Turning Brain “Strains” Into “Gains” for Adolescents in Foster Care

Posted August 30, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog turningbrainstrains 2017

A new video, Pro­mot­ing Brain Gains for Youth Emerg­ing From Fos­ter Care,” dis­cuss­es ado­les­cent brain devel­op­ment and ways child wel­fare sys­tems inhib­it or encour­age oppor­tu­ni­ties for the suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to adult­hood. The ani­mat­ed primer sum­ma­rizes top­ics explored in a recent report by the Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive™: The Road to Adult­hood: Align­ing Child Wel­fare Prac­tice with Ado­les­cent Brain Devel­op­ment.

A thor­ough under­stand­ing of neu­ro­log­i­cal devel­op­ment in ado­les­cence should inform poli­cies and prac­tices for young peo­ple tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care to adult life,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, direc­tor of the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive. It’s from ado­les­cence through our mid-20s that we learn to devel­op healthy rela­tion­ships, take risks, make impor­tant deci­sions and accept responsibility.”

Ado­les­cents in fos­ter care often expe­ri­ence strains” that tax their rapid­ly devel­op­ing brains. These inhibit­ing fac­tors include the con­tin­u­ing effects of child­hood adver­si­ty and trau­ma, fre­quent moves among fos­ter homes and schools and leav­ing fos­ter care with­out a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly or adult con­nec­tion. For young peo­ple of col­or, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in fos­ter care and expe­ri­ence poor­er out­comes than their white peers in child wel­fare sys­tems, typ­i­cal ado­les­cent risk tak­ing is often criminalized.

Yet neu­ro­science shows there are ways of heal­ing past trau­ma and turn­ing brain strains” into brain gains” for ado­les­cents in fos­ter care. Rec­om­men­da­tions from the video and the report include ensur­ing that young peo­ple in fos­ter care gain skills and expe­ri­ence in such areas as man­ag­ing mon­ey, learn­ing to dri­ve and par­tic­i­pat­ing in plan­ning and deci­sion mak­ing about their own lives.

Young brains thrive on rewards,” says Vee Gar­ri­son, a Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive Young Fel­low and the nar­ra­tor of the video. When young peo­ple have pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences like these and suc­ceed, the ado­les­cent brain’s active reward cen­ter kicks in to rein­force those expe­ri­ences by wiring more con­nec­tions and giv­ing a young per­son courage and con­fi­dence to achieve even more.”

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