Brain gain for youth:Emerging trends in neuroscience

Zoey Henley
Principal Adviser – Youth, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Zoey is a registered social worker who has spent most of her time as a frontline practitioner, working with young people in the justice sector in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. She has held several national policy roles at the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and is currently based at the Department of Corrections as their Principal Adviser –Youth. Zoey is a keen advocate for young people and believes that interventions should be delivered within a bi-cultural and strength-based framework that recognises and builds on potential.


This article considers how new developments in neuroscience shape our understanding of young people and the period of adolescence, particularly how their brains function and how best to intervene with them to create lasting positive change. Young people are different to adults – both in the way their brains work and the way they think. This is particularly so for young people who have been exposed to early life or pre-natal trauma or negative influences, all of which are common among young people involved in the justice sector. Emerging neuroscience helps us to understand the implications of brain growth on young people’s development and the role this can have in shaping anti-social behaviour. To be successful we need to use lessons from neuroscience to tailor interventions and engagement in ways that respond to the impact of childhood trauma and its link to young people’s involvement in the justice system. Trauma informed interventions are likely to become a key innovation that shapes our future engagement with the young people we work with. The Department of Corrections has introduced training for selected frontline staff to become “youth champions”. This training provides staff with information on how brain development impacts on young people’s behaviour and how staff can tailor their response and engagement to address this responsivity need.

Keywords: Youth Justice; Rehabilitation; Responsivity: Development; Neuroscience; Trauma


“Kaua e whakapaetia te he o te rawa kore. Kaua hoki e tautokotia, engari whaia ko te maramatanga”

This whakatauki, or proverb, translates to: “Seek not to blame the wrong-doer. Seek neither to condone their behaviour. Seek instead to understand”. This whakatauki underpins the New Zealand Department of Corrections (Corrections) Youth Strategy. The Youth Strategy is a bi-cultural strength-based approach that sets the direction for the way Corrections engages with young people (Corrections considers young people to be those under 20 years of age). This article considers how new developments in neuroscience shape our understanding of the period of adolescence, with a focus on young people in the justice sector. This article explores brain development and considers how the knowledge can help us to address young people’s needs. It also discusses initiatives implemented by Corrections to help rehabilitate young people more effectively. Throughout this article, quotes from some of the young people we work with appear, alongside Corrections’ practice principles which guide staff interactions with young people.

Adolescent brain development

The brain is a complex organ that controls our body to keep us alive; it also controls our thoughts, emotions and memories, and shapes how we respond to everyday life (Fox, 2006). Because of the brain’s important role in shaping our behaviour, it is important for staff working in the justice sector to have an understanding of how the brain is built and behaves; the path of normal healthy brain growth; and the actions or experiences that interrupt healthy development. This section provides a basic overview of normal brain development, and the factors that can disrupt this trajectory.

Normal healthy brain development begins in utero, with millions of neural connections growing and developing before a child is born. By the time a child is two years old its brain has nearly doubled in size and is roughly 80% of the weight it will be in adulthood (Anda et al., 2006; Tusaie, 2014). What happens to the child during its first two years of life will impact on later behaviour and development in adulthood. For example if a child is not exposed to a wide array of words, their later language and communication is likely to be delayed (Anda et al., 2006). Conversely, a child that regularly has its needs met by its parents develops a high level of resilience that enables it to cope with stress and fear later in life (Ungar, 2004). These early attachment experiences shape the way that children and adults behave and the way they relate to others.

The brain grows in a hierarchical way from the inside out (Cohen & Casey, 2014). These functions can be explained by a theory of evolution named the Triune Brain Theory (McLean, 1990). McLean describes three main areas of the brain which grow sequentially. The first is the brain stem, which he refers to as the reptilian brain. This part of the brain is responsible for basic survival functions such as exploration, feeding, aggression, dominance, and sexuality. Our response to fear generates from the brain stem, sometimes referred to as our “flight, fight or freeze” responses (Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013). The next part of the brain to develop is the limbic system, which Mclean refers to as our mammal brain. This part of our brain is responsible for emotions, behaviours and memories. The third and final area of the brain to develop, is the cerebral cortex. McLean refers to this section as our human brain, as it contains the functions that make us uniquely human. This includes higher cognitive functions, reasoning, and logical thought. This part of our brain is the last to develop. Neuroscience now understands that this part of the brain is not fully developed until late adolescence, sometimes right through puberty, until a person’s mid 20s (Pharo, Sim, Graham, Gross & Hayne, 2011; Tusaie, 2014). Understanding the brain hierarchy is important as it directs how we think and behave, which is an important consideration, given the outer functions are the last to develop, and the first to freeze or slow down during periods of stress or anxiety.

“They are always judging you. They just see you as paper. They don’t know who you are. If you actually get to know me I’m not that bad, just made some stupid choices.”

Corrections practice principle:
Offending by young people can be reduced – you can make a difference.

The brain is like any other muscle or organ in the body; it strengthens through use and learns through repetition. As it does so it creates strong neural pathways or connections. The more often an action or thought is repeated, the more likely this will be the automatic response in the brain (Painter & Scannapieco, 2013).

During early childhood and again in adolescence the brain undergoes a period of work or construction, where it prunes out unused neural pathways or connections; the thoughts, behaviours and actions that are unused or underdeveloped (Beckman, 2004; Tusaie, 2014). These changes are some of the most dramatic events to happen during a person’s lifespan (Steinberg, 2011). While this work or construction is underway, the outer portions of the brain can hibernate to allow this important task to be undertaken. This is helpful for staff to understand, as this hibernation can impact on how adolescents make decisions. In many instances during this period of work or construction, adolescents generate thoughts and feelings from further down their brain hierarchy in their limbic system where they make decisions based on emotions, seemingly without reason (Cohen & Casey, 2014; Van Duijvenvoorde & Crone, 2013).

This building, growing and shaping all happens during normal healthy development, but neuroscience now suggests that many young people in the justice system have had interruptions to this normal healthy development, which further impacts on how they make decisions and suggests how their brain development can shape or drive their behaviour (Walsh, 2011).

“The most difficult thing about leaving was structure – I lost the structure in my life that I had in prison.”

Corrections practice principle:
Young offenders are a high priority – as a group they re-offend more frequently and more seriously than older offenders.

Interruptions to normal healthy development

While the brain is an intricate and strong component of all humans, it is delicate and susceptible to damage, especially during periods of development and growth. As discussed above, there are many factors such as parent and child attachment and early life events that can impact on the way a child’s brain grows, which has a lasting and complex impact on the way the child behaves as they move through adolescence and adulthood (Anda et al., 2006). If the brain is on high alert through fear, or disassociation through a history of abuse, the brain will create automatic responses, based on past history and experiences, to enact in future situations. In the justice system, this often presents through externalised problems such as aggression and substance use, or internalised problems such as depression and anxiety (Ford, Chapman, Connor, & Cruise, 2012).

Research suggests that 92.5% of young people detained in the justice system had experienced some form of early trauma and more than half of this sample had experienced six or more traumatic events (Ford & Blaustein, 2013). This can be compared with 5-15% of the general population (The British Psychological Society, 2015). The impact of trauma in early childhood can lead to “major abnormalities or neurodevelopmental deficits which can then negatively impact a child across cognitive, behavioural, social and affective functioning” (Painter & Scannapieco, 2013, p. 276). Therefore, if trauma causes negative automatic responses and most of the young people in juvenile detention facilities have experienced one instance of trauma and more than half have experienced six or more traumatic events (Ford & Blaustein, 2013), we begin to build a picture of the type of behaviours we could expect young people to display. We also have a better understanding of the nature of the interventions required to address this specific responsivity issue in young people in the justice system.

“I liked YOP [Young Offenders Programme] the most out of all the courses I’ve done. It’s helped me learn about my triggers and how my head works.”

Corrections practice principle:
Choosing the right interventions is important.

The impact in the justice sector

Crime committed by young people is often described in terms of the age-crime curve, which outlines the increase in offending behaviour during adolescence, and which tapers off during a young person’s mid 20s. Terrie Moffitt’s longitudinal research into offending behaviour suggests that most young people will engage in some form of antisocial behaviour, so this accounts for those with normal healthy development as well as those whose development has been interrupted through trauma. For most, their antisocial or offending behaviour is time limited, a group Moffitt (1993) refers to as the “adolescent limited antisocial type”. Alongside this there is a group whose offending or delinquent behaviour will be long lasting, a group Moffitt refers to as “life-course persistent antisocial persons”. This is a much smaller group of young people, but they account for the majority of offending behaviour.

Adding the impact of trauma to a young person’s development can present in a myriad of ways. Given the impact of trauma across cognitive, behavioural, social and affective function, trauma is a likely cause of many of the common risk factors associated with young people in the justice system (Lambie, Best, Ioane, Becroft, & Polaschek, 2016). For example, a sample of young people, whose offending was prolific and persistent in England, had their speech, language and communication skills measured. Of this sample, 65% had speech, language and communication difficulties that would benefit from a speech and language therapy intervention; and 20% were severely delayed (Gregory & Bryan, 2011). Similarly, research into the prevalence of mental health disorders in young people in the juvenile justice system in the United States of America found that 70% of this cohort had one psychiatric disorder while 45% had two or more comorbid disorders (Ford & Blaustein, 2013). Early trauma or poor early attachments are very likely causes of these results.

Regardless of interruptions to normal development, the age-crime curve suggests that criminal behaviour tapers off into adulthood. Therefore, neuroscience should not be used to excuse or predict a young person’s criminal behaviour and certainly does not mitigate their personal accountability, but it can help to understand some facets of adolescent behaviour (Buchen, 2012).

“Family will help me stay out. They are people I can talk to if I’m worried about doing the wrong thing.”

Corrections practice principle:
Involve prosocial whänau and other significant people from the outset and maintain the relationships.

Working with interruptions to normal healthy development

An understanding of complex histories and delayed development of young people in the justice system is only one piece of the puzzle. Staff need to develop ways to support young people’s pro-social development, especially if they are responsible for supporting the young person to reduce their likelihood of re-offending. To date there has been little development or validation of the therapeutic approaches needed to support young people in the justice system overcome problems related to their traumatic histories (Ford et al., 2012). Evidence suggests that interventions that target emotional regulation could be the best approach to respond to trauma (Ford & Blaustein, 2013; Kuban, 2015). Emotional regulation is a key component of Corrections’ treatment approaches when working with young people.

Interruptions to normal healthy development can make it difficult for these young people to effectively engage in treatment (The British Psychological Society, 2015). In much the same way as the brain develops or grows from the inside out, staff must adhere to the progression principle, ensuring that young people fully understand each skill or lesson learned before moving to the next. When supporting a young person’s rehabilitation, interventions should focus on healthy development and pro-social choices to achieve the best outcomes (Cohen & Casey, 2014).

“Nothing. They do nothing. Just chuck you out there. No help at all. You have to fend for yourself. It’s hard, even a few months in there, being away from the world.”

Corrections practice principle: Ensure the young person is supported at times of transition.

Responsivity considerations when working with young people

Corrections uses the Risk, Need and Responsivity principles when determining who, what and how a person should be engaged in treatment. The Risk principle determines who should be treated, i.e. those with the highest risk should have the most intensive treatment; the Need principle determines what behavioural concerns should be treated in order to get the most effective reduction in re-offending; and the Responsivity principle addresses how to deliver the intervention (Andrews & Bonta, 2010) Research shows that when interventions adhere to these three principles they have an incremental effect on recidivism: that is, the more principles adhered to, the lower the recidivism rate (Brown & Singh, 2015). Young people’s age and stage of development is an important factor in determining how to engage or work with them. This includes understanding the impact of interruptions to normal healthy development and the impact this has on a young person’s impulsivity, problem solving and relationships with others; and providing interventions that take account of a young person’s ability to understand, connect and engage in treatment.

Rehabilitation, like brain development, is about learning new skills, so ensuring that interventions increase a young person’s ability or motivation to learn will support staff efforts in reducing the likelihood of a young person re-offending (Vieira, Skilling, & Peterson-Badali, 2009). The most effective activities are those where young people can practice in real time, using meaningful examples and activities, helping to build strong neural pathways and connections (Butts & Mears, 2001). This means effectively using cognitive behaviour modalities that address the specific needs of young people, delivered in a way that ensures they can effectively engage.

“Respect – mutual respect. Treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

Corrections practice principle: The quality of the relationship between the young person and the practitioner is critical to succeeding in changing offending behaviour.

Initiatives from the Department of Corrections

Adolescence is a critical stage where young people transition to adulthood and learn the skills they need to be successful. As a result, interventions need to be structured to respond to the developmental needs of adolescents (Skeem, Scott, & Mulvey, 2014). In order to support the unique way young people understand and process information, Corrections has designed and delivered training for selected staff to become “youth champions”. These champions learn about these specific responsivity issues and, with their colleagues, effectively engage with young people. Alongside this, Corrections has designed specific treatment programmes (such as the Young Offenders Programme and Mauri Toa Rangatahi) based on the level of risk the young person poses, to target their criminogenic needs. These training, support and treatment packages all ensure they are responsive to the needs of young people by using bi-cultural strength-based approaches, taking into account the developmental needs of young people and helping them to build on their skills and abilities.

Future work, based on evidence from neuroscience, is likely to advocate for a greater use of trauma informed models of care, and continue to focus on maximising our engagement with young people, and ensuring they have access to the right support and treatment at the right time. Young people’s motivation to change, and their level of engagement, will impact on the success of any treatment or intervention (Vieira et al., 2009)

“My probation officer got me out, and I did rehab. Then my probation officer changed again. It’s hard to start over and build a new relationship.”

Corrections practice principle: Work in partnership with others.


“Whether neurobiological differences between adolescents and adults should inform how society treats young people is open for debate, but whether such differences are real is not” (Steinberg, 2011, p. 2). The focus on ensuring Corrections intervenes in the right way, taking account of the responsivity factors that relate to adolescence and adolescence brain development will ensure that we engage with and address offending by young people in the most effective way possible. The emerging evidence in neuroscience will be one way to shape our responses as we support young people through their transition to adulthood. The practice principles sign-posted throughout this document will act as a guide for staff interactions with young people. Corrections staff can get more information about the practice principles or ideas in this article from speaking with their local youth champion.

Tips for staff:

  • young people are still growing and developing
  • use interventions which target emotional regulation
  • spend time engaging young people and understand their background
  • be aware of potential responsivity barriers such as communication or literacy
  • use motivational tools.


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