Schools Should Support Holistic Adolescent Development & Here’s How

By: Allison Rae Ward-Seidel & Sophie Yitong Yue


  • Adolescent development is complex and multifaceted, including mental and physical health, cognition, identity, meaning and purpose, emotional, and social domains of development, which are all interrelated.
  • Helping educators support multiple developmental domains may support adolescents’ cognitive development and foster academic success in school.
  • Schools can play a role in holistic adolescent development, and highlighted here are tips and strategies for educators to promote holistic development.
Source: Canva & Youth-Nex’s Portrait of a Thriving Youth

Adolescents spend a substantial amount of their daily time in school. The goal of schools has rightfully been to promote academic skills, such as reading, writing, math, science and history. Since the era of standardized testing, education has been focused on academic achievement, often at the expense of students’ health and wellbeing. However, incorporating students’ health and wellbeing can support academic success.

If we want youth to thrive, we need a holistic approach that not only emphasizes their performance but encourages mental and social development. The Portrait of a Thriving Youth describes domains of adolescent development in a comprehensive way. We highlight those domains and describe specifically how schools and educators can promote positive, holistic experiences for youth that can support academic success.

Physical & Mental Health

Physical and mental health in adolescence includes how young peoples’ brains, bodies, and hormones are changing during puberty. Often physical changes and mental maturity are happening at different rates, which can be confusing for a young person, and the adults who care about them.

To support physical & mental health, schools and educators can:

Cognitive Development

Cognition in adolescence includes the changes happening in the brain that allow students to think more critically and abstractly. This development is important for advanced academic skills, such as in calculus or debate.

To promote cognitive development, schools and educators can:

Identity Development

Identity development in adolescence revolves around important questions like “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?”. It is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to ‘try on’ different identities by selecting different clothing styles, appearances, interests, friend groups, or activities.

To promote identity development, educators can:

  • Help youth develop an integrated identity, or a cohesive sense of self, can be motivating for engagement in extracurricular activities and academic achievement.
  • Foster young people’s identity development in both academic and social settings to create a safe and supportive environment.

Meaning & Purpose

Youth are developmentally programmed to reflect on complex questions about their lives and social contexts. An important part of adolescence is actively trying to make sense of the world around you. Adolescents are more attuned to risks and rewards, fairness and justice, and are sensitive to hypocrisy.

To promote meaning & purpose, schools and educators can:

Emotional Development

Emotional development includes identifying and managing emotions in positive and meaningful ways. During adolescence, young people are experiencing more extreme highs and lows, as the part of their brain that initiates and processes emotions is developing rapidly.

Educators can help adolescents:

Social Development

Social development is particularly salient in adolescence as youth spend more time, and place more importance with their peers when exploring independence, identity, and where they fit in the world. Youth model relationship-building and conflict resolution skills after the adults in their lives.

Educators can promote social development through:

  • Active learning strategies that increase engagement, like cooperative group work (e.g., jigsaw assignments can increase empathy), inquiry-based learning, or project-based learning.
  • Building positive student-teacher relationships and student-peer relationships.
  • Implementing restorative practices (e.g., community building circles which can include academic content), and promoting student-teacher relationships among students.  

Supporting healthy young people means supporting all the multifaceted and complex parts of adolescent development. Because these domains are all connected, supporting additional areas of development will contribute to students’ cognitive development and academic success. Balancing these domains can seem overwhelming for one educator; instead, consider building partnerships with community organizations, afterschool programs, and outside groups, to map what resources are available to support different developmental needs.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Allison Rae Ward-Seidel is a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia studying sociopolitical development and school conditions that promote a commitment to social justice among adolescents. Allison taught public school for 6 years before transitioning to education research in psychology and human development. She earned a Masters from Harvard Graduate School of Education and worked as a research project director evaluating a Restorative Practices and Racial Equity initiative in schools. She hopes to continue in education by supporting preservice teachers and advancing scholarship in sociopolitical development.

Author Bio: Sophie Yitong Yue is a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia studying ecological theory and its implications for behavioral health outcomes. She is also interested in using advanced quantitative methods to analyze national longitudinal data. She holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology and hopes to continue her academic journey in promoting human- and equity-centered approaches in research and all fields.

How To Increase Your Mindfulness When Working with Youth

By: Pamela Nicholas-Hoff


  • Back-to-school is full of hope and promises, but how can educators stay true to these good intentions throughout the school year?
  • Mindfulness is one solution in education that helps educators and youth-serving professionals be emotionally well regulated, and respond to students with compassion.
  • Included in this blog are tips and strategies for increasing mindfulness in your work with students and youth.
Source: Adobe

For educators, the first day of school is similar to New Year’s Day, full of hope, promises and good intentions. For our students, we may commit to providing the best learning experiences, cultivating the most positive classroom climate, and responding with equanimity to others no matter the circumstances. For ourselves, we may also commit to self-care.

But similar to New Year’s resolutions, those beginning of the school year promises and resolutions are often overshadowed/overtaken by reality and the demands of our job. Students have traumatic experiences. Our classrooms are overcrowded. Schools are understaffed and have limited resources. So how do we maintain the commitments we make to ourselves and our students? Many educators are turning to mindfulness.

Importance of Mindfulness

Though not a solution to all problems, mindfulness has many well-documented benefits. Even brief mindful awareness practices have been shown to decrease stress1, and reduce implicit biases2 and discriminatory behavior3​, and increase emotional regulation4​. In addition, only eight-weeks of participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that included 30 to 40 minutes of daily mediation practice resulted in positive changes in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, perspective-taking, empathy, compassion, and reduced reactivity.

Interventions targeting educators show promising results. Within the classroom, results from the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) professional development program5​ may translate into educators listening more attentively to others, maintaining more present-centered, non-judgmental acceptance and receptivity to others’ thoughts and feelings, practicing greater self-regulation (i.e., lower reactivity and lower automaticity in reaction to normative child and adolescent behavior), maintaining greater awareness of and responsiveness to others’ individual needs, and maintaining greater compassion for self and others.

Educators who possess and demonstrate the aforementioned attributes and abilities are less likely to personalize student behavior thus reducing the chance that challenging classroom situations will escalate and result in negative outcomes (for students and teachers). 

However, how do we establish and maintain a consistent mindfulness practice?

Practicing Mindfulness

People often mistakenly perceive that they do not have the time to practice. However, we make time for other types of self-care such as brushing our teeth, because we know the benefits of good oral hygiene and the adverse effects of poor oral hygiene. With this in mind, I suggest you view  your practice as a visiting guest. Prioritize and intentionally make space and time for your mindfulness practice. If possible, practice in a space where you will not be disturbed and at a time when you will not be interrupted. Practice self-compassion and patience–the mind is structured to think; therefore, distractions are inevitable.  When distractions occur, notice, and perhaps label the distraction, and return your attention to the target of your practice (e.g., the sensations of the breath).

If interested in MBSR, I invite you to visit Palouse Mindfulness which offers the complete program via an online, self-paced course at no cost. Imagine Mindfulness is another affordable, online option. The UVA Mindfulness Center also offers MBSR online.

If committing to 30 to 40 minutes of daily mindfulness practice is overwhelming, please take heart. Even a few minutes of consistent time in practice provides benefits. For example, try:

  • Breathing: Taking three deep, full, diaphragmatic breaths can calm the nervous system and provide time to respond versus react to a situation. Box breathing is another option. Inhale deeply, hold the inhaled breath, exhale completely, and hold the exhaled breath. Maintain each phase for a count of four.
  • Set an Intention: An intention acts as a navigation system that helps align our behavior and speech with our values. This practice involves identifying an intention for a given period of time (e.g., a class period, a day, etc.) and envisioning acting and speaking in a way that reflects that intention. After visualizing the intention, write and post your intention in a prominent place as a reminder of your commitment to your intention.
  • Journaling: Reflecting upon and recording your experiences (either while engaging in your mindfulness practice or at other times) is a wonderful way to practice mindfulness. You can also generate and savor gratitude and positive emotions by recalling a positive experience and focusing on the physical sensations you experienced during that positive experience.
  • Body Scan: A quick body scan helps us become aware of the way our emotions manifest physically. Being aware of the physical sensation associated with our emotions helps us better identify those emotions and respond to others with equanimity. Longer body scans are also beneficial.
  • Leverage Technology: Use apps to support your practice–as a reminder to practice and/or to facilitate your practice. If affiliated with UVA, you may have access to the premium version of Insight Timer through the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center.

As educators, we have an obligation to keep our students safe and ensure they are treated justly. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can reduce implicit racial biases, cultivate social emotional competency and assess situations with nonjudgmental awareness, curiosity, empathy, and compassion thus helping to ensure the safety and just treatment of our students.


1 Carson et al., 2005

2 Fabbro et al., 2017; Lueke & Gibson, 2015; Stell & Farsides, 2016

3 Lueke & Gibson, 2016

4 Guendelman et al., 2017

5 Jennings et al., 2017

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Pamela Nicholas-Hoff is a triple Hoo and postdoctoral research associate supporting work in Youth-Nex and the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education. Before earning her Ph.D., Pam spent 17 years teaching at the middle school level (five of those years were spent teaching at an alternative middle school serving students who were pushed out of traditional schools) and seven years teaching health and physical education teacher preparation courses. Pam is also a certified CARE facilitator and is working toward her certification to facilitate Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. Her research focuses on using mindful- and compassion-based practices to mitigate teacher-based implicit biases, stress, and automatic responses and to eliminate exclusionary discipline disparities for historically marginalized students. In her spare time, Pam enjoys spending time with her family and reading.

Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: A Comprehensive Review

By Aleta L. Meyer, PhD


Aleta L. Meyer is Senior Social Science Research Analyst, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Meyer’s work focuses on the translation of theory and empirical research across multiple health outcomes into effective and feasible prevention programs for communities. At Administration for Children and Families (ACF) this includes the translation of research on early adversity to ACF programs, community-based-participatory-research to evaluate early childhood programs within American Indian/Alaska Native communities, and positive youth development.

In March 2015 we featured the first of 4 inter-related reports on self-regulation and toxic stress published by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, titled Seven Key Principles Identified in New Report on Self-Regulation Development, by Meyer who conceived the project, led the effort, and is the project’s program officer.

Since that time, the project published a second report, A Review of Ecological, Biological, and Developmental Studies of Self-Regulation and Stressa literature review on the impact of early adversity and chronic stress on self-regulation development from birth to young adulthood.

This post by Meyer, highlights the recently released 3rd report, Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress Report 3: A Comprehensive Review of Self-Regulation Interventions from Birth Through Young Adulthood. Key authors: Desiree W. Murray, Katie self-reg-coverRosanbalm, Christina Christopoulos, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University.
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Restorative Practices and The 3 R’s – Restore, Rebuild, Reconnect

This month’s blog is by Mark Marini, known to most as “Muggsie,” an Intervention Specialist at Albemarle High School. For the past 19 years, he has worked diligently in education to support struggling learners, both with behaviors and academics, by working both with students and teachers. He fills many roles at Albemarle High including: Intervention Specialist, English teacher, Special Education teacher, Mediator, School Based Intervention Co-Chair, Response To Intervention Specialist, AVID English teacher, and lifelong learner. Check out his blog, On Education.

Youth-Nex had the pleasure of meeting Muggsie at this year’s conference, “Youth of Color Matter: Reducing Inequalities Through Positive Youth Development.” We are grateful for his and fellow educators’ participation at the event.

There are some children in the world who were just born to be good. My daughter, who is now nine, seems to be one of those children. When she was small, still crawling around, my wife and I remember her going past an electrical outlet in our house. She started to reach towards it, and my wife gently said, “No; don’t touch.” She looked at my wife, looked at the outlet, and kept crawling. Several days later, she was crawling past the same outlet, and she stopped. Pointed at it and said, “No.” Then she continued crawling. For the most part, my wife and I did not have to teach her good behavior. It is as if she was born with a gene that helps her to do the right thing. But that does not mean she always does.

“My experience is that Restorative Practices, if implemented with the required support and training, can have a great impact on a community. This could be a school, a neighborhood, or even a family. With time and dedication, the gains for our next generation are great. For, while resolving conflicts with Restorative Practices, we teach children how to resolve future conflicts on their own.”

SomeWalkingAwaytimes, she needs additional support. She has a younger brother who tests her and her ability to make the right choices. In those moments when she is tested, she needs support to know how to act, and how, if she has caused harm, to fix it.

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Seven Key Principles Identified in New Report on Self-Regulation Development


“Kids at Kubota Garden 2003” by Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We are pleased to share the first in a series of four inter-related reports on Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. In the current report, the authors introduce and describe a set of seven key principles that summarize their understanding of self-regulation development in context.

Aleta L. Meyer, Ph.D., of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conceived the project, led the effort, and is the project’s program officer.

Key Authors:
Desiree W. Murray, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University, Scientist and Associate Director of Research, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Katie Rosanbalm, Ph.D., Research Scholar, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University.

Self-regulation has become increasingly recognized for its foundational role in promoting wellbeing across the lifespan, including physical, emotional, social and economic health and educational achievement.  Given this growing knowledge base and a desire to inform on-going services for children and youth from birth to young adulthood, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the Administration for Children and Families commissioned a series of four inter-related reports from a team at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University; the series is titled Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress.

The first report from that series, Foundations for Understanding Self-Regulation from an Applied Developmental Perspective, is now available and provides a comprehensive framework for understanding self-regulation in context, using a theoretical model that reflects the influence of biology, caregiving, and the environment on the development of self-regulation from birth to young adulthood. In that report, the authors introduce and describe a set of seven key principles that summarize our understanding of self-regulation development in context:

  1. Self-regulation serves as the foundation for lifelong functioning across a wide range of domains, from mental health and emotional wellbeing to academic achievement, physical health, and socioeconomic success. It has also proven responsive to intervention, making it a powerful target for change.
  2. Self-regulation is defined from an applied perspective as the act of managing cognition and emotion to enable goal-directed actions such as organizing behavior, controlling impulses, and solving problems constructively.
  3. Self-regulation enactment is influenced by a combination of individual and external factors including biology, skills, motivation, caregiver support, and environmental context. These factors interact with one another to support self-regulation and create opportunity for intervention.
  4. Self-regulation can be strengthened and taught like literacy, with focused attention, support, and practice opportunities provided across contexts. Skills that are not developed early on can be acquired later, with multiple opportunities for intervention.
  5. Development of self-regulation is dependent on “co-regulation” provided by parents or other caregiving adults through warm and responsive interactions in which support, coaching, and modeling are provided to facilitate a child’s ability to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
  6. Self-regulation can be disrupted by prolonged or pronounced stress and adversity including poverty and trauma experiences. Although manageable stress may build coping skills, stress that overwhelms children’s skills or support can create toxic effects that negatively impact development and produce long-term changes in neurobiology.
  7. Self-regulation develops over an extended period from birth through young adulthood (and beyond). There are two clear developmental periods where self-regulation skills increase dramatically due to underlying neurobiological changes– early childhood and adolescence – suggesting particular opportunities for intervention.

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