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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