Integrating Adolescent Brain Development Into Child Welfare Practice with Older Youth

collage of different adolescents

Learn how the adolescent brain continues to develop, and how that knowledge can provide guidance on how social workers and other practitioners work with older youth, especially those who experience the child welfare system.

This initiative was supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and draws from several resources developed through the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

Training Curriculum Provides Guidance to Change Child Welfare Practice

The curriculum, Integrating Adolescent Brain Development into Child Welfare Practice with Older Youth, was created by NASW to train child welfare workers to incorporate this information into their practice. Social workers, as well as others who work in child welfare, parents and foster parents may find this information valuable. In addition, practitioners working with adolescents in behavioral health, health, juvenile justice and school settings may benefit from the information contained in the curriculum. Social work faculty may find the information provided useful to infuse into courses on child welfare practice, working with adolescents, and human behavior and the social environment, among other courses. The curriculum combines findings from brain science research and knowledge related to trauma, implicit bias, and building social capital to promote strategies for practitioners to more effectively work with older youth who experience the child welfare system.

About the Curriculum

You may download the curriculum, audio and videos, handouts and PowerPoint slides . In addition, links to several resources developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation are included here and are important companion readings to the curriculum.  

You can watch a webinar to learn more about the curriculum and related resources on NASW's Social Work Online CE Institute. You can use the materials as a self-study , and earn continuing education units (CEUs) from NASW by studying the curriculum, listening to the related audios and videos, using the handouts and reading the Annie E. Casey report, The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Systems with Adolescent Brain Development.

  • The curriculum includes 13 modules, covering adolescent development, adolescent brain science and its implications for working with older youth, including healing from trauma. Modules also cover positive youth development and strategies for changing practice. The format includes didactic information as well as large and small group discussions and exercises as well as self-assessment materials. There are accompanying handouts and worksheets as well as PowerPoint slides. There are also links to several audios and videos embedded into the curriculum as well as links to Annie E. Casey Foundation and NASW relevant resources.
  • The curriculum is built on the learning concept that it not only provides knowledge and understanding, but also provides activities to learn how to apply them.
  • If using the curriculum in full, it was developed as a two-day in-person training, with 12 hours of training materials. It can be adapted for on-line learning, and content can be infused into current courses on working with older youth.
  • Handouts and PowerPoint slides are included with the materials.
  • It is recommended that those who use the curriculum also read The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Systems with Adolescent Brain Development.
  • The learning objectives for using these materials are: To become knowledgeable about adolescent brain development and its influences on adolescent thinking and behavior; to learn how to engage adolescents in understanding the impact of their life experiences on them and to promote positive youth development; and to identify how trauma affects brain development and impacts learning.

Quick Facts About Older Youth in Foster Care

According to the National Foster Youth Initiative (2017):

  • Each year more than 23,000 children will age out of the U.S. foster care system.
  • After reaching the age of 18, 20% of the youth who were in foster care will become instantly homeless
  • Only one of every two foster children who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by the age of 24.
  • There is less than a 3% chance that children who have aged out of foster care will earn a college degree at any point in their life.
  •  Seven out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21.
  • The percentage of children who age out of the foster care system and still suffer from the direct effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is 25%.
  • In 2015, states failed to reunite more than 20,000 young people with their families or place them in permanent homes.

Older youth in foster care often miss out on opportunities for stable schooling and friendships, may experience frequent moves, and may have limited opportunities for having the role models, social supports and relationships that can lead to positive youth development.

The experiences of past traumas, coupled with a child welfare system that may make decisions for the youth rather than with the youth, as well as the implicit bias of child welfare workers and other “helpers,” as well as the institutional racism that exists within the child welfare system – are challenging for older youth in their desire to be successful and productive adults.

Research indicates that former foster youth may struggle with decision-making and problem solving; may have to make decisions quickly, without learning how to consider options; and may experience stigmatization on college campuses. Yet, these young adults are motivated to break the cycle of poverty and want to change their projected long-term outcomes to prove that they are successful, despite a difficult childhood (Lovitt & Emerson, 2008; Olson, Scherer & Cohen, 2017; Tobolowsky,  Madden & Scannapieco, 2017; Unrau, Font & Rawls, 2012).

Young people leave the foster care system lacking permanent connections, without reaching their academic goals, often facing housing and economic insecurity, and in some instances, as young parents. Unlike their peers who have family, support systems, and opportunities to experience life while feeling protected, an older foster youth’s transition into adulthood can be daunting and difficult. Unfortunately, while in foster care, youth often do not develop long-lasting permanent connections and are not given growth opportunities to take risks, accept responsibilities or make important decisions that help to shape a young person. This, coupled with a lack of resources, leaves young people unprepared to go out on their own. Opportunities to experience normal adolescent experiences are critical to development.

We can help change the trajectory of outcomes for older youth in care and who are aging out of foster care by applying what we learn from science and integrating those findings into child welfare practice.

Quick Facts About Adolescent Brain Development

Adolescent brain development both shapes and is shaped by the larger experiences, relationships and environments in which young people exist. Important information about adolescent brain development is included in the Annie E. Casey Foundation report, The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Systems with Adolescent Brain Development. Drawing from that report, we provide a snapshot about the developing adolescent brain:

  • Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that develops during adolescence into our mid-20s. Located right behind the forehead, it houses what we refer to as executive functions including the ability to control impulses, regulate emotions, engage in introspection, plan ahead, focus attention, and think critically.
  • Neuroplasticity is the ability of humans to mold their own brains through thinking, planning, learning and acting. This malleability, especially prevalent during adolescence, means that our brains are changing shape in response to the experiences and interactions we have when we are adolescents.
  • Malleability in the brain means that it can be rewired during adolescents to heal from past trauma.
  • Neural Integration is the ability of the brain to have the different regions of the brain connect to each other. The experiences that adolescents have impacts this neural integration – with accomplishments, affirmation, strong positive relationships having a positive impact on this neural integration.
  • Three major systems of brain development are active during adolescence – regulation, relationships and rewards:
    * Regulation relates to achieving a balance between dopamine (the pleasure chemical) flooding the brain and positive experiences can help in learning and critical thinking.
    * Relationships relates to adolescents’ heightened arousal in the part of the brain that is sensitive to social acceptance and rejection, thus learning more from peers and friends.
    * Adolescents benefit from reward-based learning rather than punishment

This period of brain development provides a critical opportunity for child-serving systems to help young people in foster care to grow through learning new capabilities, and to heal from traumas that they have previously experienced. Child welfare professionals on the front lines are in the unique position to promote healthy adolescent brain development while youth are in care, providing them a safe environment to reduce risky behavior that can jeopardize healthy development.

Child welfare practice can acknowledge and embrace the power of adolescent brain development to promote better outcomes for young people in foster care. Even though many child welfare systems are keeping young people beyond the age of 18, allowing extra time to provide youth with support during this significant time of brain development, we need to do more to provide the life opportunities that will help these young adults thrive in adulthood.


The Adolescent Brain: New Research and its Implications for Young People Transitioning from Foster Care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2011

Foster Youth Who Have Succeeded in Higher Education: Common Themes, Lovitt, B.T., & Emerson, J., NCSET Information Brief, 2008, National Center of Secondary Education and Transition

Useful Aging Out of Foster Care Statistics, National Foster Youth Initiative, 2017

Decision-making of emerging adults aging out of foster care, Olson, A., Scherer, D.G., & Cohen, A.L. Child and Youth Services Review, 82, 81-86, 2017

Living on the edge: The postsecondary journeys of foster care alumni, Tobolowsky, B.F., Madden, E.E., and Scannapieco, M., College Student Affairs Journal, 35 (1), 1-15, 2017

Readiness for college engagement among students who have aged out of foster care, Unrau, Y.A., Font, S.A., & Rawls, G., Children and Youth Services Review, 34 (1), 76 -83, 2012

This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Association of Social Workers Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of these foundations.

Annie E. Casey Foundation Report on the Adolescent Brain

From The Adolescent Brain: New Research and its Implications for Young People Transitioning from Foster Care:  "Adolescents must take on distinct developmental tasks in order to move through emerging adulthood and become healthy, connected and productive adults – and young people in foster care often lack the supports needed to complete these tasks."

Read "The Adolescent Brain"


NASW would like to acknowledge the contributions of Joan Morse, Jamie Bennett and Alexandra Lohrbach to the development of this curriculum. We also thank Sixto Cancel for his audio recording and are grateful to Dr. Octavia Fugerson, Nyeelah Inniss, Maria Garin Jones and Dr. Abyssinia Washington Tabron for providing invaluable feedback as part of the curriculum design committee.

A Poem: The Foster Adolescent

Inspired by the Integrating Adolescent Brain Development into Child Welfare Practice with Older Youth training, Cynthia Henderson, PhD, LICSW, LCSW-C, NASW Senior Practice Associate for School Social Work and Child Welfare penned this poem.