How does adolescence offer a second chance to vulnerable teenager

As you read this, a teen somewhere is making a decision they may regret for the rest of their lives, one with high costs for their, their families and their communities. Joining a gang or a terrorist organization or committing a serious crime.Every teen everywhere faces a turbulent transition to adulthood: the rapid development of identity, blossoming of emotions and onset of puberty. Neuroscientists explain the turbulence as caused by asymmetrical adolescent brain development. The socio-emotional processing system starts to respond to incentives and provocations from the early teens, but the cognitive control system, which is needed to filter those decisions is not fully developed until the early twenties.[1]

Over the past twenty years, there has been good news and bad news in research on adolescence. The bad news is that many more children than we ever thought before are entering adolescence with broken childhoods characterized by heartbreaking adverse experiences: abuse, neglect and dysfunctional parenting driven by addiction, violence or unaddressed mental health issues. This is multiplied further in areas affected by conflict, crime, and poverty. Science shows that the more adversity experienced in childhood the more difficult it is for the adolescent to navigate his or her way around the opportunities and risks they face and to make sensible decisions that don’t harm them or their communities.

The good news from neuroscience is the discovery of neuro-plasticity — that teenagers can strengthen the performance of their “executive function”, the part of the brain that coordinates behavior, choice and reaction, through learning non-cognitive or character skills. Thus, as much as adolescence is fraught with risk and possible lifelong consequences, it can also provide a second chance to get teens back on track to lead a stable, fulfilling and happy life.

To divert for a moment from vulnerable children to all children, character skills are increasingly recognized in many countries as being as critical as IQ in determining academic and lifelong success for all. They are seen as essential for long-term economic competitiveness and socio-economic development and are being mainstreamed in K through 12 education. Character skills include instrumental skills such as optimism, curiosity, motivation, perseverance and self-control that drive overall performance in school and life. But they also include integrity and locally-determined values that ensure performance is harnessed to the common good and can contribute to shared expectations and values within communities.

In Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam’s recent best seller ‘Our Kids – the American Dream in Crisis’ on inter-generational poverty and the decline in social mobility, he reviewed all of the recent American studies on childhood and concluded that in addition to the impact of poor nutrition and material poverty on children’s life chances, parenting and schooling had a massive impact: “Well educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent and self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline, obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.” [2]

Whether talking about teenage ‘child soldiers’ in war-ravaged, poverty stricken countries, or abuse victims, or gang members in high-income countries, we need to look beyond obvious interventions that tackle material poverty or provide vocational learning or housing. If traumatic childhoods have left them with a chaotic and untrusting view of the world — they will find it very hard to hold down a job, or maintain a house, or build healthy relationships. We need to complement material interventions with the development of the type of character skills that will help them become more autonomous, self-directed and build more self-esteem to make good choices.

In Montenegro we have joined forces with Birmingham University to support the Ministry of Education in developing character education in schools and within a global partnership with ING to support the development of such skills with especially vulnerable youth in a non-school setting. This includes young people leaving state care, Roma and other minority children, and young people in conflict with the law.

Character education is only one part of a range of interventions that are needed to help young people get back on track. Vocational training, support for accessing basic health and other services and even psychological therapy are also essential. But character — skills including integrity — are an essential part of the jigsaw. While there is now a strong global investment case that public funds in early childhood promote positive life outcomes and long-term competitiveness, adolescence is our second — and perhaps last —chance to harness the public good to ensure our most vulnerable teenagers build better lives — and eventually better societies. Let’s not waste that chance.

Benjamin Perks is the UNICEF Representative in Montenegro.

[1] The Influence of Neuroscience on US Supreme Court Decisions about Adolescents Criminal Culpability. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Laurence Steinberg. 2013
[2] P199. Our Kids-the American Dream in Crisis Robert D Putman Simon and Schuster

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