School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Schools Can Help Adolescents Become Responsible, Informed Adults

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 27, 2017 4 min read
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Some might attribute a rise of violence in our neighborhoods and nation to a resurgence of hate. It may be true that each of us needs a refreshed lesson in hatred, its sources and its social implications but schools might not be successful if they set out to eradicate hatred. What can they do? They can better understand young people and our communities. What gives rise to the young associating with a gang or terrorist group? We think it comes from a need for protection and for belonging. What we know isn’t necessarily new.

Gangs come into existence and flourish because the needs of the young people in a neighborhood or culture or family are not being met. The gang, in essence, fills the void (Gardner. 1992).

Loss of Neighborhoods

The growth of mobility has allowed people to move from one neighborhood to another, from one state to another, in order to obtain employment, start a new life. The movement of women entering the workforce has helped families enter and maintain a place in the middle class. At the same time, the gentrification of neighborhoods in cities, making space for more middle class families has displaced lower income families. Mobility and progress can make it more difficult to uncover the voids in children’s lives.


The road out of poverty seems longer or filled with more barriers. The family has lost its power. We can remember when the family was the whole neighborhood, where grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were around to contribute to the feeling of belonging, to supervise and raise the young of one’s family. Shop owners and churches knew the children and were part of the family, too. Those in extended families are few and far between now.


The Violence Prevention Institute reports 4 general reasons for joining gangs are: identity, protection, fellowship and intimidation. All fill the voids left by the changing family structure and changing neighborhoods. When feeling marginalized, alone, and in harm’s way, blaming others is a quick solution. For young people, those factors make them susceptible to anyone who reaches out, who seems to care, who offers security in some form. But, just maybe something else is going on in some families and communities that is also important to understand.

Adolescence vs. Adulthood

US Senator Ben Sasse, in his book The Vanishing American Adult, raises a central issue that has long been our challenge in schools and in society. Blame allows people to let themselves off the hook. His belief is that adolescence has stretched into adulthood. Rather than becoming self-reliant adults, some (or many) extend their adolescence into adulthood and fail to take responsibility for themselves and the conditions in which they live. Somehow we have arrived at a time and place where adolescents are treated as adults without being given or taught how to assume the responsibility of adults.

How have we, as a country, changed the manner in which we raise our children? And how has that resulted in what he terms, ‘the vanishing American adult’? Evidence shows us that the vanishing family has left a void. No matter how much parents love their children and how much they care and provide for them, we have lost the grandmothers and grandfathers who used to live with us or near by. We have lost the aunts and uncles and cousins that were our extended neighbors. The values and lessons that used to be shared at Sunday dinners have vanished and so have those dinners.

That is an immense responsibility and one very difficult to fill. The lines that separate childhood from adolescence and adolescence from adulthood have disappeared. Rites of passage are few. But there is something schools can and should do.

Schools Can Make a Difference

Adolescents need help and direction. Adolescents need advisors and relationships with people who can help them learn to navigate the world of beliefs, thinking, feeling, values, problems and differences. This is not something that necessarily happens in addition to classes and subjects. It can come from the planning of how curriculum is used to teach these lessons. Literature and history are rich in opportunities for learning both sides of issues. Instead of teaching in a linear fashion, the organization of curriculum around problems and sides offers students and their teachers opportunities for learning about values through deep thinking and problem solving and empathy. Had we done a better job, perhaps most of our country would have a better understanding of the Union and the Confederate intentions and what they stood for. Had we done a better job, perhaps most of our country would have a better understanding of what equality means and why we espouse it. Perhaps schools can do a better job helping to develop the behaviors that adolescents need in order to grow into adulthood. Embedding perspective, empathy, and responsibility into the curriculum that already exists, and making sure each student feels included and understood , schools may be able to more to help adolescents grow into responsible adults who are not programmed to blame and shrug off the responsibilities of adulthood. We hope that the return of the American Adult will mean less hatred and more maturity, less isolation and more belonging.

Gardner, S. (1992). Street Gangs in America. New York: Franklin Watts
Sasse, B. (2017). The Vanishing American Adult. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.