Teacher and Administrator Guide for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime

While parents are the first lines of defense when it comes to helping children grow up to become responsible, productive, happy adults, they’re not the only ones who play a role in helping kids walk the right path. Teachers and administrators can help to support the tough work parents are doing at home to help kids achieve and reduce rates of juvenile delinquency. From providing a listening ear in the classroom to becoming a part of kids’ lives by coaching sports teams, teachers and administrators have myriad opportunities to make a difference in the lives of children.

Any unlawful behavior by a minor is considered juvenile delinquency. While juvenile crime has been on the decline in the past decade in the United States, nearly 2,000 children are arrested each day. The United States is home to more than 1,500 juvenile detention facilities, and about 20% of youths housed in these facilities are awaiting trial and have yet to be found guilty of a crime. Thankfully, efforts to keep kids out of juvenile detention centers are working–and teachers and administrators can support family and community efforts in helping kids thrive and achieve.

Understanding Juvenile Delinquency

It can be tough to pinpoint why some kids get in trouble with the law and others do not, especially when kids who grow up in similar circumstances (or even in the same family) seem to take different paths. That being said, understanding some of the factors that can increase a child’s risk of getting in trouble with the law can help teachers and administrators provide support to students who may be more likely to struggle.

Risk factors associated with juvenile delinquency include:

  • Problems at school: Students who struggle socially or academically are at higher risk of getting into trouble with the law than students who have average or above average grades and peer relationships.
  • Poor school attendance: A high number of absences, suspensions, and/or school expulsions may make it more likely that a student will participate in illegal activity.
  • Parental issues: Most teachers and administrators agree that the vast majority of parents are doing their best to raise their children. That being said, family circumstances–including substance abuse, domestic violence, food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness, financial problems, neglect, and abandonment–can make it harder for a child to thrive and may increase the likelihood that they will break the law.
  • Substance abuse: Children and teenagers who use drugs and alcohol are at risk of further breaking the law.
  • Pattern behaviors: Students who engage in certain patterns of behavior (like petty theft or running away from home) may be at higher risk of delinquency.
  • Gun possession: Students who possess guns aren’t just more likely to become involved in illegal activity. Gun possession tends to magnify juvenile crime, making issues that start as low-level crimes become a matter of life and death.
  • Gang membership: Juvenile gang membership has been shown to have a strong association with future criminal activity.

Students who fit the risk factors for juvenile delinquency may or may not get into trouble with the law. If a student is at high risk, it’s important for teachers and administrators to keep an eye out for signs that a student may already be participating in illicit behavior.

Common signs of a student participating in illegal activity include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance abuse
  • Change in social group
  • Injury to self
  • Violence toward others
  • Sudden drop in school performance and/or attendance

Role of Education in Preventing Juvenile Delinquency

If you notice signs of a student struggling that make you believe that they may be participating in illegal activity, it’s important that you don’t ostracize or exclude them unless the safety of other students is at risk. Serving as an inclusive authority figure and a positive role model can go a long way in helping students who are dealing with difficult issues realize that they can change their lives.

Letting students know that they can always come to talk to you–without judgment–can be a great first step in creating a culture of openness in your classroom or school. When students know that you have an open-door policy, they may be more likely to open up to you about illegal activity in which they or other students are participating.

Staying in close contact with families can also provide support to students who are on the path to legal issues. This can also provide teachers and administrators with more information about what the student is facing at home, allowing you to create a comprehensive plan that makes sense to support an at-risk student.

Encouraging students to join activities and clubs can also be a great way to boost self-esteem and provide an outlet for negativity and stress. If you have a say in the types of clubs and sports that are offered at your school, it can be smart to provide opportunities that don’t require a skill level or innate ability. For example, a chess club that welcomes first-time players can be a perfect fit for students who want social interaction but don’t feel that they have the skill level to join a sport. Book clubs, poetry clubs, and engineering clubs can also welcome students of all abilities while boosting self-confidence.

Classroom Strategies for Preventing Delinquency

Utilizing teaching strategies that support at-risk students is a proactive step that teachers can take to lower the likelihood of students becoming involved in illegal activity.

Steps teachers can take to create a positive classroom environment that benefits at-risk students include:

  • Start class with a check-in: Taking a moment or two to check in with students at the start of class can be a great way to help students feel included, and can give kids who are struggling a chance to connect with a trusted adult.
  • Speak up: Asking a student to talk when something seems off can let them know that you’re there to help. While it can take time for trust to build, students eventually feel more comfortable confiding in adults who make it clear that they care.
  • Positive classroom management: Focusing on the positive in your classroom can help to boost the self-esteem of your students, especially those who are at risk due to a negative home environment.
  • Focus on social-emotional learning: The implementation of a social emotional learning program can teach students positive coping strategies, communication skills, conflict resolution, and more. While social-emotional learning can be incorporated into any classroom, it can be especially helpful to have an entire class devoted to the concept, especially in the elementary and middle school grades.

Additional resources:

School-Wide Programs and Strategies

An effective effort to support at-risk students must reach far beyond the classroom of a single teacher. School-wide policies that promote a culture of positivity, inclusion, and support for students in difficult circumstances can help lower the likelihood that at-risk students will enter the juvenile justice system.

School-wide initiatives that can make a difference in the lives of at-risk students include:

  • Restorative justice policies: Restorative justice programs allow students to take responsibility for their actions. Rather than dishing out a punishment that doesn’t correlate with an offense (such as a student who has bullied someone else getting a detention), restorative justice focuses on conversations and consequences that make sense. While a restorative justice program takes more leg work than a standard disciplinary program, many teachers, administrators, and students agree that it’s well worth the effort.
  • Peer mediation: A peer mediation program trains selected students to act as the go-between for students who are having issues. Using a peer mediator (instead of having to go to an adult) can be an effective way for students to resolve their differences. It’s important that students who serve as peer mediators go through a training program to learn conflict resolution skills.
  • Anti-bullying task force: An anti-bullying task force can be composed of anyone in the school community who wants to make life better for students, including teachers, parents, administrators, and students themselves. Ideally, a school’s task force meets regularly to discuss initiatives, new issues, and develop methods to protect and support all students.
  • Positive incentives for all: Many schools find success with offering students a school-wide incentive for achieving certain goals (for example, boosting attendance, lowering bullying incidents, etc.). Offering a school-wide program (rather than excluding students who don’t meet certain criteria) allows students who have committed infractions to jump right back on track, and also fosters a culture of support and encouragement from other students.

Links to Additional Resources:

Parental Engagement

Bringing parents into the loop when it comes to interventions that support at-risk students can make efforts more effective. When teachers and administrators work with parents, families are able to utilize successful in-school behavioral management techniques at home, both creating an environment of positivity and a sense of consistency for the child. When parents are in tune with what’s going on at school, they’re better able to support their students, lessening the likelihood that they’ll enter the juvenile justice system.

Strategies for increasing parental engagement and communication may include:

  • Asking parents how they’d like to be contacted: In today’s digital age, many parents have a preferred form of communication. Knowing how to get in touch with parents makes it easy for teachers to reach out quickly and easily. Asking parents if it’s ok to text can make real-time communication easier for teachers.
  • Positive phone calls: Parents of at-risk students may feel inundated with phone calls concerning their child’s negative behaviors. Calling home for a positive reason can go a long way in boosting the child’s home environment, helping the parent see the child and the school in a positive light, and reminding the child that they’re more than capable of great things.
  • Providing fun opportunities for parents to visit school: Only allowing parents to come into the school to volunteer or for disciplinary reasons can make it hard to get families through the doors. Providing fun opportunities for families to come to school–such as a parent-child breakfast, or an end-of-year celebration–can be a no-pressure, fun way to foster positivity and get to know parents.

Mental Health Resources

In many cases, students who enter the juvenile justice system are dealing with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more. Teachers who are not mental health professionals should not attempt to diagnose or treat students who may be struggling with their mental health. Instead, working in tandem with parents and school counselors can create a trifecta of support that can help a student succeed.

Knowing your students is key to recognizing mental health and/or substance abuse issues. If a student’s behavior suddenly changes (even if the student seems to do a 180 from depressed to ecstatic), it’s important to take note and alert both the parents and the school counselor.

Resources for student mental health include:

Intervention Strategies

When a student shows that they’re struggling, it’s key to reach out to them. Ignoring the problem rarely makes it go away. After reaching out to parents, a referral to a school counselor is typically a solid next step. Implementing restorative justice techniques in the classroom and modeling conflict resolution skills can also help students who are at-risk understand new ways of solving problems.

Many at-risk students struggle academically, which can make it hard for them to grow their self-confidence. In addition to behavioral interventions, providing academic interventions (such as tutoring) can help students begin to feel confident that they can handle their course load.

Intervention strategy resources include:

Because I Said I Would–This program provides students with interpersonal skills, conflict resolution strategies, and more, and can be a valuable intervention for teachers working to help at-risk youth.

Interventions for At-Risk Student Success–Learn how to teach students self-regulation while also helping them thrive academically.

Resiliency Workshops–These actionable lesson plans can work as single-student or full-class interventions.

Professional Development and Training

Recognizing the risk factors associated with juvenile delinquency and understanding how to support at-risk students is key for all educators. When administrators offer these professional development opportunities, teachers get to learn about the strategies they can put in place in their classrooms to support their students who are most likely to struggle. This proactive measure can help stop a problem before it starts.

Check out these programs to learn more about professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators of at-risk students:

  • Teacher Professional Growth (NEA)–Programs offered by the National Education Association give teachers the opportunity to learn more about how to include all students, and how to lead in a way that at-risk students want to emulate.
  • Grassroots Workshops–These teacher-taught professional development opportunities cover everything from social-emotional learning to diversifying the classroom.
  • Professional Learning Board–This teacher certification renewal organization offers professional development opportunities on topics including positive classroom management, child abuse prevention, student mental health, and more.

As an educator, you want the best for your students. Implementing positive classroom management techniques, school-wide intervention programs, individual student interventions, parent engagement strategies, and taking advantage of professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators of at-risk students can pay off in dividends. Your school–and your students–are worth the effort.

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