Putting a Developmental Approach Into Practice

Having developmental competence means understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage. For adults working with young people, taking a developmental approach could lead to better outcomes for kids.

In fact, the National Research Council recently published a report calling a developmental approach the key to reforming juvenile justice. And four recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions were grounded in an understanding of the developmental changes in adolescents’ brains -- and state courts are following suit.

Yet the question remains: How do we convince adults who work with youth to take a developmental approach?

Strategies for Youth (SFY) have been promoting the idea of developmental competence as a solution. Just as daycare providers are trained to understand early childhood development, and must be certified and licensed before they are eligible to work in state daycare facilities, adults working with adolescents should, at a minimum, possess some level of knowledge about the stages of youth development.

To that end, SFY, working with psychologists and other experts, created a working definition of developmental competence:

Developmental Competence refers to the understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage.

Developmental competence is based on the premise 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.

A person who is developmentally competent recognizes that how children and youth perceive, process and respond to situations is a function of their developmental stage, and secondarily their culture and life experience. Developmentally competent adults align their expectations, responses, and interactions—as well as those of institutions and organizations—to the developmental stage of the children and youth they serve.

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

Developmental competence is different from cultural competence -- it is not based on value judgments about difference. Developmental competence has the advantage of being grounded in scientific, neurobiological and structural changes in human brains that are universal. It requires adults and institutions working with adolescents and teens to be aware and to be responsive to these biological and physical changes instead of reactively punishing them.

For example, SFY trains law enforcement officers in the rudiments of developmental competence. Officers leave these trainings with the recognition that arresting youth for normative behavior does not make the community safer or change youth conduct. At the conclusion of each training session, officers evaluate the training and tell us who else should receive it. Most reply with answers like parents, teachers, school administrators, attorneys, and “anyone who comes in contact with teens.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled on JDB v. North Carolina, directing law enforcement officers to take in to account what some state courts now call a “reasonable child” standard to determine when custody attaches and rights must be read to juvenile suspects. For the court, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

In short, officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.

It’s a bit shocking that this clarion call for “common sense” needed to be made in 2011.

But a glance at schools’ reasons for suspending youth, and at the 108 percent increase in “public disorder” arrests of youth since 1985, suggests that this education gap of adults is harming our youth and needs to be closed.

Perhaps a lack of developmental competence is an appropriate name for the deficiency adults working with adolescents need to correct. Perhaps this name could help us better meet the needs of those working to support youth, and to improve outcomes for all of our young people.

Strategies for Youth, Inc., is a national policy and training organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact.  

Survey of Police Chiefs Shows Need for Police Training to Work with Youth

At a  training of Massachusetts MBTA Training Academy recruits in July, a police officer said to the group, “What I am telling you today we did not get when we were in the academy. Now you’ve got a leg up in dealing with kids by knowing this stuff.” The officer had been trained in a train-the-trainer capacity building effort by Strategies for Youth. “Knowing this stuff about kids makes working with them easier and less stressful and believe me, they can be stressful,” he told the recruits.

The newly released findings of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey on juvenile justice and youth training needs suggest this officer is both right and unusual. Training in best practices for working with youth is helpful, but remains the exception to the rule across the country.

The IACP’s survey, the “2011 Juvenile Justice Training Needs Assessment,” found that police chiefs want training but lack funding and agency resources to provide it to their officers.  They wanted their officers to have the skills to work with the increasing and challenging demands posed by youth. The top 5 areas in which chiefs want their officers trained are:

  1. substance abuse;
  2. physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse;
  3. dealing with chronic juvenile offenders;
  4. bullying/cyber-bullying; and
  5. gangs. Other topics included internet offending, runaways, and school safety.

The survey is notable for the unusually large size of the sample: over 672 law enforcement officers in 404 law enforcement agencies in 49 states and the District of Columbia. The agencies represented the gamut of departments, from small and rural, to suburban, to large and urban; 77% were police departments.

Demands on  Law Enforcement:

While officers have always dealt with children and youth, arguably today they are asked to deal with them more than ever. Cuts in youth serving programs, the increased placement of officers in schools, and the common reaction of calling the police for any youth-related issue, combine to make police the first responders to incidents involving youth.

To be sure, police need to respond to the special issues created by youth, usually in the domain of the boundary testing that puts us all on edge. Increasingly, police also need to allay the fears that are piqued in many communities when a group of youth—regardless of their activity—is seen as cause for police intervention. Such interactions are even more challenging and charged when race and cultural diversity are in the mix—and officer’s mistakes go to the core of department’s legitimacy in the community.

Officers deal with youth in the course of some of the most traumatic situations of young people’s lives. But they are not trained to recognize signs of trauma or anxiety in youth, or the best practices for dealing with youth who have been traumatized. Officers across America are the number one referral agents for abuse and neglect of children, the first responders for domestic violence incidents involving children, and for working with youth who victimize and are victimized. Departments can’t fairly claim to support community policing if they don’t know the best practices for working with a large sector of their jurisdiction’s population: youth under the age of 19 represent 1/6 of the American population.

Where’s the Training?

More than half the chiefs surveyed by the IACP reported a decrease or abolition of training programs in the last five years.  The survey results echo Strategies for Youth’s view that American police are not  provided necessary skills for working with youth. They are not trained in best practices or the most effective methods. Lack of capacity and resources is one reason; the IACP confirms another conclusion of SFY, namely that this training is not included or given priority in police academy curricula.

Respondents to the survey noted that coverage of such topics at the academy level is limited and is not mandated after basic academy level training. The survey found that not only is such training not offered, but most departments do not have written guidelines or standard operating procedures for responding to incidents involving youth.

The combination of these deficits means that American officers are not receiving the support, guidance, and training to provide quality police/youth interactions.

The Solutions?

The federal government needs to step into the breach. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is best positioned to fill this void, albeit the least well-funded, to make this a national policy priority and goal. State police officer standard and training (POST) offices need to include such training as part of their mandated academy and in-service training.

Training officers how to work with youth: it’s what chiefs say they want, it’s what science shows works, and it’s what kids need.


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Lisa Thurau: Why Police Need to Understand Trauma

The girl is maybe 15 years old? She is standing in the back of a building, or maybe it’s an alley way.  She has her arms wrapped around her body and her teeth are chattering.  When the officer approaches and tells her to leave the alley way she shakes her head and refuses.  The officer moves in closer and reiterates his order to leave. Suddenly the girl is lunging at him, screaming, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! Get away from me!”  She is pushing her hands out at him, then pointing her finger at the officer, ordering him to keep his distance. We hear the officer say, “Whoa, hold on there. You listen to me young lady, I’ll arrest your ass if you don’t settle down. You want that? You want to go to jail?”

Officers watching this scene unfold during Strategies for Youth trainings often express their discomfort by laughing at the girl’s sudden, and seemingly unprovoked transformation into an accuser.  “She’s acting like my wife,” one will say and the ensuing chuckles help dissolve the tension in the classroom.

When asked to proffer a diagnosis of what mental health problem the girl is experiencing, the male officers typically call out, “Psychotic,” “Schizophrenic,”  “Bipolar,” or they just shake their heads.   When asked, what they would  do with a girl behaving like this, most officers express the belief that they would arrest her for disorderly conduct, at the very least.

If there are any women officers in the room, they generally won’t volunteer their diagnosis. But when asked, they’ll uniformly say, “She has PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]” or they’ll speculate, “The girl’s probably been raped.”


Since 2000, understanding trauma and PTSD has become big business. There is trauma therapy.  Trauma histories are used to mitigate punishment.  There are trauma-sensitive schools.

We now know the extent of damage and disorder trauma inflicts on a child and a teen’s brain, how it bathes the brain in an acid bath of cortisol that literally corrodes the brain, that children’s nervous systems are basically re-wired—and not for the better. We know that the toll of hyper-vigilance from being on-guard in anticipation of another trauma leaves a legacy of physical diseases from asthma to depression to heart problems that endure long into adulthood.

Research also has told us that it doesn’t matter whether youth have experienced trauma first hand, or simply witnessed it at home or in their neighborhoods.  Violence and death seen or heard cause intrusive thoughts, malfunctioning short-term memory and an inability to concentrate or sit still, weakening their connection to school.

Children and youth exposed to trauma organize their world according to what Giovanni Liotti calls the “triangle of trauma.”  The 3 players in that dynamic are the victim, the abuser, and the rescuer.  For the most traumatized youth, each interaction requires assigning each person into one of those roles.


And we know that children and teens living in cities, where police presence is greatest, are the youth most chronically exposed to trauma.  They walk past shrines to their dead peers, hear events discussed in detail and rehashed and invoked and threatened in school.   And they see it in the nation’s media and nightly news.

Yet, somehow, in 2011, most police interacting with youth are not trained to recognize, much less interact with a child or a teen in the throes of a traumatic experience or one who has experienced trauma.

How is that possible?

One reason is that police are not trained in child or adolescent development or psychology.  The preliminary results of an SFY review of state police curriculum show that most state police officer standards and training (POST) programs do not include these subjects.

This lack of awareness puts youth and police at risk.


Police must understand how traumatized youth think and anticipate their responses for several reasons.

First, it’s important that officers understand that their presence as an authority figure is sufficient to make a traumatized youth become unhinged and lose control of their ability to regulate their behavior in what would appear to be a normal, rational manner.   While many officers can understand that their comrades back from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan will jump and respond aggressively to loud noises like cars backfiring, it’s important for officers to apply that understanding to the youth they deal with, especially in communities with high rates of violence.

Second, when youth who have been traumatized become agitated in their presence, it’s important that officers not assume that traumatized youths’ behavior is intentional.  Youth who have been chronically exposed to and/or actively traumatized are usually unable to regulate their emotions and anxiety. They engage in hyper-vigilant, protective conduct to ward off more trauma.  The two most frequent protective responses  are fight and flight.  And these are exactly the behaviors that police believe, respectively, require control and provoke suspicion.

Third, officers should be on guard for traumatized youth who unconsciously assign them the role of abused, abuser or rescuer and pull them into that role.

Fourth, officers not trained to recognize the signs of a traumatized youth and see a youth’s  hyper vigilance, extreme defensiveness, as intentional and oppositional often perceive these behaviors to reflect guilt that warrants a strong, physical assertion of authority and power.  And for officers suffering from PTSD, it may lead to reflexive defensive responses. Too often officers’ chosen or reactive responses lead to escalation of youth and officer reactions, which can result in use of force and arrest.


It’s time we connect the dots:  the gap in achievement, in positive interactions, in healthy communities owes a lot to trauma.  As long as we continue to fail to recognize its implications, we can assume we will perpetuate it.

This piece originally appeared in the Youth Transition Funders Group blog.