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Five Ways Attorneys Can Use Adolescent Brain Science to Guide Their Advocacy

Sneha Barve


  • Federal laws like the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Strengthening Families Act emphasize engaging youth in decision-making, transition planning, and providing vital documents and opportunities for age-appropriate activities.
  • Attorneys can use Dr. Laurence Steinberg's "3 R" framework—regulation, relationships, and rewards—to connect with and support youth in foster care, promoting healthy decision-making, social connections, and rewards-based learning.
  • Attorneys should ensure foster youth are prepared for court by discussing options, should explain court processes, and should understand the youth’s comfort levels to reduce stress and improve the court experience.
Five Ways Attorneys Can Use Adolescent Brain Science to Guide Their Advocacy
David Malan via Getty Images
  1. Learn about the science behind how adolescent brains develop. Science shows us there are two significant periods of brain development in young minds: from 0-6 years (early childhood) and adolescence. During adolescence, brains are incredibly malleable. This ability of young brains to be molded by thinking, learning, trying new things, and making decisions is called “neuroplasticity.” Adults who work with adolescents are in a unique position to support healthy brain development. To learn more about how adolescent brains develop and the role supportive adults can play, read The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Practice with Adolescent Brain Development.
  1. Use existing federal laws that align with adolescent brain science to guide your advocacy in court and case planning. Adolescent brain science shows us that young people need opportunities to engage in decision-making and planning about their own lives. There are several federal laws, most recently Family First Prevention Services Act and the Strengthening Families Act, that emphasize the importance of authentically engaging youth in their cases. Under federal law, child welfare professionals should ensure:
    1. youth are included and consulted in their permanency and transition planning;
    2. youth are supported and guided through their transitions to adulthood;
    3. youth are given their vital documents and proof of foster care status; and

    4. youth are given opportunities to engage in age-appropriate activities and participate in the same types of extracurricular, cultural, educational, and social activities as their peers.

      To learn more about how federal law supports authentic youth engagement, read this quick reference guide.
  2. Use your knowledge of adolescent brain science to more authentically engage youth experiencing foster care in their case planning. Dr. Laurence Steinberg created the “3 R” framework (regulations, relationships, and rewards) to outline the three major elements of change in an adolescent brain. Attorneys can use the “3 R” framework to better connect with young people experiencing care.

    1. Regulation: During adolescence, young people’s brains begin to make the shift from making decisions based on the brain’s emotional center to making decisions based on critical thinking and planning. Attorneys can support healthy decision-making by advocating for youth in care to have plenty of time to make decisions and by making case planning and court hearings a positive experience.

    2. Relationships: Adolescents are especially attuned to social acceptance and rejection and they typically learn more when they are with their friends and peers. Legal professionals should support youth to build and maintain healthy friendships, connect with siblings and other family, and engage in age-appropriate activities such as school activities and social events.

    3. Rewards: Adolescents learn more from rewards-based learning than punishment-based learning. Attorneys are in a position to offer rewarding experiences by praising youth for participation in court and case planning, creating incentives for participation by offering gift cards or other items, and advocating for things that are important to youth, such as increased independence, driving lessons, going to parties, and travel.
  3. Make sure youth experiencing foster care are prepared for court. Attorneys working with this population should ensure that adolescents experiencing foster care have opportunities before hearings to discuss their options and ask questions about what will happen in court. Attorneys should explain the basics of what will happen at court, who will be there, and what decisions will likely be made at the hearing. Attorneys should also find out what the youth is comfortable with – some young people prefer to speak openly in court, while others may want to speak more privately with the judge. Court hearings can be stressful for young people so these conversations should occur in advance of the hearing and in a place where the youth is comfortable.
  4. Share what you know about adolescent brain science with other child welfare practitioners. Adolescence is a time of major change and growth. The more science-based support youths receive in their lives during this time, the more likely they are to emerge into adulthood with healthy relationships and strong decision-making and coping skills. Child welfare professionals should learn about the science and share what they know with their colleagues to create a more supportive environment for young people experiencing foster care. This toolkit, created by the ABA Center on Children and the Law and funded by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, contains tools for legal professionals working in child welfare. The toolkit includes an article on using brain science to more authentically engage youth, an overview of federal laws that can support brain science-based advocacy, a tip sheet on engaging youth in case planning and hearings, and “train-the-trainer” case scenario tool that shows participants what brain science-based advocacy could look like in court.