The Need for Developmental Competence for Adults working with Youth

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A New Mexico federal court judge recently received a complaint citing the following facts: a 13-year-old boy repeatedly belched in class.  While this was amusing to his pals, the teacher found it disruptive.

Unable to get the 13-year-old to stop, the teacher called the school resource officer. The officer refused to arrest the boy for belching, but the teacher insisted. The officer arrested the boy.

The media indicted the officer. The boy, fearing the loss of his status as a nationally ranked baseball player, fell apart. The mother removed her son from the school.

This lose-lose scenario is not unusual. At Strategies for Youth (SFY), an advocacy and training organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions, we hear of such cases two or three times a week.

For the adults involved, the result is frustration and defensiveness; for the youth involved, the result is trauma and distrust and the dangerous lesson that “might makes right.”  

Some incidents are resolved in court; many receive big headlines but little follow-up in the media. There are often calls for investigation, questions about racial bias, and further entrenchment of adversarial attitudes that lead to expensive and usually unhelpful extensions of anguish for most of, if not all, the parties involved.

We can do better.

In training police officers in best practices for working with youth, we have learned that a little bit of knowledge about how teens think can go a long way toward avoiding the escalation of minor incidents, reducing arrests and school suspensions.  

Other adults interacting with youth, including parents, teachers, and school administrators need this information and these tools, too.

Strategies for Youth has developed and promotes the concept of developmental competence.  In consultation with psychologists, psychiatrists, development experts, juvenile defense attorneys and police officers, SFY came up with the following defining characteristics of developmental competence:

-Understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage. 

-Cognizance of the fact that specific, sequential stages of neurological and psychological development are universal. Children and adolescents’ responses differ from adults because of fundamental neurobiological factors and related developmental stages of maturation.

-Recognition of how children and youth perceive, process and respond to situations is a function of their developmental stage, and secondarily of their culture and life experience.

-Alignment of expectations, responses, and interactions—as well as those of institutions and organizations—to the developmental stage of the children and youth they serve. 

Application of these concepts in that New Mexico classroom might have kept it out of the media and federal court process.  This is how the situation could have been resolved:

The teacher would have realized that the boy was aiming to impress his classmates by disrupting her teaching. She would have known that youth that age are motivated by peer status, and that self-image with peers often trumps the self-interest of avoiding trouble by obeying an authority figure. She would have offered the boy alternatives to respond to the situation, and advanced probable consequences if he persisted (detention after school, poor grade that prevents extracurricular participation in sports). She could have used the tried and true method of distraction, etc.

If these tactics were ineffective, the teacher might have relied on other adults, including the police officer, to break the escalating conflict, and to model how the boy needed to think through the situation. 

The simple imposition of a consequence for noncompliance ultimately created more problems than it solved in this situation.  Just as the power struggle between teacher and student proved ineffective, the partnering of the teacher and police officer similarly yielded poor results.  The boy chose to use his limited repertoire of coping skills (resist!) and his developmental tendency to  “go down in a blaze of glory” to  save face with his peers—rather than obey an adult asking him to stop belching.

SFY believes a developmentally competent approach helps adults in authority positions, particularly school staff and police, navigate with teens the complicated process of trying on different personalities and testing limits as they converge on adulthood.  As adults, recognizing what drives a young person’s behavior, and providing alternatives in a developmentally competent manner, increases the likelihood of teens choosing more appropriate strategies to plot a course through the complex demands of adolescence.

Thurau is the executive director of Strategies for Youth. Bostic is director of school psychiatry for Massachusetts General Hospital.