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How Can Schools Support Adolescent Students?


Think back to your middle school experience. Do the words “awkward,” “angsty,” and “misunderstood,” come to mind? It’s no wonder that adolescence is often considered a difficult and complicated age. But given that adolescents make up nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population, not understanding and serving the needs of young people in this stage of life is not an option.

Scientific research on what happens in the body and brain during this critical developmental stage can be used to create settings and systems that support adolescents as they grow, develop, and learn. But how?

The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth, a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) provides important research and recommendations for how educators, school and districts leaders, and others can capitalize on these developmental changes to promote learning and address inequities in education, health care, child welfare, and the juvenile justice system.

Understanding that Adolescence is a Window of Opportunity

During adolescence, the period of life between the ages of 10 to 25, changes in the body and brain create a unique opportunity for positive, life-shaping development, and for recovering from past adversity, explains the NASEM report—a finding that confirms All4Ed’s own work in the Science of Adolescent Learning. See Science of Adolescent Learning: How Body and Brain Development Affect Student Learning.

Extensive scientific research over the past several decades has laid a foundation for understanding for this critical time period. The report boils down this research into several key “guiding principles” that should serve as a basis for policies and practices across systems that support adolescents.

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Exploring How Disparities Impact Adolescents

“For many youth in our country, the promise of adolescence is severely curtailed by economic, social, and structural disadvantage and, in all too many cases, by racism, bias, and discrimination,” write report authors. These disadvantages can cause a lack of access to opportunities and expose adolescents to excess risks, stresses, and demands.

“The unfortunate truth is that these striking differences in opportunity are associated with striking differences in outcomes—in health, safety, well-being, and educational and occupational attainment—and in trajectories over the life course.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. During a panel event for the report launch, Sixto Cancel, a Jim Casey Initiative Youth Fellow, shared his powerful personal story of growing up in foster care. “When systems fail, we are talking about young people not even making it to full adulthood,” he said.

Unfortunately, the data in the report supports Cancel’s statement, showing that:

When it comes educational outcomes, the data shows that only 25 percent of fourth grade students that qualify for free lunch are proficient in math, compared with 57 percent of paid-lunch students. As demonstrated in the graph below, there are also major disparities in the math proficiency of students across racial groups and an overall decline in proficiency with increasing grade level.

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Committing to Systemic Change

Although the numbers are disheartening, the research also acknowledges that these disparities can be overcome with the proper support. Because of the circumstances of their developmental period, adolescents are resilient and demonstrate strengths and assets that can be used strategically to overcome inequities, explain report authors. They point to promising policies and programs that address the root causes of these inequities, such as tools that erase bias in decision-making, programs that address disparities in income, wealth, and neighborhood resources, and trauma-informed training for adults that serve youth.

There are also important implications for the education system. The report authors provide recommendations for state and federal education agencies and school districts in several key areas, including:  

Within the report, each of these areas are accompanied by concrete action steps that when taken together, “form a blueprint for a developmentally-informed secondary education system.”

Trusting That All Adolescence Have Promise

“Promise means someone who has the quality of potential excellence,” explained Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president for the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, at the report launch. Approaching young people from this perspective can elicit high intellectual performances, especially from under-achieving and historically underserved students. “How will we change how we talk about who has promise and who doesn’t?” Gasca-Gonzalez prompted.

Understanding and committing to the promise of adolescence means that systems must change to better serve the needs of this growing age group. But it also requires that individuals in all roles in an adolescent’s life—including teachers, parents, principals, and even health providers—believe in their potential.

This is perhaps best said by Angela Marie Casarez, a student and artist at Stanford University, who challenged the audience at the report launch to reframe the narrative around adolescence. She asked that we trust that all adolescents have potential, and know that when given equitable opportunities, young people will succeed.

Highlights, summaries, slides and more are available here: The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth.

Also, check out this interactive resource of the report’s findings.

Featured Image by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action .

Caroline Waldman is the communications and social media manager at All4Ed.