Brain Science for Courts. Why Not Schools?

In San Francisco there is a special court for young adult offenders called the Young Adult Court, established in 2015 after the district attorney attended a neuroscience lecture at Harvard. It was learned that maturing brains do not fully develop until the middle 20s.  After that lecture, punishments were based on  neuroscience, tailored to the biology and circumstances of the offenders, ages 18-25.  This experiment was implemented because current approaches across the country are not working, young offenders returning to jail off and on throughout their lifetime.  Clinical psychologists trained the court’s staff in order for the offender to avoid lifelong entanglement with the criminal justice system.

Researchers emphasized that there is a difference between cognitive capacity and psychosocial maturity, which includes impulsivity, risk perception, thrill-seeking and resistance to peer influence. A test for “emotional brain age” was developed, finding that those with younger brain age tended to prefer riskier behavior.  Variability was highest among young adults.

Six such courts now exist in states ranging from Idaho to Nebraska and New York.  Sentencing to avoid incarceration includes checking in with the judge once a week, employment, housing, and educational support.  Weekly therapy sessions and life-skill classes are also required.

Why isn’t this model used in public education?  It is not even used in special education currently or in approaches involving Response to Intervention (RTI), used to prevent special education referrals.  Schools and educators generally continue to look at behavior as though it had nothing to do with brain development and how that brain interacts with its environment.  This is particularly true of the education of very young children.  Teacher training programs do not emphasize the role of the brain in learning and behavior.  If it did, outcomes would surely improve. It works for young adults in this Young Adult Court. Let’s apply it to our kids instead of paying only lip service to the role of neuroscience in education.

(Based on A Court Calls on Science, Tim Requarth, Science Times, The New York Times. 4/18/17).