural part of the adolescent journey. Social development and emotional development are closely intertwined as young people search for a sense of self and personal identity.

Emotional development

The way a person thinks and feels about themselves and others, their inward thoughts, is key to their emotional development. Developing and demonstrating individual emotional assets such as resilience, self esteem and coping skills is heightened during adolescence because of the rapid changes being experienced. Schools are important sites for social and emotional learning and have developed policies and programs around student wellness, often with a focus on a strengths-based approach.

Cognitive development

Cognition is the process involving thought, rationale and perception. The physical changes of the brain that occur during adolescence follow typical patterns of cognitive development. They are characterised by the development of higher-level cognitive functioning that aligns with the changes in brain structure and function, particularly in the prefrontal cortex region.

The structural and functional brain changes affect the opportunity for increased memory and processing. They may also contribute to vulnerability, such as risk taking and increased sensitivity to mental illness.

In recent years data from developmental neuroimaging has enabled greater understanding of the changes that occur in the human brain during adolescence. This data points towards a second window of opportunity in brain development. Adolescence is a sensitive brain period, that is a time when brain plasticity is heightened. During this time, there is an opportunity for learning and cognitive growth as the brain adapts in structure and function in response to experiences.

In the next step we will pull together the key developmental aspects of adolescence with a discussion about your own experiences.

Your task

Read Caskey and Anfara’s article, Developmental Characteristics of Young Adolescents.1

  • What have you read in this article that might change the way you interact with adolescents in your sphere?
  • How will you do things differently bearing in mind the implications for practice?

Share your answers in the comments.


  1. Caskey M, Anfara VA. Developmental Characteristics of Young Adolescents: Research Summary [Internet]. Westerville OH: Association for Middle Level Education; 2014. Available from: 

© Griffith University
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