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STRIKING A BALANCE BETWEEN SELF-DISCIPLINE AND HELP: Students Need Guidance to Stay on Track

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"A successful child today can become a struggling teen tomorrow if caring adults do nothing to meet her or his changing developmental needs or to positively impact daily experiences."

Many underachieving adolescents become detached from school and look for success in dubious activities such as gangs, crime and drugs. Research and successful programs have proved that such teens can be turned around and grow into contributing members of society when parents, teachers and guidance counselors give them the motivation to do so.

Juveniles commit proportionately more than their share of crimes, and those between ages 15 and 18 commit the bulk of the violent offenses. In 1999, there were approximately 2.5 million arrests of youths under 18 for all crimes, constituting 17 percent of all arrests made that year. The growing youth population in jail is costing society money and potential human capital. If society could deter a 15-year-old from a life of crime, it could save approximately $20,000 in the expenses associated with incarceration and other criminal deterrents, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That expense makes deterring these youth a worthy investment.

Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed that an alarming number of students are disengaged from school, especially adolescent minorities in urban schools. In Beyond the ClassroomLaurence Steinberg argued that teenage culture frowns on school success and leads to disengagement. In a conference at the Brookings Institute last month, Steinberg said that for middle schoolers, this problem “has something to do with the nature of junior high schools or middle schools or with the lack of fit between the way these institutions are structured and the developmental needs of young teenagers.

Parents, educators and policy-makers must understand these needs. The Search Institute (SI), a non-profit dedicated to adolescents’ well-being, has identified 40 developmental assets-critical factors for students’ growth and development. “External” assets are those derived from positive experiences that young people have interacting with the people and institutions in their lives, and “internal assets” are those personal qualities that guide choices and create a sense of centeredness, purpose, and focus, shaping dispositions likely to lead to good judgment.

In the fall of 2000, the Center for National Policy (CNP) convened a conference to discuss juveniles and the programs that show promise in dealing with them. All the successful youth programs used education and self-discipline to “bring structure, purpose, constructive motivation and a sense of belonging to the lives of young people whose environment is otherwise lacking in these important elements of successful living.”

In its report, New Programs for Youth Offenders: A Search for Effective National Models, CNP concluded that the emerging model for programs for at-risk youth is one that combines discipline and help and builds a web of strong interpersonal relationships between the adolescent and adults.

Counselors can be asset-builders at the school level by supporting a collaborative effort between schools and families to develop programs that give adolescents the eight developmental assets they need. A study by N.E. Amundson, W.A. Borgen and E. Tench found high school students are trying to meet personal and career-related needs, which are in a state of flux and uncertainty. The study suggested that counseling should recognize the developmental needs of adolescents and base guidance on the student’s personal and career competence.

All students-at-risk students, juvenile offenders, or average adolescents-need this type of support from adults. “A successful child today can become a struggling teen tomorrow if caring adults do nothing to meet her or his changing developmental needs or to positively impact daily experiences,” noted the Search Institute in its October 1999 newsletter.

Read more about the Search Institute.
For more statistics on juvenile crime, visit the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Read the full report by the Center on National Policy.

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