The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center on Children and the Law recently released its Youth in Court toolkit. The toolkit provides a basic framework of adolescent brain science, a legal overview of laws relating to youth engagement in case planning and court hearings, and tips for attorneys and judges to engage youth and support their positive development.

Science now shows that in addition to the initial period of brain development that happens from birth to six, there is a second window of brain development during adolescence that is equally as important. Neuroplasticity is the ability for adolescent brains to be molded through thinking, learning, planning, and acting. This period allows for the brain to grow and heal from previous trauma through experiences like making decisions, learning, trying new things, and making memories.

The toolkit builds on the Three R’s—Regulation, Relationships, and Rewards from the Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Practice with Adolescent Brain Development. Adolescent brains rely heavily on the emotional center of the brain when decision making, which causes a likeliness for risky behavior. As adolescents mature, their brains shift toward the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulses, critical thinking, and planning. Positive experiences during this period strengthen healthy neural connections and stimulate healing and learning. Adolescents in foster care are especially vulnerable to peer pressure and making decisions based on emotional impulses because of the abrupt changes they are facing in their lives. When they are in this state of emotional vulnerability they are in “hot cognition.” This “hot cognition” occurs when a child is experiencing abrupt changes in housing, facing discrimination, feeling blamed, or when they are in a courtroom without adequate preparation or time to process the judge’s decisions.

Adolescents experience heightened brain arousal in areas sensitive to social acceptance and rejection. Positive peer influences can be cultivated by participating in extracurricular activities and social events. Attorneys and judges should advocate opportunities for the adolescent to develop healthy, supportive relationships with friends and siblings.

The toolkit asserts that “Adolescents are more receptive to reward-based learning than punishment-based learning. Rewards extend beyond gold stars and the promise of a new toy. Things such as peer approval, acceptance, and praise trigger a flood of dopamine into the brain, reinforcing actions, and behavior.” Rewards may be advocating for opportunities for the adolescent to have increased independence, such as learning to drive, going places by themselves, or visiting new places. Attorneys can also advocate for gift cards, clothes, and other tangible gifts. Brain science is precise that adolescents respond more effectively to reward-based learning than punishment-based learning.

ABA recommends that before a court hearing or case planning meeting begins attorneys should take steps outlined in the Brain Frames document to prepare the adolescent: explain the youth’s options and invite questions, explain court hearing basics, help the youth prepare for court participation in advance, and make the youth feel comfortable. It is crucial to include youth in case planning meetings and court hearings. Adolescent brain science confirms that meaningfully engaging youth in their case planning and court hearings is critical for the child welfare case and, more importantly, for their healthy growth and development. It is also advised that attorneys and judges avoid complicated legal jargon and avoid abstract questions and offer adolescent opportunities to speak about their needs, interests, and goals. After the hearing or meeting, it is important to debrief with the youth and ensure that they understand what was ordered and why. The youth must also be given time to ask questions and process their emotions.

The child welfare and court systems are working hard to strengthen the approach for engaging and empowering adolescents. However, there still changes to be made, and attorneys and judges can make a substantial impact. Most importantly, adolescent brains are still developing and evolving, and we must engage youth when we are making decisions about their futures. To access the toolkit developed by ABA Center on Children and the Law, including case scenarios and federal laws reference guide, click here.