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Juvenile Delinquency: Prevention Programs

Updated on December 13, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary


Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Practice, and Law

School Based Prevention Programs

There are approximately 1.8 million to 2.2 million juveniles under the age of 18 who are arrested by law enforcement every year (Bartol & Bartol, 2009). Although the rate of juvenile delinquency has decreased over the past few years, there is still a high rate of juvenile offending going on in the United States. Because of this, it’s important to move from a focus of punishment to a focus on prevention.

There are three main approaches to prevention in juvenile delinquency. These are: primary prevention (universal prevention), selective prevention (secondary prevention), and treatment or intervention (tertiary prevention). School-based prevention programs fall into the primary prevention approach. This approach is centered on preventing juvenile delinquency before signs of negative behaviors emerge (Bartol & Bartol, 2009). These prevention programs begin in early childhood (around seven or eight years of age) and are typically conducted in a school setting with large groups of children. Primary prevention programs target children in the same geographical setting (such as school or grade) without any other selection criteria. The most successful of these approaches begin early, are multisystemic, and are based on sound research of child development (Bartol & Bartol, 2009).

Approximately 82% of individuals incarcerated in the United States are high school dropouts (Bartol & Bartol, 2009). Research has shown that academic failure and negative school experiences are key risk factors in predicting juvenile delinquency. However, high academic achievement, motivation and continuing education are often found in resilient individuals, thus decreasing their risk of delinquency. Because of this, school-based prevention programs should begin as early as first grade. By starting early, the programs have captive audiences (children are required by law to attend school) in which to employ the prevention programs (Bartol & Bartol, 2009).

Studies have shown that aggressive behavior can be reduced by altering the school environment. This can be done by emphasizing rewards and praising children for prosocial behavior and also by reducing cues that might facilitate and increase hostility (Flannery, Liau, Powell, Vesterdal, Vazsonyi, Guo, Atha, & Embry, 2003). One school-based prevention program that has shown to be effective in reducing aggressive behavior and other negative childhood behaviors is the Good Behavior Game (GBG). This program focuses on classroom behavior management as the way to reduce negative behaviors such as aggression. Teachers reward teams of students if no one in their group displays negative behavior during game sessions. The rewards start out as tangible reinforcements and are gradually moved to less tangible rewards (Flanner et. al, 2003).

The Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (CPPRG) implemented the Fast Track prevention trial. This trial focuses on elementary school children who are high-risk for long-term antisocial behavior. This program is a long-term, mulisystemic, multisite, developmentally based program. After a year of intervention, results indicated positive effects on social competence, conduct problems, and child aggressive behavior (Flanner et. al, 2003).

The Leadership Program’s Violence Prevention Project is a promising school-based prevention program. The goal of the program is violence prevention through improving conflict-resolution skills in teens aged 12-16. Every week, students engage in an interactive lesson that takes place in their regular classroom. The lesson is given by a well-trained program staff and covers poor communication, classroom environment, and academic self-concept. The 12-week lesson plan helps students explore and discover a number of different options for conflict resolution (National Institute of Justice, n.d.). The research indicates that although students started the program with low levels of peer support, by the end of the program, it was found that they had a more positive growth rate. Additionally, it was found that those students in the treatment group were more likely to walk away from conflict rather than engage in conflict. While the program seems promising, more studies need to be conducted to determine its efficacy in preventing juvenile delinquency (National Institute of Justice, n.d.).

Wilson, Gottfredson, and Najaka (2001), conducted a meta-analysis of 216 intervention programs with the main categories being environmentally focused and individually focused. The environmentally focused programs included establishing expectations for behavior, classroom management and recognition of grades. The individually focused programs included cognitive-behavioral methods, mentoring, counseling, recreation and social competency (Wilson et. al, 2001). Their research showed that programs that focus on cognitive-behavioral skills are more effective for reducing problem behaviors than other strategies. Furthermore, they found that programs that are interactive are typically more successful than programs that are non-interactive (Wilson et. al, 2001). Additionally, they determined that school-based prevention programs are effective for reducing drug and alcohol use, dropout rates, non-attendance rates and other conduct problems (Wilson et. al, 2001).

While research has shown some initial positive progress for school-based prevention programs, there are still a lot of barriers to overcome. As mentioned previously, one of the key components to a successful prevention program is that the program is multisystemic. The problem with school-based programs is that they often do not extend to other developmental contexts such as the family (Bartol & Bartol, 2009). Studies have shown the prevention programs that focus on multiple systems are often more successful than those that just take the singular approach.

While studies have shown that prevention programs may be effective in reducing juvenile delinquency, there is a gap in science-based prevention programs and those that are offered to families and children (Nation, Crusto, Wandersman, Kumpfer, Seybolt, Morrissey-Kane, & Davino, 2003). Science-based prevention programs are often difficult to replicate and expensive. Therefore, many local agencies create or adapt their own prevention programs with only minimal positive effects (Nation et. al, 2003).

The three main approaches to juvenile delinquency prevention are primary, selective and treatment. School-based prevention programs are a type of primary prevention approach and focus on preventing juvenile delinquency before a negative pattern of behavior emerges. Studies have shown that school-based prevention programs may be effective since they concentrate on prevention at an early age. However, since many of these programs fail to include other dynamics (such as family or community), they are less likely to be as successful as other programs that incorporate the multisystemic approach. Finally, science-based prevention programs are often too expensive and too difficult to replicate thereby creating a gap between these programs and programs that are made available to families. While there may be some initial positive progress for school-based prevention programs, more research needs to be done and more studies need to be conducted in order to determine the efficacy of these programs.


Bartol, C.R., & Bartol, A. M. (2009). Juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior: A developmental perspective (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Flannery, D.J., Liau, A.K, Powell, K.E., Vesterdal, W., Vazsonyi, A.T., Guo, S., Atha, H., & Embry, D. (2003). Initial behavior outcomes for the PeaceBuilders Universal School-Based Violence Prevention Program. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 292-308.

Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wandersman, A., Kumpfer, K.L., Seybolt, D., Morrissey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003). What works in prevention: Principles of effective prevention programs. American Psychologist, 58(6/7), 449-456. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.6-7.449

National Institute of Justice. (n.d.). Program profile: The Leadership Program’s Violence Prevention Project. Retrieved from

Wilson, D.B., Gottfredson, D.C., & Najaka, S.S. (2001). School-based prevention of problem behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 17(3), 247-272.

School Based Prevention Programs

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© 2014 Megan Tracy


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