Inside the Adolescent Mind

By Leigh Glenn

person's profile with wavy lines coming out, clipboard, pen

Jamie Bennett, LMSW, ACC, a senior fellow at Case Commons, considers herself lucky. She spent her adolescence in foster care, until she aged out at 18. But the care was with family/grandparents, initially, then an aunt and uncle. Extraordinarily, she had one caseworker the entire time and found the support she needed during those years, which were critical for her development.

The statistics about youth aging out of foster care, based on the 2017 National Foster Youth Initiative, are not pretty. They suggest that these young people will have deeper challenges that impede long-term well-being, including fewer prospects for stable and meaningful employment; less likelihood of earning a college degree; greater risk for becoming pregnant before age 21; and increased risk for homelessness - not to mention ongoing direct effects of post-traumatic stress disorder for one-quarter of those who age out.

Yet, Bennett and those who helped develop NASW’s new training curriculum -- Integrating Adolescent Brain Development into Child Welfare Practice with Older Youth -- urge social workers and caregivers to see beyond the statistics and truly see the human beings they’re working with on a day-to-day basis. In fact, the training curriculum, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, with resources from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, offers a way for social workers and caregivers to do just that - by not only understanding neurological changes among adolescents, but also framing, or reframing, the way they listen and speak with people in this age group.

It’s one thing intellectually to know and understand brain changes among 12- to 23-year-old foster youth. But it’s another to put that knowledge into practice, says Joan Morse, MSW, an NASW consultant who led the curriculum development. The “greatest gift” of the curriculum, which comprises two days of training, (potentially longer for those who work on it at their own pace), is to give people in the field ways to apply what they learn, she says.

When it was time to settle on an undergraduate major, Bennett found it hard to choose between teaching and social work. Social work, particularly working with young people in foster care, ultimately won out, but her love of teaching lent itself to training others - and also segued naturally into coaching.

She appreciates how critical a time it is for foster youth hitting 18, because it’s generally when support from the system wanes, yet it’s also a key period for transitioning safely into adulthood. Important questions for young people arise, including, Where am I going to live - and how? How am I going to get food? What becomes of my dreams?

“The attention that is needed for young adults in general is an important thing for us to be doing,” Bennett says. “The experience of being in a system and transitioning can just be harder. Circumstances outside of their control make things really hard.”

Among the “circumstances” foster-care youth confront are the perceptions - and misperceptions - of adults, including social workers and caregivers. This is why, says Bennett, it’s so important to see young people as people, not as statistics.

“We do see a lot of abysmal statistics, and often we know those stats apply to many, but may not apply them to all,” she says. “The truth is, the statistics are just one part and the humans you’re working with have all sorts of amazing strengths to make it to this point. I would really invite all social workers not to stop at the statistics, but keep going to the human. Stay curious and open to learning about the person. The foster-care system is one experience among many that have shaped who they are. They are brilliant, capable, amazing and we can hold young people in our minds that way - as capable, skilled, resourceful and resilient - and know these strengths affect their ability to have successful outcomes.”

Rather than assuming they’re broken and in need of fixing, “we join in partnership with them,” she says. “We are there to be supportive, learn who they are, what they want, join them in walking towards what they want their life to look like.”

This may require an internal shift on the part of social workers, from thinking they need to figure out all the solutions to being the people who can support the young people, who can “walk alongside them and help them achieve their full potential,” says Bennett.

That “walking alongside” aspect may be a direct outcome of the way in which the training curriculum was developed, through a “participatory” approach by people from neuroscience, social work and education as well as young people themselves, says Morse. She expects that as more social workers who work with older foster youth come to use the information and resources from the training, they will find opportunities for creating a new narrative. “The whole point is to change the narrative around older youth in care, using brain science and positive youth development philosophy and youth-adult partnership as a way of doing that,” Morse says.

Feedback from social workers in the field who took part in a pilot program helped make it even more applicable, and that included deepening the focus on equity. From there, Morse and Bennett led a trainer training for 14, which, because of COVID-19, ended up being six weeks of Zoom meetings. They had planned to hold 90-minute meetings for the first and last sessions and four one-hour weeks in between, but participants asked that all the meetings be 90 minutes. Morse and Bennett also were available for “office hours,” where trainees could pose questions about implementing what they were learning. Now, there is a community of practice for trainers and considerations about how to continue to push forward in the work, Morse says.

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Early feedback has been positive. Tanya King, MSW, LICSW, LCSW-C, a clinical child welfare trainer for the Washington, D.C., government, came into the training already knowing that young people in out-of-home care “are many times misunderstood and overlooked because of their traumas and maladaptive responses to life’s hardships.” She learned this during six years as a social worker in child welfare. “It was apparent then that we needed to develop more clinical skills to understand and positively interact with our youth.”

The curriculum lacks jargon and heavy clinical terms, says King, and is easy to grasp. Plus, it offers “real-time exercises and skills that one can use when working with youth. Many times child welfare workers take trainings on adolescent brain development, but there is not enough time to actually learn practical skills that they can use with their youth. I believe this training offers many supports for workers to bridge a good balance and develop deeper understanding of the many dynamics that impact their work with youth.”

King said she has been able to integrate the training information into existing trainings on youth development. It’s also “offered me the opportunity to think on a broader level concerning the youth we serve and their needs. The information presented in the training is beneficial for all members of a child’s clinical treatment team.” King planned to deliver the training to the D.C. Child & Family Services Agency in November and December.

As director of Clinical Practice Initiatives for the Austin-based Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services (TACFS), a member organization representing about 140 community agencies across Texas that work with children and families, Brenda Keller, LCSW, often looks for opportunities that will help members more effectively serve the people with whom they work. Keller is especially interested in brain development, but hadn’t found a lot of information or training for working with adolescents - despite the knowledge that adolescents’ brains develop rapidly.

Like King, Keller appreciated the dynamism of the training, which approaches learners from different angles, including visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and encompasses self-reflection so that people taking the training have a way to challenge their own notions about adolescents.

“I am a social worker and I fundamentally believe in a strengths-based approach,” she says. “As a society, we tend to talk about adolescents in a negative way: ‘Ugh, teenagers. Aren’t they horrible?’ It really makes me sad. And I totally disagree. We as a society need to talk more positively about adolescents.”

“Especially with adolescents, we tend to devalue them,” Keller says. There’s a sense of, they’re young and you probably know better, because you’re making a lot of decisions on their behalf, but the training helps to mitigate against that.

“We have to switch that dynamic, to listen more and talk less, and sometimes we forget that,” she says. “This is the time for us to switch our approach to working with children in the adolescent years, to value their opinions and truly believe they have pretty good ideas about who they are and what they need. This curriculum emphasized that.”

One example of how this can work in day-to-day interactions with out-of-home adolescents would be to shift from a need to communicate with them because you need something from them to simply meet with them for no reason and with no agenda, Keller says. Instead of giving them five minutes at the end of whatever interaction is needed, the training suggests understanding the importance of and practicing sharing space with them, sitting with them, simply to build a relationship, even if it means sharing silence.

Considering all the brain changes, the flux in hormones and physiology, adolescents are “pretty cool” and they deserve to have their strengths shared with them, Keller says. Doing so elevates their “roles as experts in their own lives” and can help them recognize their own internal strengths, which they need then and will need in the future. Plus, you could provide one of the positive long-term relationships in their life, she says. “Take advantage of that and don’t take it lightly.”

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Keller typically travels a lot to visit members throughout Texas and to train trainers to facilitate further training so the information can be shared with more social workers. But COVID-19 altered those plans. TACFS purchased an online learning platform and Keller is incorporating the adolescent brain training curriculum into that, carving the courses into 45-minute mini lessons, with three, four or five related lessons so participants can learn the idea as well as a technique or strategy for putting the idea into practice. She plans to continue to do that until in-person training resumes.

Child services workers, harried even in the best of times, may have an even more challenging time getting the training they need because of COVID-19. That’s why having the ability to integrate the adolescent brain training curriculum into existing structures, rather than having to do it as a two-day, standalone training that requires time, budgeting and approval, makes it so helpful, says Joanna Crawford, training specialist at Salem-based Portland State University’s Child Welfare Partnership Training Unit, which trains new caseworkers for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

The training unit provides a four-day course covering various areas of working with children to meet their needs both in foster care and in the child-welfare system in general. Crawford says a lot of the adolescent brain training work is being integrated there.

Among her examples: The training’s inclusion of an interview with Sixto Cancel, CEO of Think of Us, represents the youth voice and helps introduce the ideal of relationship-building with adolescents as well as social capital; working as part of the adolescent’s team, which involves a handout and discussion, and can emphasize the importance of the shift from viewing the adolescents as an “object” in need of help to a “partner” with expertise in their own well-being and growth; and to move out of the mindset of having lower expectations for foster care adolescents, the training’s “letter to a child” - in which trainees write a letter about their hopes and dreams for their own children or children important to them - is meant to help stimulate having high hopes and dreams for youth as they age.

Another activity involves words that come to mind when thinking about adolescents. Crawford uses this in working with trainees on maltreatment’s effect on youth development and how too often what is considered normative and shaped in a negative light for children or youth in foster care who have experienced trauma. For example, many adolescents, not just those in foster care, often act out or experiment with different modes of behavior as their brains change.

Beyond training new workers, Crawford says they are talking about integrating the adolescent brain training concepts into curriculum offered to foster providers and advanced training for workers. That makes this kind of curriculum so helpful. “I cannot overestimate the importance of programs that understand that we all benefit from open access to information and tools that make the lives better of our families and partners we serve,” she says.

Bennett said she appreciates the way Morse helped create opportunities in the training for self-reflection, which is key to making room for compassion. Social workers can then extend the benefit of that to the older youth they’re working with.

“It would be amazing to talk with young people about what they’ve learned,” she says. “’You felt you were flipping your lid. That’s part of who you are right now. ’There is power in that knowledge. ‘Broken? Sick? No, you’re just 17 and had some experiences that mean you might feel this way and that’s okay.’”

As part of her doctoral work in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla., Bennett is developing practice modules for older youth from foster care and is already seeing benefits. She can relate. A couple of decades ago, the brain science was not there to support what was actually normal behavior and normal reactions, including a sense that when something goes awry, they can’t regulate themselves. Their prefrontal cortex is “not fully online yet,” she can say, and then they can talk about what’s happening in the young person’s life in the context of where they are, brain-wise.

Unsigned feedback from others who’ve taken the training suggests that such information, while already forming part of adolescent welfare workers’ knowledge, became clearer and, thanks to the various exercises, more useful and usable in the “real world” settings of their work with youth and families. If anything, one participant noted, there could be even more practice and, among social workers taking part in the training, more opportunities to share whether and how they’ve experienced the kinds of situations that arise with youth in their care.

Related Resources

The Adolescent Brain: New Research and Its Implications for Young People Transitioning from Foster Care
This 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report outlines research findings on adolescent brain development and the implications for young people aging out of foster care.

Integrating Adolescent Brain Development into Child Welfare Practice with Older Youth
This NASW curriculum was informed in part by "The Adolescent Brain" report above.

The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Practice With Adolescent Brain Development
This Annie E. Casey Foundation report includes the influence of race and ethnicity on the formative experiences of young people.