National Academies: Adolescent Science Should Transform Systems

Posted August 2, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A new report highlights an extensive body of research on adolescent brain development

Are youth-serv­ing insti­tu­tions designed to sup­port ado­les­cents for suc­cess as adults? A com­pre­hen­sive report from the Nation­al Acad­e­mies of Sci­ences, Engi­neer­ing, and Med­i­cine says no, doc­u­ment­ing an exten­sive body of research on the impor­tance of ado­les­cent brain devel­op­ment and find­ing that sys­tems from edu­ca­tion to child wel­fare are ill-equipped to pro­vide what teenagers and young adults need.

The report, The Promise of Ado­les­cence: Real­iz­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ty for All Youth, was sup­port­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and sev­en oth­er part­ners in the Fun­ders for Ado­les­cent Sci­ence Trans­la­tion (FAST) col­lab­o­ra­tive, a diverse group of investors with a shared goal: to reduce inequities and pro­mote pos­i­tive devel­op­ment for ado­les­cents, using research as the cat­a­lyst for change.

This report shows that the ado­les­cent brain is per­fect­ly designed to do its job, to ful­fill its promise to grow and learn rapid­ly, right at the time a child is trans­form­ing into an adult,” said San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, Casey’s vice pres­i­dent for the Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inno­va­tion, who deliv­ered open­ing remarks at a launch event to release the report at the Nation­al Acad­e­mies head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It also shows we have a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to design more effec­tive sys­tems and equip prac­ti­tion­ers who work with young peo­ple to do so much better.”

The report is divid­ed into two main sec­tions. First, researchers review the sci­ence of brain devel­op­ment in ado­les­cence, a peri­od neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly defined as begin­ning at the start of puber­ty and extend­ing through the mid-20s. The report stress­es the rich devel­op­men­tal oppor­tu­ni­ty of these years: Changes in struc­ture, func­tion and con­nec­tiv­i­ty serve to prime the matur­ing ado­les­cent brain for explor­ing fron­tiers, tak­ing healthy risks, form­ing bonds with peers and adults and devel­op­ing their unique iden­ti­ty. The peri­od is also defined by a neur­al plas­tic­i­ty that allows young peo­ple to adapt to envi­ron­men­tal demands and demon­strate resilience when con­front­ed with adversity.

But social ills can con­strain this mal­leabil­i­ty. As young peo­ple, we are adapt­able to learn­ing and inno­va­tion, but the effects of tox­ic expo­sures, includ­ing struc­tur­al racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, can cause last­ing harm to our con­fi­dence and devel­op­ment of a pos­i­tive iden­ti­ty. The dual nature of the inter­play between biol­o­gy and the envi­ron­ment makes it all the more crit­i­cal that the sys­tems respon­si­ble for guid­ing kids into adult­hood get it right. As the report points out, the future con­di­tion of the brain and the body will be affect­ed by events that have changed the tra­jec­to­ry in the past, and inter­ven­tions under­tak­en in the present have the poten­tial to reme­di­ate past devel­op­men­tal challenges.”

The sec­ond sec­tion of the report out­lines the research committee’s rec­om­men­da­tions for how ado­les­cent-serv­ing sys­tems can improve their strate­gies to ensure oppor­tu­ni­ty for all youth, and espe­cial­ly those whose promise is severe­ly lim­it­ed by the dis­ad­van­tages — eco­nom­ic, social and struc­tur­al — that come hand in hand with racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion. The sug­gest­ed reforms are grouped accord­ing to four sys­tems: edu­ca­tion, health, child wel­fare and juve­nile justice.

Casey’s com­mit­ment to achiev­ing results for kids is ground­ed in its deep work in child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice. The report’s key rec­om­men­da­tions — which tell how child wel­fare and jus­tice sys­tems can bet­ter sup­port the teens and young adults they serve — include the following:

Child wel­fare and the ado­les­cent brain

  1. Reduce racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in child wel­fare sys­tem involvement.
  2. Pro­mote broad uptake by the states of fed­er­al pro­grams that pro­mote resilience and pos­i­tive out­comes for ado­les­cents involved in the child wel­fare system.
  3. Pro­vide ser­vices to ado­les­cents and their fam­i­lies in the child wel­fare sys­tem that are devel­op­men­tal­ly informed at the indi­vid­ual, pro­gram and sys­tem levels.
  4. Con­duct research that reflects the full range of ado­les­cents in the child wel­fare system.
  5. Fos­ter greater col­lab­o­ra­tion between the child wel­fare, juve­nile jus­tice, edu­ca­tion and health systems.
  6. Pro­vide devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate ser­vices for ado­les­cents who engage in non­crim­i­nal mis­con­duct with­out jus­tice-sys­tem involvement.

Juve­nile jus­tice and the ado­les­cent brain

  1. Reduce dis­par­i­ties based on race, eth­nic­i­ty, gen­der, abil­i­ty sta­tus, and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­ti­ty and expres­sion among ado­les­cents involved in the jus­tice system.
  2. Ensure that youth main­tain sup­port­ive rela­tion­ships while involved in the jus­tice sys­tem and receive appro­pri­ate guid­ance and coun­sel from legal pro­fes­sion­als and caregivers.
  3. Imple­ment poli­cies that aim to reduce harm to jus­tice-involved youth in accor­dance with knowl­edge from devel­op­men­tal science.
  4. Imple­ment devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate and fair poli­cies and prac­tices for ado­les­cents involved in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.
  5. For those youth in the cus­tody of the jus­tice sys­tem, ensure that poli­cies and prac­tices are imple­ment­ed to pri­or­i­tize the health and edu­ca­tion­al needs of ado­les­cents and avoid caus­ing harm.

The Promise of Ado­les­cence pro­vides a detailed, evi­dence-based roadmap for har­ness­ing the poten­tial of all young peo­ple,” says Jef­frey Poiri­er, a senior asso­ciate in Casey’s Research and Eval­u­a­tion unit and a mem­ber of the FAST col­lab­o­ra­tive. We have the infor­ma­tion on the sig­nif­i­cance of the neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal devel­op­ment of ado­les­cents; now that knowl­edge needs to be put to use through sys­tems reform and new inno­va­tion as well as research to fill gaps in our under­stand­ing about this crit­i­cal devel­op­men­tal period.”

Watch a video on brain gains and strains for young peo­ple in fos­ter care

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