I had the privilege last week to attend the Annual Adolescent Brian Development Symposium hosted by the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent. Quickly becoming one of my favorite gatherings a year, it is a powerful experience to gather with some of the nation’s top adolescent development researchers, policy experts, and practitioners to discuss not just what we know about the adolescent brain and adolescent development, but the implications of the science and research.
This year’s symposium focused on the intersection of brain development and public policy and engaged researchers and policy makers in discussions of where we have and have not leveraged research to change public policy.
I have written before about how we need to consider the intersections of multiple sciences (last time in terms of the arts and sciences of teaching) but was once again reminded of that key point. The last two panels of the day focused on juvenile justice and autonomy rights. It was fascinating (although not altogether shocking) to hear that policy makers have at times used the same science that moves us in positive directions to take us back. A specific example – the notion that the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed until 25 (though in reality it keeps growing throughout our lifetimes) can be an argument for not charging juvenile offenders as adults; that same argument can be used as reasoning to justify not allowing adolescents access to contraceptives without parental consent.
The science is true, but it is far more nuanced than the soundbites and quick talking points we often boil it down to. There are two things I took away from the symposium we can do to help us recognize the powerful tool that adolescent brain science provides and ensure that we’re delivering messages that help add to the collective pool of knowledge for policy makers rather than simply providing a point they can repeat and hold on to.
As one panelist put it, we must remember biology is not the only thing affecting brain development. While we are focusing on brain science we must also focus on social and behavioral sciences of adolescent brain development. We must use brain science in context to understand the opportunities and supports that young people need for their growth and development – strong relationships, opportunities for safe risk taking, opportunities for mattering, and more.
We must become continual students of not only the latest science but how to communicate it. The work of Frameworks Institute’s Reframing Adolescence and Adolescent Development is a great place to start, but we cannot simply memorize the talking points and be done. Brain science will evolve, as will our understanding of social and behavioral science, and of how this science is heard and used. As it does we must be ready and prepared to talk about it in new ways.