Teens are leading movements — it's time to promote policies that reflect youths' promise

Teens are leading movements — it's time to promote policies that reflect youths' promise
© Aaron Schwartz

Adolescents have our attention. Young people are leading transformative movements on climate change, gun control, police brutality and criminal justice that are reverberating in the halls of Congress and the White House.

This burst of political energy belies a deeper and more profound observation: Adolescence itself is a period of great promise. And with thoughtful policymaking at the local, state and federal levels, we can better realize its potential.

Extensive research conducted over the past decade illustrates that adolescents experience transformative cognitive, social and neurobiological changes during this period in their lives. They are primed to build lasting relationships with peers and adults, shape their identities, lead activist causes and recover from past adversity.

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With adolescents representing a quarter of the entire population in the United States, policies that harness their emerging creativity, independence and problem-solving skills can have transformative effects. That’s a message reinforced in a recently issued landmark study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Legislators at all levels, including the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, have an opportunity in the coming budget year to invest in programs and interventions that nurture the developmental opportunities of adolescence. 

In the process, we cannot lose sight of the fact that too many of our young people are unable to reap these developmental benefits due to severe economic, social and structural disadvantages — and the associated risks, pressures and stresses that come with them. These differences in opportunity lie at the root of enduring racial and socioeconomic disparities in academic attainment, mental health, economic security and even mortality rates, not only in adolescence, but well into adulthood.

As we invest in youth-serving systems and align them with what we know about adolescence, we must make sure they can also begin to address these core disparities. If we do not, we miss a critical opportunity to develop our nation’s human capital — and we also run the risk of deepening inequity.

Adolescence is a time when we can bolster our investments and elevate young people’s future trajectories – in health, education, employment and personal growth – for the better. This is a message that should have bipartisan appeal.

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Fortunately, decades of research have identified policies and programs that are proven to generate positive outcomes and can help reverse this trend, allowing all adolescents to flourish. 

With dedicated federal assistance and investments, states and localities should expand access to hands-on, applied curricula that nurture adolescents’ social-emotional and decision-making capabilities. And they can empower school and district leaders to build supportive school climates that prioritize long-lasting, meaningful adult relationships.

Our legislators can promote closer collaboration with health care providers in an effort to build an integrated, comprehensive system that enables all young people to access physical, behavioral and mental health supports during a critical period of their development.

In conjunction with local and state law enforcement, federal policymakers can fund promising practices that address enduring disparities in the justice system, which intensify during adolescence. From expanding access to supportive familial relationships and relevant educational experiences to reducing the use of solitary confinement, we can nurture teens’ healthy development.

By empowering our youth-serving systems with, and investing in, proven policies and practices that realize the often-unfulfilled promise of adolescence, we can strengthen the well-being of our nation as a whole.

Richard Bonnie is the Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. Joanna Lee Williams is an associate professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development. Bonnie chaired, and Williams served on, the 16-member committee that authored the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s latest consensus study on the promise of adolescence.