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Helping Students Thrive Now

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Teaching Opinion

How to Break the Juvenile Detention Cycle: New Research Shows a Way

By Greg Walton, Jason Okonofua & Katie Remington Cunningham — October 13, 2021 3 min read
How do I help students return to school from juvenile detention?
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How can I help students return to school successfully from juvenile detention?

Imagine this: You’re a high school teacher and have managed to create cohesive classroom environments for all five periods. Then, boom, you learn that you will have a new student returning from the local jail. Before you know it, he’s sitting in the back of your class, and all eyes are on him.

Let’s be honest. We’re all exposed to the stereotype that formerly incarcerated people, even children, are “criminals"—potentially dangerous individuals prone to making trouble.

That stereotype gets in the way of developing a relationship based on trust and respect—a foundation that all children need to succeed in school. It means a young person returning to class from juvenile detention can seem threatening. Will he be a troublemaker? Will he disrupt my class? What crime did he commit?

And the student knows the stereotype, too, so he worries: Will my teachers give me a fair shake? Will they have my back?

That dynamic creates mistrust. How can you lift this barrier so you can work together and make progress?

In a new study, we found that when students reentering high school from juvenile detention introduced themselves in a letter delivered to one of their teachers—someone they chose as a person they’d like to get to know better and who could help them succeed—they were less likely to return to juvenile detention in the next term.

First, we asked students what they would want their teacher to know about them, their goals and values, and what was hard for them that the teacher could help with. What kids wrote was heartbreakingly simple. It boiled down to, “I’m a good person and I’m trying, but it’s very hard. Please help.” One child said, “I’m a good kid and likes to learn new things and like to have fun and I like talkin [sic] alot.” Another wanted his teacher to know, “I have a bad attitude and I get bored easily,” that he wanted “to stay in class,” and added, “I need more 1 on 1 time with the teacher because I don’t learn as fast as other kids.”

Then, in a letter that thanked the teacher for their work and asked for their support of the child, we shared students’ self-introduction with the teacher they identified.

Absent the letter, 69 percent of the children had recidivated to juvenile detention by the end of the next term—a tragic finding. But when we delivered the letter, just 29 percent did.

The letter seemed to alleviate fears and open a path for teachers to connect with the student. One teacher said: “First thoughts, in complete honesty, would be, ‘Oh great,’ or ‘Why me.’ I would think about what problems he may add to my class. But, as I read more of the letter and see that [student name] CHOSE ME to be his mentor/confidant, I am immediately reminded that he is a child that has made some mistakes and wants to change. He deserves that chance, and, if I can, I want to help. Reading about his passions made me see him more as a person than just another student with problems.”

With the letter, teachers felt more love, trust, hope, and respect for the child. And that makes all the difference. We need to learn more from future research, but the results suggest the transformative effect that teachers can have when they reorient toward relationships with their students.

So, when you work with a child, especially a child facing difficult circumstances, ask them: What are your goals and values? What is important to you? What do you want to get out of school? What is hard that I can help you with? Then, listen. That can help the child begin to trust you. And it can help you see beyond stereotypes to give a child in need the support he or she deserves.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now 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.


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