Putting a Developmental Approach Into Practice

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Having developmental competence means understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage. For adults working with young people, taking a developmental approach could lead to better outcomes for kids.

In fact, the National Research Council recently published a report calling a developmental approach the key to reforming juvenile justice. And four recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions were grounded in an understanding of the developmental changes in adolescents’ brains -- and state courts are following suit.

Yet the question remains: How do we convince adults who work with youth to take a developmental approach?

Strategies for Youth (SFY) have been promoting the idea of developmental competence as a solution. Just as daycare providers are trained to understand early childhood development, and must be certified and licensed before they are eligible to work in state daycare facilities, adults working with adolescents should, at a minimum, possess some level of knowledge about the stages of youth development.

To that end, SFY, working with psychologists and other experts, created a working definition of developmental competence:

Developmental Competence refers to the understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage.

Developmental competence is based on the premise that specific, sequential stages of neurological and psychological development are universal. Children and adolescents’ responses differ from adults because of fundamental neurobiological factors and related developmental stages of maturation.

A person who is developmentally competent recognizes that how children and youth perceive, process and respond to situations is a function of their developmental stage, and secondarily their culture and life experience. Developmentally competent adults align their expectations, responses, and interactions—as well as those of institutions and organizations—to the developmental stage of the children and youth they serve.

In order to become developmentally competent, an individual must:

  • Understand that children, adolescents, and adults interpret and respond differently to situations, social cues, interpersonal interactions, and the inherent power of adults, making them more vulnerable to external pressures and more compliant with authority
  • Apply this knowledge to enhance and improve interactions with children and youth
  • Adjust institutional responses to the developmental stage of the children and youth served

Developmental competence is different from cultural competence -- it is not based on value judgments about difference. Developmental competence has the advantage of being grounded in scientific, neurobiological and structural changes in human brains that are universal. It requires adults and institutions working with adolescents and teens to be aware and to be responsive to these biological and physical changes instead of reactively punishing them.

For example, SFY trains law enforcement officers in the rudiments of developmental competence. Officers leave these trainings with the recognition that arresting youth for normative behavior does not make the community safer or change youth conduct. At the conclusion of each training session, officers evaluate the training and tell us who else should receive it. Most reply with answers like parents, teachers, school administrators, attorneys, and “anyone who comes in contact with teens.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled on JDB v. North Carolina, directing law enforcement officers to take in to account what some state courts now call a “reasonable child” standard to determine when custody attaches and rights must be read to juvenile suspects. For the court, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

In short, officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.

It’s a bit shocking that this clarion call for “common sense” needed to be made in 2011.

But a glance at schools’ reasons for suspending youth, and at the 108 percent increase in “public disorder” arrests of youth since 1985, suggests that this education gap of adults is harming our youth and needs to be closed.

Perhaps a lack of developmental competence is an appropriate name for the deficiency adults working with adolescents need to correct. Perhaps this name could help us better meet the needs of those working to support youth, and to improve outcomes for all of our young people.

Strategies for Youth, Inc., is a national policy and training organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact.  

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