The changes in brain structure and connectivity that occur between the ages of 10 and 25 present adolescents with unique opportunities for positive, life-shaping development, and for recovering from past adversity, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth provides recommendations for capitalizing on these opportunities, and for addressing inequities – in education, health care, child welfare, and the juvenile justice system – that undermine the well-being of many adolescents and leave them less able to take advantage of the promise offered by this stage of life.
“The adolescent brain undergoes a remarkable transformation that underpins amazing advances in learning and creativity,” said Richard Bonnie, Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “As a society, we bear a collective obligation to unleash the creativity of the adolescent brain while cushioning adolescents from experiences that could endanger their future well-being.”
Adolescents make up nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population. While the malleable brains of adolescents are adaptable to learning and innovation, they are also vulnerable to detrimental exposures, ranging from alcohol or drug use to the stresses of growing up in dangerous neighborhoods. Adolescents also face varied access to opportunities and supports, which contributes to long-standing disparities measurable by race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, LGBTQ status, and ability status. “Too many adolescents are being left behind at this critical stage of development because their families, schools, and neighborhoods lack the resources they need to overcome adversity and flourish,” Bonnie observed. “We need to close the opportunity gap among adolescents in our country.”
Differences in opportunity are associated with striking differences in adolescent outcomes. For example, the report says poor children develop more chronic conditions as they age compared with their counterparts, and black youth ages 10 to 24 have mortality rates roughly 50 percent higher than white and Latino youth, driven mainly by differences in rates of death by homicide. In education, 19 percent of black students are proficient in math compared with 51 percent of white students and 26 percent of Latino students. In the juvenile justice system, black youth are detained at a rate six times higher than white youth and three times higher than Latino youth.
Disparities in adolescent outcomes are not immutable, however. They are responsive to changes in underlying conditions, and adolescents themselves show resilience and demonstrate strengths and assets that may be used to overcome inequities.
The Education System
Changes in our understanding of adolescence, together with major changes in the labor market, require rethinking and modernizing a public school system that was largely designed for early 20th century life. Today’s increasingly knowledge-based economy requires a mindset of learning, malleability, and expectation for growth and improvement.
The report’s recommendations highlight six key areas in which state and federal agencies as well as school districts should implement changes:
- Rectify disparities in resources for least-advantaged schools and students.
- Design purposeful but flexible pathways through education.
- Teach practical knowledge and nonacademic skills, such as decision-making, adaptability, and psychosocial skills.
- Protect the overall health and well-being of each student.
- Foster culturally sensitive learning environments.
- Help adolescents and families navigate the education sector.
The Health System
Access to appropriate health care services is important to ensure adolescents’ well-being today and for a lifetime, particularly as they develop habits that will affect their long-term health.
The committee’s recommendations draw on research to identify effective health policies, programs, and practices that can be implemented at the federal, state, and local levels to help mobilize both the public and private sectors:
- Strengthen financing of health care services for adolescents, including insurance coverage for uninsured and under-insured populations.
- Improve access to comprehensive, integrated, coordinated health services for adolescents.
- Increase access to behavioral health care and treatment services.
- Improve the training and distribution and increase the number of adolescent health care providers.
- Improve federal and state data collection on adolescent health and well-being, and conduct adolescent-specific health services research and disseminate the findings.
The Justice System
Over the past 15 years, advances in the science of adolescent development have had a substantial impact on juvenile justice reform. However, despite decades of attention under federal law, racial and ethnic disparities in police, prosecutorial, and judicial decision-making persist, and in some cases are increasing.
The committee recommended that the following be implemented at the congressional, state, and local levels:
- Reduce disparities based on race, ethnicity, gender, ability status, and sexual orientation or gender identity and expression among adolescents involved in the justice system.
- Ensure that youth maintain supportive relationships while involved in the justice system and receive appropriate guidance and counsel from legal professionals and caregivers.
- Implement policies that aim to reduce harm to justice-involved youth in accordance with knowledge from developmental science.
- Implement developmentally appropriate and fair policies and practices for adolescents involved in the criminal justice system.
- Ensure that policies and practices are implemented to prioritize the health and educational needs of adolescents in the custody of the justice system and avoid causing harm.
The Child Welfare System
Over the past two decades, Congress has gradually enacted statutory changes that better align the child welfare system with the developmental milestones and challenges adolescents face, including focusing attention on family reunification, prioritizing placement with relatives over strangers, and providing services for adolescents aging out of foster care.
These are significant advances, but additional efforts at the federal, state, and local levels are needed to ensure that all adolescents involved with the child welfare system have the opportunity to flourish. The committee’s six key areas of recommendations are:
- Reduce racial and ethnic disparities in child welfare system involvement.
- Encourage broad uptake by the states of federal programs that promote resilience and positive outcomes for adolescents involved in the child welfare system.
- Provide services to adolescents and their families in the child welfare system that are developmentally informed at the individual, program, and system levels.
- Conduct research that reflects the full range of adolescents in the child welfare system.
- Provide developmentally appropriate services for adolescents who engage in noncriminal misconduct without justice system involvement.
- Foster greater collaboration between the child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and health systems.
The report also recommends that future research investments in adolescence should support efforts that deepen our knowledge of the processes of adolescent development, examine the socio-environmental context that offer opportunities for flourishing, and understand and combat inequities that curtail the promise of adolescence.
The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Neurobiological and Socio-behavioral Science of Adolescent Development and Its Applications — was sponsored by the Funders for Adolescent Science Translation, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bezos Family Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ford Foundation, Hilton Foundation, National Public Education Support Fund, Raikes Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit nationalacademies.org.