Coastal communities throughout the world will be faced with policy decisions that affect their resilience to climate change, sea level rise, and associated impacts. Adaptation pathways, a holistic approach to policy development, may be an ideal framework for municipalities to consider in low-lying, dynamic environments such as barrier islands. Adaptation pathways identify hypothetical future timelines whereby communities adopt a different policy in response to new environmental conditions. This takes into account changing conditions and resulting hazards that exceed a threshold agreed upon by the community. In this paper, we focus on barrier island communities and give an overview of adaptation pathway methodologies, highlight several common policies considered to increase resilience, review how coastal scientists have thus far contributed to such methods, and discuss specific research agendas that could aid in future implementations. Although the use of adaptation pathways is still in its early stages in many coastal communities, the success of the process is dependent on contributions from both quantitative hazard research and consistent engagement with stakeholders in an iterative co-development of prioritized policy trajectories. Scientific needs include: better understanding of future hazards due to climate change and sea level rise, better predictions of time-dependent processes such as barrier island response to human alterations to natural coastal defense systems, and improved communication between physical scientists, social scientists, managers, and stakeholders.