Many factors, both individual and environmental, contribute to the increasing incidence of youth crime, violence, and other anti-social behaviors. Although the problem is staggering and there are complex factors that must be systematically, comprehensively, and collaboratively addressed by families, schools, and communities, there is overwhelming evidence that delinquency and violence among our nation's youth are neither uncontrollable nor inevitable. The purpose of this paper is twofold: first to identify and explore those characteristics of the young people who have successfully overcome adverse environmental conditions, and secondly, to focus on the role of law-related education (LRE) in promoting the development of those characteristics that lead to healthy behavior.
Law-related education is an educational program for citizenship in a constitutional democracy. It is designed to teach students the fundamental principles and skills needed to become responsible participants. Programs are characterized by relevant, high interest course materials; extensive use of volunteer resource persons from the justice system; field experiences (community service projects, court tours, police ride-alongs, internships, etc.); participatory classroom teaching methods and co-curricular activities (mock trials and other public performances).
For the purposes of this paper, at-risk youth are those who have been subject to a combination of interrelated biological, psychological, and social factors that result in a greater likelihood for the development of delinquency, substance abuse, or other related anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.
Dr. Tim Buzzell, Director of the Iowa Center for Law and Civic Education, has noted that the research findings on both risk and resiliency include a number of psychological characteristics. For example, risk factors such as alienation, school failure, or poor interpersonal relationships incorporate a number of characteristics associated with the processes of cognition. The resiliency framework focuses more specifically on psychological traits such as problem solving skills, social competence, and a sense of autonomy. (Buzzell, 1992)
As Dr. Buzzell points out, the research on cognition and resiliency also is consistent with findings from evaluations of corrections programs. An important challenge to the prevailing belief that "nothing works" in rehabilitating youthful offenders is the work of Robert Ross and his colleagues at the University of Ottawa. After a careful review of studies published between 1973 and 1987, Ross found that some programs were highly successful and that the common characteristic of every successful program was the inclusion of some technique which could be expected to have an impact on the offender's thinking. "They included some technique which could increase his reasoning skills, teach him to stop and think before acting, increase his problem solving skills, help him to develop alternative interpretations of social rules and obligations, and help him to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of other people." (Ross, 1990)
Based on her review of the literature, Bonnie Benard, Prevention Specialist for the Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities at Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, has identified the following characteristics of resilient children: (Benard, 1993)
...three dolls made of glass, plastic, and steel and exposed to the same risk, the blow of a hammer. The first doll breaks down completely, the second shows a dent that it carries permanently, and the third doll gives out a fine metallic sound. Of course, the outcomes for the three dolls would be different if their environments were to buffer the blows from the hammer by interposing some type of `umbrella' between the external attack and the recipient. (1987 pp. 10-11)In this analogy, the steel doll is resilient, the glass and plastic dolls represent degrees of vulnerability and the buffer or umbrella represents the protective factors. "The range of human development outcomes is determined by the balance between risk factors, stressful life events and transitions, and protective factors." (Werner, 1982) Families, schools and communities that protect children growing up in adverse conditions are characterized by (1) caring and support, (2) positive expectations, and (3) ongoing opportunities for participation. (Benard, 1993) Given the incredible stresses many families are experiencing, school has become a vital refuge for a growing number of children, serving as a "protective shield to help children withstand the multiple vicissitudes that they can expect of a stressful world." (Garmezy, 1991)
David Hawkins' social development strategy organizes existing evidence on protective factors into a theory for addressing risk factors and promoting resiliency. This theory identifies bonding—the feeling of being connected to others—as the overarching protective factor in the development of healthy behaviors. We can do little or nothing to change some individual characteristics that serve as protective buffers in the lives of some children. Some, like gender, shyness or sociability have a biological base. These are the characteristics an individual brings into the world and cannot be easily changed. In contrast, bonding is a protective factor that can be changed.
From early on, resilient children tend to establish positive relationships with both adults and peers that help bond them to their family, school and community. (Benard, 1993) LRE's emphasis on the use of outside resource persons provides those opportunities for bonding to adult role models both inside the classroom and out. The small heterogeneous cooperative-learning groups inherent in LRE instruction not only provide opportunities for at-risk students to interact and bond with non-delinquent peers, but increase the chance that they will ask for and accept the support of others.
Bonding encompasses the quantity and quality of the relationships we establish with others. In reference to school-based violence prevention programs, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Assistant Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, stresses the importance of the fourth R—relationships. (Prothrow-Stith, 1993) A recent study conducted by the Institute for Education in Transformation at the Claremont Graduate School collected and analyzed 24,000 pages of data from interviews with students, staff, and parents at four representative urban/suburban public elementary and high schools about the problems in schooling. An executive summary of their findings, "Voices from the Inside: A Report on Schooling from Inside the Classroom," noted that the problem most often mentioned was relationships between teachers and students. Where positive things about the schools were noted, they usually involved reports of "individuals who care, listen, understand, respect others and are honest, open and sensitive." LRE teacher training programs stress the development of these attitudes among students as well as in teachers, and encourage educators to value the contributions of all students and to be involved as a learner with their students.
No discussion of protective factors would be complete without some discussion of cultural status both as a risk factor and a potential protective factor. Institutional racism still exists, denying members of certain ethnic groups equal access to the rewards of our political, economic, and educational institutions. These inequities can lead to feelings of powerlessness, alienation and anger. (Cummins, 1986) "Some ethnic communities are devalued and disempowered by the larger society in much the same way as are their individual members. With some justification, these communities often distrust the dominant culture, further isolating them from whatever opportunities and resources might be available to them." (A Place to Start, Santa Clara County Office of Education, 1990)
Young people from language and cultural minorities are disproportionately represented among youth-at-risk. However, most minority youth who grow up with the stresses of poverty, lack of opportunity, discrimination, community breakdown, and family disruption do not engage in crime and violence. (American Psychological Association, 1993) Cultural values of minority groups can serve to enhance resilience. In contrast to the value placed on individuality by the dominant culture, the African-American emphasis on communitarianism, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Island American emphasis on family harmony, and the Native American value of cooperation within the group are more closely aligned with positive protective strategies. Along with the social competence skills of empathy and caring for others noted above, LRE curriculums and strategies incorporate increased understanding of and respect for cultural diversity and values through lessons such as those on the constitutional protection of minority rights.
Hawkins outlines three conditions necessary for the development of strong bonds: opportunities, skills, and recognition. Using Hawkins' model, LRE's role in promoting these conditions can be demonstrated.
Law-related education's heavy emphasis on interactive and cooperative-learning strategies provide an opportunity for all students to participate and to receive recognition for their contributions to the group. LRE content prepares students for school and community participation by providing an understanding of how the system works and opportunities for students to explore alternative forms of influencing social conditions. The relevance and authenticity of many LRE lessons has been demonstrated to engage student interest and willingness to participate. Several LRE curriculums are explicitly designed to promote community service and to engage students in solving real problems in their school or community.
Skills. Opportunities for involvement will be of little value if students lack the skills that will enable them to participate. If children do not have the skills necessary to be successful, they experience frustration and failure and will not want to participate.
The resiliency factors identified by Ross, Benard, and others (problem-solving, social competence and autonomy) are explicit objectives of LRE lessons and curriculums. Participation in mock trials, legislative hearings, and other LRE role-plays and simulations enhances communication skills. Debates, moot courts, case studies, and conflict resolution activities help students to see issues from multi-perspectives, to tolerate ambiguities, to identify alternative solutions to problems, and to assess the consequences of various alternatives. Practice in such activities strengthens the ability to think abstractly, reflectively, critically, and flexibly which in turn may increase impulse control—the likelihood that students enrolled in LRE classes will think before acting. Practice in handling controversial issues with respect for differing views reinforces feelings of empathy and caring. Several LRE curriculums focus on the development of student plans to address relevant school and community issues, thereby providing practice in the planning skills which are among the attributes of resilient children. LRE's interactive and cooperative group strategies offer ongoing opportunities for practice of the social participation skills essential to resiliency.
Recognition. Families, teachers, and members of the community who acknowledge the legitimacy and value of youth participation reinforce important messages about efficacy and personal empowerment. Children must be recognized and acknowledged for their efforts. Recognition gives children the incentive to continue to contribute. Teachers who reinforce students' progress and parents who recognize their children's efforts contribute to bonding. (Hawkins, 1992)
Good LRE instruction is based on the life experiences of students. This practice not only makes the lessons more relevant to the lives of students, but more importantly, recognizes the value of their experience. LRE also asks students to reflect on, recognize, and value what they have learned from each lesson or activity. The use of outside resource persons in LRE also sends an important message to students that people in their community care about them and are willing to take the time to listen to their ideas.
There is no quick fix, no magic wand to solve the problems that face young people in our society. But it can be done. It will require time, patience, and resources and the concerted efforts of families, schools, and communities to change beliefs, attitudes, practices, and social conditions. Law-related education clearly can play an important role in that effort by fostering resilience to risk factors among the students in our classrooms and communities.
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