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Developmental Neuroscience & Adolescent Sexual Health: Emotion

Developmental Neuroscience & Adolescent Sexual Health: Emotion

By Stephanie Guinosso, PhD, MPH | December 12, 2017
Senior Research Associate, ETR

Dr. Douglas B. Kirby was an extraordinary man. His lifetime contributions to adolescent sexual and reproductive health transformed the field, both in research and in practice. In February 2016, ETR hosted the inaugural Kirby Summit in honor of Dr. Kirby. We continued our exciting conversation at our second convening in May, 2017.

Characteristic of Doug’s spirit, and particularly his insatiable curiosity, these events convened a transdisciplinary group of researchers and practitioners. They came from both the sexual and reproductive health field and developmental science. Participants were committed to bridging their disciplines in order to discover new ways of approaching adolescent sexual health and improving youth outcomes.

We shared current research and practices from each respective field. We challenged one another to push beyond the boundaries of our current approaches. We uncovered new ideas to explore—all of which you can read about in the 2016 Kirby Summit Report.

This Expanded Our Minds!

The inaugural Kirby Summit left our minds expanded and invigorated! We took the conversation on the road to share the findings from the Summit with others in the field. We felt that same level of excitement and engagement with the topic from applied researchers and practitioners across the country. And when we said, “We need to be doing some things differently,” people wanted to know, “So what exactly should we be doing?”

Despite our excitement, we grappled with that same question. The cutting-edge science meant that many ideas were still preliminary or untested. However, we were up to the challenge!

In May 2017, we convened the same group of experts for the Second Annual Kirby Summit. Our goal was to push our thinking even further and to apply findings from developmental science into concrete next steps for applied researchers and practitioners in the adolescent sexual and reproductive health field.

Three Developmental Science Principles

We focused the Summit on the following three developmental science principles:

  • Emotion, affect and arousal: Adolescence is a time of heightened emotional arousal. In social situations that produce excitement or novelty (like romantic and sexual relationships), decision-making and behavioral choices are motivated more by emotions and feelings, and less by rational thought.
  • Peer presence and influence: Adolescents are highly responsive to their social context. This results in significant opportunities for social learning. Identity formation is an important component of this transitional process. Adolescents’ identities are forged through interactions with others, especially peers.
  • Autonomy and social status: Achieving increasing autonomy and independence while integrating into a larger social network are central components of adolescent development. Adolescents benefit from autonomous exploration of the world and their own identity in ways that are safe and structured.

In our conversations with the Kirby Summit experts and in our subsequent conversations with our network across the country, we have debated these principles, generated strategies for application, and synthesized those ideas.

For each of the three principles, ETR is developing an issue brief for applied researchers, program developers, educators and youth workers. The briefs summarize what we consider to be the most compelling next steps. ETR is delighted to share the first of these briefs: Emotion, Developmental Neuroscience and Adolescent Sexual Health. We’ve highlighted seven key points for what the sexual health field can do differently to acknowledge the emotionally-driven motivations of students in sexual health decision-making.

Please contribute to this ongoing conversation! Ask your team to read the brief as part of their own professional learning. Discuss these points in your team meetings. Assign the brief as pre-work to upcoming trainings.  Do you see these principles in effect in your work with adolescents? Let us know how.


Stephanie Guinosso, PhD, MPH, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. She specializes in school-based trauma-informed approaches. She can be reached at

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