Developmental Competency: Putting a Developmental Approach into Practice

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Co-authored by:
Lisa H. Thurau, Executive Director, Strategies for Youth, Inc.
Amanda Petteruti, Senior Research Associate, Justice Policy Institute

A group of teenagers has been standing outside the Metro stop for the last two hours. They’re talking, laughing, passing around a cigarette, and sharing an iPod. Officer Johnson is aware that people are not supposed to be loitering outside the Metro and given recent concerns about teenagers stealing electronics, he thinks it’s time they move on. If nothing else, they might be a target of theft themselves.

He starts walking in their direction with his wrist resting absentmindedly on his holster. When he gets close, he crosses his arms across his chest, tries to look as authoritative as possible, and says “You guys have been here long enough. It’s time for you to leave.” 

To an adult, the police officer’s assessment of the situation and reaction might seem reasonable, but to a young person, it may be threatening and confusing. The result of this interaction could easily be an angry exchange of words, physical escalation, and an arrest or injury of one or more of the parties involved. The 109 percent increase in “public disorder” arrests of youth since 1985 provide ample evidence that this dissonance in youth and adult understanding is real.

Paradigm Shift

An overwhelming body of empirical research in psychology and biology has shown that a young brain processes and responds to stimuli differently than an adult, therefore, creating very different reactions. The National Research Council recently released a study saying that adolescents are “less able to regulate their own behavior in emotionally charged contexts…more sensitive to peer pressure and immediate rewards…[and] show less ability to make judgments and decisions that require future orientation.”

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court has written four different opinions citing research documenting the differences in how teen brains perceive and process information. The 2011 decision, JDB v. North Carolina, directs law enforcement to take into account what some state courts now call a “reasonable child” standard to determine when custody attaches and rights must be read to juvenile suspects.

It may be widely accepted and seem painfully obvious that anyone working with young people should take a developmental approach in their interactions, but it is less clear how a person working on the ground operationalizes it. While young people bear a responsibility to be respectful toward other people, the reality is that they are learning how to function effectively in society and challenging authority is part of the process towards functioning independently.

It is therefore all the more important that adults be effective teachers who understand how to make their case—be it compliance, redirection or description of consequences—in a way that youth hear.

Defining the Solution

Strategies for Youth has taken a first step in working with psychologists and other experts to help police, correctional officers, and anyone that interacts with youth to put the science into practice. Developmental Competence is a succinct, accessible concept that is the basis for training that SFY has delivered to police officers across the country. Just as daycare providers are trained to understand early childhood development, and must be certified and licensed before they are eligible to work in daycare facilities, adults interacting with adolescents in any capacity should possess some level of knowledge about youth development.

Developmental Competence is:

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

  • Based on the premise that specific, sequential stages of neurological and psychological development are universal. All children and adolescents’ responses differ from adults because of fundamental neurobiological factors and related developmental stages of maturation.

  • Including culture and life experience in an individual young person’s interactions with the world.

In order to become developmentally competent, an individual must:

  • Understand that children, adolescents, and adults interpret and respond differently to situations, social cues, interpersonal interactions, and the inherent power of adults, making them more vulnerable to external pressures and more compliant with authority;

  • Apply this knowledge to enhance and improve interactions with children and youth; and

  • Adjust institutional responses to the developmental stage of the children and youth served.

Unlike cultural competence, developmental competence is not based on value judgments about difference. Rather, it is grounded in scientific, neurobiological and structural changes in human brains that are universal. It requires adults and institutions working with young people to be aware and to be responsive to these biological and physical changes instead of reactively punishing them.

Better Outcomes for Youth—And Officers

Increasing Officer Johnson’s developmental competence may have resulted in a very different interaction. First, he’d know that young people have far fewer places to talk, laugh, and share a cigarette than adults. Standing around the Metro may be less about mischief and more about a need for a safe place to hang out. Secondly, he’d know that teenagers are interested in impressing their friends and are quick to react to an emotionally charged situation without processing the consequences. Officer Johnson might have tried a friendly and yet firm explanation and suggestion of alternative venue. Everyone might have gotten a resolution that felt respectful and calm, with a little developmental competence.

Lisa H. Thurau, Esq.Lisa H. Thurau founded Strategies for Youth, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy and training organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions, in 2009. From 1999 to 2008, she served as policy specialist and then as Managing Director of the Juvenile Justice Center of Suffolk Law School. There, she focused on public policy advocacy on behalf of court-involved teens. She monitored juveniles’ civil rights issues regarding police treatment, tracked trends in the Center’s cases, monitored and challenged legislation affecting youth in the juvenile justice system.

Amanda Petteruti is a Senior Research Associate at the Justice Policy Institute. She recently served as a program analyst with the Office of Research and Evaluation with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice agency. Prior to working at DYRS, she served in a number of different positions with the Justice Policy Institute, including serving as Associate Director responsible for the nonprofit’s operations and research. She has conducted research on issues pertaining to urban education at the Council of the Great City Schools, organized a writing program for youth at the National Campaign to Stop Violence, and worked with the National Juvenile Defender Center.