The New Science of Adolescent Development
The new science of adolescent development: why it’s important for public health
I have been working in the area of adolescent health recently – mostly in the context of innovations focused on life skills education (actually, sex education). I am really enjoying figuring out how to best reach these kids (you can read more about my work in this area here, and here)
And it seems like a worthwhile effort. If your goal is social and behavioural change – it makes sense to take some time to understand child and adolescent development. Recent research has found that adolescence is a time of increased “brain plasticity” – making it a crucial time to ensure a person’s future health, success and happiness. If you get things right at adolescence, then the person should be set. In India, working with adolescents provides an opportunity to prevent early marriage and early pregnancies; improve nutritional status for both adolescents and - later - their children; teach more positive gender norms to prevent violence against women; and provide life and livelihood skills to prevent poverty.
I found the book “Age of Opportunity” by Laurence Steinberg through a New Yorker review – and ordered it right away to help me get a sense of what strategies work with this age group. It’s about adolescent development, drawing from psychology and neuropsychology. Most of the evidence comes from the US, but we get enough information about socio-economic and cultural influences on human development to be able to figure out how it might apply elsewhere.
What did I learn? First and foremost, school based health education does not work to reduce risk behaviours such as unsafe sex and drug-abuse. While knowledge increases, adolescents typically do not have the self-regulation skills to turn that knowledge into good decision-making. Well I knew that already, but it was good to read it again. This is why we need innovative approaches to health education, and this is why I have been so busy.
Furthermore, the pleasure sensation they derive from taking risks is greater than it is for adults, so there’s a greater lure toward bad decisions. I still remember the taste of cake and chocolate and other junky food from when I was a teenager – nothing has ever tasted so good since (I thought somehow all food had just deteriorated in quality). One of the most important sites for intervention is to support better and more authoritative parenting by encouraging a warm, firm, and supportive approach.
Also adolescent judgement and decision making is far more influenced by the social and emotional context than for adults. This means that rather than giving adolescents information, it’s more helpful to change the behavioural context – for example through improved parenting, changing policies (for example, strengthening prohibition of sale of alcohol to adolescents).
What else works? Strategies that teach adolescents self-regulation. For example, asking adolescents to write down their goals, then imagine barriers to reaching their goal, and developing a strategy to overcome these barriers – means adolescents are much more likely to reach their goals. Other strategies can include yoga, meditation, team sports and exercises that increase working memory.