Delinquency Prevention Through Social Cognitive Training


The model for the prevention of delinquency we present in this article is unorthodox in two ways. First, it is an unorthodox model in terms of its rationale. Most delinquency prevention programs are based on an explanation of delinquency. They focus on various factors which are thought to be the causes of delinquency. The cognitive model, in contrast, is based, not on an explanation of delinquency, but on an explanation of the rehabilitation of delinquents. It is based, not on the study of what causes delinquency, but on the study of what stops delinquency.
Most delinquents stop their illegal behavior shortly after it begins. Most researchers know that, and most researchers do not know why. This is, in part, because most researchers are interested, not in those delinquents who desist, but in those who persist. Because researchers are more interested in deviance than normality, there are very few studies of children who do not become delinquent. There are even fewer studies of reformed delinquents.
If we had information about the factors which determine why children do not become delinquent or information about the factors which make them stop being delinquent, we would be able to initiate an effective prevention program by ensuring that children are exposed to such factors. We know, of course, that delinquency is strongly (but by no means exclusively) associated with environmental factors such as unemployment, inadequate parenting, poverty, etc. Unfortunately such factors are not easily eradicated. Perhaps a more practical though more short-term approach would be to protect those children who, until such conditions are changed, by exposing them to factors which are known to promote pro-social behaviour. Unfortunately, there are very few sources of information on protective factors. We seem more concerned with detection than we are with protection. There is one source: research on the rehabilitation of offenders and antisocial children; research which indicates how delinquents can be effectively treated.
The cognitive model is also unorthodox in that it rests on a solid empirical base. It derives from sequential research (described in Chapter 2) which indicates that enhancement of the offenders’ social cognitive skills is associated with decreases in their recidivism. Decreased anti-social behaviour was found to be associated with increasing offenders’ reasoning skills, improving their sensitivity to the consequences of their behavior, teaching them to stop and think before acting, increasing their interpersonal problem-solving skills, and helping them to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of other people. The research also suggested that limited development of a number of such cognitive skills led many individuals to be vulnerable to criminogenic influences.


In reviewing the literature on the relationship between cognition and anti-social behaviour, our examination of research in criminology and of research in child development indicated that many of the factors which lead to delays in social cognitive development are precisely those which are associated with the etiology of juvenile delinquency.

Environmental Factors

Social cognitive skills are learned skills. Their acquisition is very strongly influenced by environmental factors. For example, the effects of poverty can severely restrict the individual’s cognitive development (Forgus & Shulman, 1979). For people living in poverty, long-term planning and abstract reasoning may be luxuries or even harmful indulgences. Survival in the slums may require simple pragmatism rather than abstract ideological thinking. Impulsiveness and physical aggression, not reasoning and contemplation, may be what living in such circumstances require.
Research indicates that children from lower-class environments often fare badly on cognitive measures of planning, means-ends reasoning, and generating optional solutions to problems (Shure & Spivack, 1976). This may be because children who are reared in impoverished environments may not receive adequate role-taking opportunities and may be delayed in their development of social reasoning. Moreover, they may not acquire an adequate understanding of the feelings, motives, and values of other people (Gibbs, Arnold, Ahborn, & Cheeman, 1984).


There is a substantial body of research associating delinquency and inadequate parental supervision, and parental abuse or neglect (Patterson, 1982). Such factors can have a severely retarding effect on the individual’s development of social cognitive skills, particularly social perspective taking and empathetic understanding. Persistent social difficulties in the parents, such as criminality, excessive drinking, and chronic unemployment, are also associated with social cognitive deficits. Such conditions have also been clearly implicated in the etiology of delinquency. Parents who themselves have difficulties in social cognition and self-management are unlikely to foster such skills in their offspring (Rutter & Madge, 1976). Also implicated in the etiology of delinquency has been family discord. Parents who themselves model ineffective methods of solving family problems are unlikely to foster the development of effective interpersonal problem-solving strategies in their children.
Both persistent antisocial behaviour and social cognitive development are dependent on the way children are disciplined (Parke, 1974). Disciplinary methods with a preponderance of external controls promote only obedience, not thinking. The parents do the thinking for the child. Parents who discipline their children erratically, inconsistently, or in a rigid, authoritarian fashion may also fail to model good problem-solving skills. Moreover, individuals who are reared in an environment with excessive controls are not likely to develop a self-perception that they can influence their environment or to believe that what happens to them depends on how they behave. Children reared in such families have been found to be at high risk for delinquency (Farrington, 1978).
The available research clearly demonstrates that the parental disciplinary techniques which have been found to retard social-cognitive development are the same as those which have been found to be associated with deviant social behaviour, namely, inadequate, erratic, or excessive punitive discipline; inadequate communication of rules; highly coercive negative discipline; and weak discipline. The foregoing does not mean that external controls or firm rule enforcement should not be used. On the contrary, the parents who are most effective in engendering social-cognitive development in their children are those who combine reasoning and firm, consistent enforcement of rules (Walters & Grusec, 1977). A high rate of coercive interactions has been observed in the families of conduct-disordered children. In contrast, the child-rearing patterns of families with well-adjusted children include encouragement to think clearly and logically, to consider consequences, and to use effective and flexible problem-solving strategies (Bloom, 1964).


There are children who manage to avoid delinquency and other serious maladjustment in spite of their triminogenic background. Even among children who are reared under conditions of poverty, large family size, parental criminality, or extreme marital discord, more than 25 percent are well adjusted and show no evidence of delinquent or antisocial behaviour (Rutter, 1979). A study of the individuals who had been reared in the high crime rate areas of Los Angeles but did not become involved in crime found that the non-delinquents were those who had been exposed to older brothers or others with cognitive coping skills which they model led to their younger brothers (Stumphauzer, Aiken & Veloz, 1977). Research has also shown that among children who are reared in poverty conditions, the best adjusted are those who evidence the greatest skills in social cognition – in planning, in generating optional solutions to problems, and in means-end thinking (Shure, Spivak & Jaeger, 1971). We would suggest that adequate parenting or schooling which can foster the early acquisition of cognitive skills may be much more important for a child who must contend with adverse environmental conditions than for one who is reared in a middle or upper-class environment.
Individuals who from an early age are exposed to parents, teachers, or peers who model effective cognitive skills are likely to benefit considerably in terms of their own development (Shure, 1982). Ross and Glasser’s (1973) study of ghetto residents in California found that exposure of youngsters to models who demonstrate adequate problem-solving skills may serve to protect them from a criminogenic environment. They studied a group of Blacks and Hispanics from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds who became productive and self-supporting members of society. They found that the nondelinquents had been influenced by exemplary models who had provided examples of independence, stability, effective problem-solving, and social perspective taking.
Rutter has pointed out that one of the protective factors for children reared in deprived and disadvantaged conditions is to be a girl. One of the reasons that females comprise only 6 percent of offender populations may be that females acquire social-cognitive skills (particularly empathy and social perspective taking) much earlier in life, because empathy is stressed more in the socialization of girls than boys. Their development of concern for others may serve to inhibit their antisocial behaviour (Ross & Fabiano, 1986).


It is not suggested that cognitive inadequacies are a cause of crime. Cognitive deficits place the individual at a disadvantage academically, vocationally, and socially, and they make the individual more vulnerable to criminogenic influences. Rather than assuming that cognitive inadequacy causes delinquency, one might better assume that cognitive adequacy serves to protect against delinquency. Cognitive skills may help to insulate the individual from personal, social, environmental, or situational pressure toward criminal behaviour. Cognitive skills may help the individuals to relate to their environment in a more adaptive fashion, and therefore, reduce the chances of their adopting a criminal lifestyle. There are many children and adolescents who evidence cognitive deficits which limit their ability to function successfully in a prosocial manner. They may be helped to avoid delinquent behaviour by cognitive training in early adolescence or even in childhood.


We can now reliably identify children who have a high probability of becoming a delinquent (Farrington, 1986; Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1987). The cognitive model suggests that such children need to learn thinking skills and problem-solving skills. They need to learn general strategies for recognizing problems, analyzing them, and conceiving and considering alternative, noncriminal solutions. They need to learn to calculate the consequences of their behaviour and to stop and think before they act. They need to be taught to go beyond an egocentric view of the world and to begin thinking of others. They need to develop the ability to understand the perspective of other people and to distinguish between their own emotional states and the thoughts of other people. They need to develop interpersonal problem-solving skills and pro-social coping behaviours. In short, children need to learn social competence.


There are a large number of controlled studies which have demonstrated that delinquency can be prevented by intervention with “at risk” or “predelinquent” children and adolescents and their families (Ross & Gendreau, 1979). Our analysis of these studies has demonstrated the central and probably essential importance of cognitive training components in these interventions (Izzo & Ross, 1989; Antonowicz & Ross, 1994). Multi-facetted intervention in pre-schools which include techniques designed to promote the children’s cognitive development have been shown to cut in half the crime rate of children living in poverty (Mangione, Lally & Honiz, 1995; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1995). The benefits of such programs have been demonstrated in research which followed the children’s adjustment from pre-school to age 27, that is more than twenty year after the program (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1995).
There is also a growing body of research which indicates the value of cognitive training in the amelioration of various behaviour problems, such as impulsiveness and aggression, which are closely associated with delinquency. such training has been found to be effective with children as early as the preschool and kindergarten years ! (Ross & Fabiano, 1985). Many interpersonal problem-solving programs have been conducted with grade-school children and have been found to be effective in modifying aggressive and other problem behaviours. Moreover, school-based programs in decision-making skills, communication skills, conflict-resolution skills, and values education have shown promise for improving attitudes toward school, increasing attendance, decreasing disruption and suspension rates, and decreasing school violence and vandalism.
Our suggestion that parents and schools should teach cognitive skills as a delinquency prevention measure hardly seems radical. One might think that is precisely what schools are already doing. Many schools appear to assume that cognitive skills will develop as a natural consequence of the child’s exposure to the various parts of the school curriculum. This may be an erroneous assumption. It may be necessary to teach thinking skills in an much more explicit and direct manner.
Many schools throughout North America have now recognized the necessity of teaching thinking as an integral part of the curriculum. Programs have been established in grade schools, colleges, and universities. In addition, a remarkable number and variety of commercial packaged programs, programmed learning, television programs, and computer-based programs have become available. Unfortunately, little interest has been demonstrated in teaching those cognitive skills which are required in the interpersonal area: social cognitive skills. Students need to learn inferential thinking, critical thinking, and other cognitive skills in order to develop competence in math, science, and other subjects, but they also need to learn social cognitive skills so that they can develop social competence. Few schools teach these essential skills systematically. Social competence can be taught in every classroom, but it needs to be a formal, explicit part of the course.
In view of the relationship between family factors and delinquency, it would also seem reasonable in crime prevention endeavors to focus on family interactions. Unfortunately, it is often no easier to persuade the parents of delinquent youths to change their behaviours than it is to persuade the delinquents themselves to do so. However, there have been some programs which have been successful in motivating parents to accept help and change their behaviour in such a way as to reduce significantly the misconduct and/or the delinquent behaviour of their children (Henggler, Cunningham, Pickren & Schoenwald, 1995; Ross & Gendreau, 1979).
Most of these effective programs emphasize teaching the parents better management skills such as communicating, modeling, negotiation, and problem-solving.


A growing number of agencies have begun to apply the R&R2 program in schools. For example, in some locations probation officers spend some of their working or volunteer time visiting local schools they deliver the R&R2 program to “at-risk” students who have not yet been ajudicated as delinquents but evidence major behaviour problems at school and at home. In a few projects probation officers have initiated R & R programs for the parents of adjudicated delinquents in hopes that they will be able to prevent delinquency in the delinquent’s siblings. Unfortunately, none of these projects include a systematic research component and it is too early to assess their results.
Dr. Morrison described a pilot project in Glasgow, Scotland in which “at risk” children are trained in the R & R program. Dr. Garrido described the positive results of a cognitive skills program conducted with abused and “at risk” children in Valencia, Spain. Prevention programs, of course should not be limited to children who have been identified as “at risk” of delinquency but should be provided before the children have developed those anti-social behaviours which leads to their being viewed as “at risk”. This is the goal of Dr. Segura in Tenerife who described his work in educating schoolteachers in the major components of the R & R program. These teachers, he expects, will model and teach cognitive skills in the schools and thereby possibly prevent the development of the anti-social behaviours, attitudes and values which may precede delinquency.


It is ironic that, although there is a wealth of literature available to parents on how to care for their children in terms of physical health, there is a relative dearth of literature on the parent’s role in teaching thinking. Many of the cognitive techniques and games in the R & R program could be readily taught by parents. The techniques have a strong appeal for offenders, even those most adverse to teaching of any kind. They are also enjoyable for otherwise poorly motivated parents. We are currently preparing a cognitive program for children which could be taught either by parents after the parents themselves have learned adequate cognitive skills through the R & R program.
Education in parenting may be the only real way to break the cycle of preventing abuse of neglect and criminal behaviour. Perhaps the most effective way of preventing crime by having parents teach and model social cognitive skills is to teach such skills to children so that they can apply them throughout their lives, including that part when they themselves become parents.
Teaching cognitive skills helps to insulate the individual from personal, social, environmental, and family pressures toward criminal behaviour. Such training has had a major impact in reducing the antisocial behaviour of juvenile delinquents and adult criminals. It seems reasonable to believe that it can have an even greater impact in preventing such behaviour before it begins or before it “progresses” to criminal behavior. A program designed to achieve that goal has now been developed by the Cognitive Centre of Canada:
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