Developmental Competence: What it is and how you can use it E-mail
Written by Lisa H. Thurau   

Teens hear and see things differently from adults. Neuroscience shows that young people’s brains process and respond to stimuli differently than adults’ — leading them to behave differently.  This explains why adolescents “are less able to regulate their own behavior in emotionally charged contexts…more sensitive to peer pressure and immediate rewards…[and] show less ability to make judgments and decisions that require future orientation.” That’s why policing teens can be such a headache.

But there’s a pain reliever than can help: developmental competence.

Strategies for Youth (SFY) has taken a first step, working with psychologists and other experts, to help police, correctional officers  — and anyone who interacts with youth — put this emerging brain science into direct practice. Developmental Competence,”  available for free download on the SFY website, is a succinct, accessible document used as the basis for trainings delivered to law enforcement agencies across the country.

This is how it works: Picture a group of teenagers standing outside the subway. They’ve been talking, laughing, passing around a cigarette and sharing an iPod. Given recent concerns about teens stealing and being robbed of electronics, Officer X wants them to move on.

Officer X is developmentally competent so he knows that young people need to hang out, but have far fewer places to talk, laugh and share a cigarette than adults do.  Also, he knows that teens are interested in impressing their friends and often react quickly to an emotionally charged situation without anticipating the consequences.

With his strategies for youth “on”, Officer X will approach the group knowing the teens will assume he’s angry at them, will focus on the group’s leader, then ask the leader to help his friends leave. He will speak in a friendly, firm tone, keep his distance, and repeat his request three times using a neutral tone, explaining he is just doing his job and is concerned for their safety.  The youth will be on their way.

Without his strategies for youth, or developmental competence, Officer X moves rapidly toward the teens, hand on his holster, then crosses his arms across his chest, trying to look as authoritative as possible, and says, “Move. It’s time for you to leave.”  He will refuse to give a reason or explanation. The youth immediately defy him and accuse him of racism or other prejudice. He may threaten arrest or call for back up. The scene ends in rancor and the youth leave angry — or are arrested. The next interaction these teens have with law enforcement will be that much harder for the next officer and for the young people.

There is a better way.  Developmental competence helps officers achieve law enforcement and public safety goals while making lasting, positive connections with youth.  

More on Dev-Comp.

Developmental Competence involves:
* Understanding that children and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage.
* Recognizing that specific, sequential stages of neurological and psychological development are universal and that children’s and adolescents’ responses differ from those of adults because of fundamental neurobiological factors.
* Adapting organizational practice and policies to developmental realities.

More resources:

See also:  SFY’s Summary of USDOE Guiding Principles for SROs

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