At the NASW continuing education, Science of Social Work: Focus on Transitional Youth conference held Friday in Cleveland, Gabriela Celeste, JD and Policy Director at Schubert Center for Child Studies, Case Western Reserve made a keynote address on emerging adulthood. In a study spanning over 75 years on the ‘Secret to a Fulfilling Life’ there were two key findings which move people from child-hood to adulthood, the ability to form loving relationships and a sense of intimacy with another/others, and finding ways to cope with life’s ups and downs and not push love away. Celeste asked the audience what biggest drawbacks/threats exist for a young person making it successfully to adulthood. The answers were well-informed: lack of engaged parents, lack of adequate education, poverty. ‘One of the biggest threats to young well-being is a sense of isolation,’ she said. ‘This focus on independence is a false notion, it should be interdependence. We need each other,’ she explained. There is a lot of science behind the importance of connectivity.
For disadvantaged youth, it’s not simply emerging adulthood or being on the frontier of adulthood, but ‘expedited adulthood’. ‘Disadvantaged youth live in neighborhoods with shorter life expectancy-(up to 20 years shorter) and simply have less opportunity to take time to figure things out. There is an urgency to get away from violence and drama; there is less time for discerning what one’s choices are or should be. Then there is the compounded impact of biased treatment and navigating police as a developmental milestone for black and brown youth,’ she said.
Celeste continued, there are key developmental tasks in adolescence and ‘emerging adulthood’ as this phase is known, for navigating life. ‘These tasks involve: 1) self-determination and decision making; 2) skillful navigation of life’s milestones and transitions; 3) identity formation & experimentation; and 4) building social capital/building supportive relationships. Through each of these phases and tasks are three underlying social conditions for healthy youth development. These include: 1) having a caring adult invested in the kid’s success; 2) positive peer groups; 3) the opportunity for adventure, decision-making and to learn from risks (like driving).’
‘School can be a key protective factor, but one-in-five drop out (graduation rate is 80%).’ Celeste asked the audience to consider whether it is ‘drop out’ or ‘push out’ because of policies. ‘Students with one disciplinary contact are 5x more likely to drop out; one-in-9 are suspended at least once. The vast majority of those suspended are for minor infractions- like tardiness, dress, disobedience. Defiance is a #1 reason; a #2 reason is fighting. But where do they go? Typically these kids go into exile and these are the kids who are likely to need our care the most. Look at school design,’ she said. ‘We treat kids more like a suspect than a scholar.’ The audience was quiet. ‘Our focus is safety first with metal detectors, video cameras, police tracking ID’s, and less money for arts, athletics, counseling, or music. One arrest raises the odds of dropping out of high school by 22% regardless of income.’ She shared an example. ‘Advocates cite fewer arrests with a robust police presence, but that’s only true of violent incidents; smaller incidents are more apt to be criminalized.’
The audience heard several more examples and saw a time lapse of brain development between age 5 and 19. There was a chart of decision-making ability by age, contrasting intellectual ability and psycho-social maturity and the gap between the two. Another chart (Dobbs 2011) on estimating risk and pleasure and the teen brain shows the difficulty in managing emotional response and controlling impulsiveness. This sense of control does not develop more fully until age 26-30. The key task of this transitional time frame in navigating transitions- including daily lifestyle choices- is to invite a youth to: ‘1) pursue his/her passion, the ‘identity’ project; 2) encourage self-compassion- it’s worth being free of pain; and 3) encouraging relationship and connecting activities. Connecting activities are as important as school/career considerations in developing internal and external support people and systems.’ Perhaps this is as true of adults as transition age.