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The One-Page Letter That Keeps Kids Out of Jail

This is the power of elevating children’s voices and choices in school.

Key points

  • There is persistent stigma against justice-involved youth that can be difficult to overcome.
  • A one-page letter that enlists a teacher’s support cut recidivism among justice-involved youth by 40-percentage points in an initial trial.
  • This letter elevates children’s voices and choices to mitigate the stigma through which they are otherwise seen.

This post was co-authored by Hattie Tate.

Who is an adult in school you would like to get to know better?

My 6th grade math teacher—Ms. X.

What would you like your teacher to know about who you are as a person and what is important to you?

I'd like her to know I'm a good kid who likes to learn new things and likes to have fun, and I like talking a lot.

What would you like your teacher to know about your goals in school?

One is to graduate from middle school. Two is to not have any problems with anyone.

What would you like your teacher to know about what is difficult for you in school that you would like to improve, so they can help?

One is turning in my homework. Two is wearing my uniform or sleeping in class.

In Alameda County, which lies on the east side of San Francisco Bay, children who have been convicted of a crime are confined at the Juvenile Justice Center, often for a week or two, sometimes more. It’s a beautiful facility up on a hill with million-dollar views over the bay. It feels safe and secure. It even has its own dentist’s office.

Yet, it’s a heartbreaking place. Children sit behind bars. Punishment for acting out can turn a visit with your parents into “no-contact,” meaning no hug from mom or dad. Upon release, many children are placed on probation. Some are required to wear a GPS ankle monitor, and their travel is restricted to home and school.

Justice-involved children face one of the most severe stigmas in our society.

It’s so easy to write these kids off, to think, “Are they violent? Are they out of control?” When they return to school, will teachers welcome them and help them learn and make progress? Or will they assume they don’t care (“Do they even give a s***?”)? These kids risk cycling back into the justice system. The stakes could not be higher—and so is our responsibility.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, we came together as a team to learn from children about their experiences—and, with their help, to design a procedure to help future kids re-entering school succeed. What that procedure would do, critically, was to elevate children’s voices in introducing themselves to an educator of their choosing. You can see our research here.

Why is elevating kids’ voices so important? The stigma means it’s easy to misunderstand children caught up in the justice system, to not truly see them. We can’t just intuit the experience of someone else, especially someone in such a different circumstance as a justice-involved youth for a teacher. But as humans, we have an extraordinary tool to understand each other—language. One series of studies found that just giving people an opportunity to talk with another person produced striking benefits for interpersonal understanding. Trying to take the perspective of another person might not work—but getting perspective does.

In school, students and teachers have to communicate to work together. If a teacher can understand a bit about her student—the goals or challenges they face—perhaps she can be a better partner for them. How could we help kids open up?

An hour with a child

A few days after children re-entered school, we sat down with them for about an hour. Later, we delivered a one-page letter to a teacher in school the child chose. That letter would cut the rate at which students recidivated to juvenile detention by the end of the next academic semester from 64-69 percent to 29 percent. What happened?

In the hour-long session, we got kids thinking about their values and goals in school (e.g., “to make my parents proud”) and how relationships with adults in school could help them realize these goals. They heard stories from other children in reentry and how they’d made progress by building better relationships. They also told their own story about their personal efforts to help future kids with their transition. Then, at the end, we asked children to identify an adult in the school with whom they would like to form a good relationship. What would they want this person to know about them, their goals and values, and the challenges they face?

Love and respect

These are the questions that began this piece, and as you can see, children’s answers powerfully and positively introduce themselves. In a later study, we asked nearly 350 teachers to imagine that a student was re-entering their class from juvenile detention. In this case, some teachers explicitly wondered what crime the child had committed: “What led him to be in the juvenile detention center in the first place? Did he commit a violent crime? Will he have outbursts? Will he be disruptive?” That lens for seeing a child is not conducive to a supportive relationship.

But for half the teachers, we included a one-page letter that introduced the child in their words (“voices”) and noted that he or she had specifically requested their support (“choices”). With this letter, teachers felt more committed to the child, expected better outcomes, and felt more positively about him or her—more love and more respect.

One teacher wrote, “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 he chose me to be his mentor/confidant, I am immediately reminded that he is a child who has made some mistakes and wants to change. He deserves that chance and, if I can, I want to help.”

And this was the letter that made a difference. In an initial randomized controlled trial, without the letter, 64-69 percent of children recidivated to juvenile detention by the end of the next academic semester. But when we delivered the letter to the educator the child had named, that number was cut to 29 percent. That’s still too high. But it’s a huge improvement. And the cost was just an hour with a child.

Voice for all children

All children need relationships where they feel listened to and heard. As a principal, Hattie implemented a number of programs to elevate students’ voices, including welcome circles and personal educational plans—one-on-one conversations with every student about their goals and progress toward graduation. A culture that welcomes children’s voices empowers children to succeed—and educators to support them.

Once, one of the many gang leaders in the school entered Hattie’s office, closed the door, and said, “Ms. Tate, I can’t read, and I am getting ready to graduate. I have bullied other students into helping me through school, but I want to learn for myself.” Hattie then used online credit recovery to help him accelerate his performance to reach grade level and graduate.

It’s so easy to be blind to one another. Stigma can blind us, and so can diverse identities and roles. To work well together in school or a complex society, everyone must have a voice—especially the people with the least power, who face the greatest marginalization. Only then can we bring our best selves to one another.

References

Walton, G. M., Okonofua, J. A., Remington, K. R., Hurst, D., Pinedo, A., Weitz, E., Ospina, J. P., Tate, H., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2021). Lifting the bar: A relationship-orienting intervention reduces recidivism among children reentering school from juvenile detention. Psychological Science, 32(1), 1747-1767.

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