Realizing the Promise of Adolescence

By: Nancy E. Hill, Harvard University


A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth, calls for a re-thinking and re-framing of adolescence. For too long, adolescence has been viewed as a period of risk and vulnerability, rather than one of discovery, innovation, and opportunity.


Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience and medical imaging, we now understand that adolescence is a dynamic period of brain development, second only to infancy in terms of the speed and extent of change, and a profoundly important time for growth and learning.


These changes show that the adolescent brain is particularly responsive to the developmental needs associated with this stage of life. This plasticity—and the physical and social changes that accompany it—prepare young people to meet exciting new challenges, such as participating in new activities and clubs, organizing political rallies, or beginning higher education.


The adolescent brain also has an amazing capacity for resilience and healing, leaving youth better equipped to handle current and future adversities. Interventions during adolescence can redirect and remediate maladaptation in brain structure and have shown promise in promoting emotional well-being through mindfulness and empathy-sensitizing work.


Parents, teachers, schools, and society as a whole have a responsibility to support adolescents in their exploration and build positive opportunities for all adolescents to engage and grow.


Thus, the report calls for a nationwide effort to modernize youth-serving systems—including the U.S. education system—to support young people’s growth and development and to better meet the needs of our nation’s rapidly evolving social and economic ecosystem. This means broadening the mission of schools to meet the needs of modern adolescents, focusing on building decision making skills, strengthening practical knowledge, promoting adaptability, and supporting the development of psychosocial skills.


The ability to make sound decisions is enhanced by the neurobiological development that occurs during adolescence, resulting in increased “processing speed” and reaction times. This means that as youth mature they are better able to see abstract connections among ideas, and engage in thinking and other cognitive activities with more flexibility and feedback utilization. To make good decisions about schoolwork, as well as in other areas, youth need to practice their emerging abstract reasoning and good decision-making skills and to learn from their mistakes.


Youth also need practical skills, such as learning to develop a budget, enter into housing leases, and navigate health care and insurance, to successfully transition into adulthood. Despite this, schools and other agencies have decreased their emphasis on financial literacy and competency in recent years. Many successful programs for improving practical knowledge and financial skills build on “asset theory” and secondary school experiences that provide “experiential” learning opportunities have been found to yield gains in knowledge.


Given recent economic shifts, adolescents also need to practice and develop adaptability, or skills for thinking critically and analytically. The current and emerging economy requires workers who have developed skill sets applicable to many types of jobs and who are also prepared for continuous learning and problem solving. Relatedly, today’s increasingly knowledge-based economy, which yields innovation and entrepreneurship, requires a “mindset” of learning, malleability, and expectation for growth and improvement. When young people come to recognize that intelligence is malleable and continues to develop, they are more likely to respond to mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn rather than risks to avoid. Parents, schools, and teachers can encourage students to develop a “growth mindset” through opportunities and experiences that embrace challenges and growth from mistakes, and use emerging evidence on mindfulness to train youth in executive functioning and self-regulation.


Supporting the development of psychosocial skills is also critical during adolescence. Strategies include:

  • Project-based learning: The potential benefits of project-based learning, especially in middle and high school, include leading adolescents to see connections between the classroom and the world, increasing students’ ownership of their work, and developing critical thinking skills.
  • Providing feedback: Receiving feedback on mistakes along with assurance that educators recognize their potential and expect improvement, helps to increase adolescents’ motivation and embrace challenges.
  • Promoting belief in malleability: Programs that help adolescents understand that ability is malleable rather than fixed show better academic outcomes, especially those with previously low levels of academic performance.
  • Developing future identities: Adolescents who have the opportunity to explore and develop the possibilities and pathways for their futures tend to demonstrate more effective self-regulation than those who do not.
  • Cultivating meta-cognition: Meta-cognition itself is a critically important skill for helping youth recognize when their automatic responses, which may be adaptive in most settings, are maladaptive and therefore should be “slowed down” so they can devote more mental energy to conscious reasoning.


In addition, the report calls on schools and school districts to recognize the physical and mental health needs of their students. For many U.S. adolescents, unmet mental health needs pose a challenge to success in school and life. Although schools cannot resolve this problem on their own, they can identify students with needs and connect them with the services they need. School-based health centers, expanded under the Affordable Care Act, can be an effective means of providing adolescents with mental health care, along with routine wellness services.


We must also recognize the importance of supportive, nurturing adult figures in adolescents’ lives. The individual relationships that adolescents have with adults—whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, or counselors—play a crucial role in navigating this dynamic time in life. Warm, supportive relationships with parents and other adult caregivers are just as important during adolescence as they are during early childhood. Investing in youth requires investing in the adult caregivers who support them.


To capture the promise of adolescence, the report says, we must reimagine and redesign the systems and settings that serve young people so that they align with the strengths of adolescents, like their increased independence, flexible problem solving skills, and openness to new experiences. By embracing this collective responsibility, we can ensure that millions of young people thrive.



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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