Using Developmental Science to Inform Very Young Adolescent Programming

We’d like to welcome a guest blogger, Christine Su.

What is this resource for?

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This resource came out of the Discover Learning Project, locally known as Vumbua Kujifunza. Discover was designed as an afterschool intervention for 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This project evolved from a Gates Foundation-funded project with older adolescents (15-19 year olds), where opportunities were identified for prevention in a younger age group before the emergence of negative sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes.

This resource was created in collaboration with the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley and Save the Children with guidance from Dr. Ahna Suleiman, a developmentally-focused adolescent health researcher, practitioner and educator.

What this resource aims to do is to provide concrete guidance and examples on how to integrate developmental science principles into very young adolescent (VYA) programming. These principles appear to be promising for informing opportunities for learning that leads to behavior change.

It recognizes that through implementation research, iterative learning, and adaptation of programs over the years, program designers, implementers, researchers, and policymakers have identified what type of interventions and activities work well with adolescents. And so this resource aims to complement these areas of knowledge and experiences by offering a developmentally-informed understanding of why these approaches work and providing considerations that can improve the precision of their interventions and lessen the need for trial and error.

This resource can be used at any point of the project cycle to review, refine, and adapt activities and interventions to tailor them to the developmental needs of VYAs.

What is the developmental science of adolescence?

Developmental science is the study of patterns and processes of biological, cognitive and behavioral changes that occur as a person grows and matures throughout their life. It is now recognized that understanding the processes and patterns of changes that occur during adolescence—ages 10-24 years—has the potential to improve health outcomes and overall well-being. During early adolescence, puberty, along with changes in social roles, environments, and responsibilities, leads to important changes in the brain that influence young people’s behavior.  Leveraging scientific insights based on understanding the changes that occur during early adolescence and puberty can contribute to improved design, implementation, and evaluation of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender programs with very young adolescents (VYAs).

Why focus on very young adolescents?

Early adolescence—ages 10-14 years—is a period of amazing physical, social, emotional, and cognitive changes. It is a time of growth, development, and learning with life-long implications for health and well-being. It is a period of increasingly gendered experience and expectations, which creates an opportunity to foster more gender-equitable attitudes and behaviors before they become set.

Early adolescence is marked by the onset of puberty with the end goal of reproductive maturity. The physical maturation along with new feelings of sexual attraction and motivations to engage in social relationships and romantic and sexual behavior makes this an important time for learning that leads to positive behavioral outcomes, which can influence adolescent SRH throughout the life course.

Why address SRH in early adolescence?

The purpose of puberty is sexual maturation. For humans, that includes being able to successfully navigate the social complexity of romantic and sexual relationships. Puberty initiates changes in learning, motivations, and interests in ways that influence lifelong reproductive health.11 There is evidence that very early adolescence is a sensitive period for learning about social relationships, rules, roles, and hierarchies. Early adolescents also experience changes in their motivations to seek social acceptance and admiration, and in key aspects of individual identity. Central to that identity is understanding one’s self as a sexual and gendered individual. Early patterns of positive experiences exploring self-identity during this window can help to establish more positive trajectories for outcomes such as gender-based violence, depression and mental health, educational attainment, empowerment, and sexual and reproductive health. Investing early can also reduce the need to intervene after problems arise in later adolescence.

Given the importance of these years, this resource uses insights from developmental science to enhance the precision of timing, and content of effective SRH and gender equity programming inearly adolescence. A better understanding of adolescent development may strengthen the impact ofprograms and policies aiming to improve the health and well-being of early adolescents.

Downnload the print version of the Resource or use the interactive version of the DS Resource.


Chistine Su is a youth development and global health professional who is the manager of the Discover Learning Project. This seeks to advance understanding of human development through contributions to developmental science to advance knowledge that informs policies and practices. The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and involves the partnership of the Institute of Human Development at UC Berkeley, Dalberg, Save the Children International and Tanzania, Ubongo Kids, Camara Education, and Health for a Prosperous Nation.