Featured photo courtesy of: “Uptown Update”
The Becoming A Man youth development program (BAM for short) is an intervention that is designed to help at risk teens coming from some of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods approach decision making in a way that aligns with their own interests.
A group of Chicago researchers currently have an article in the works detailing the particulars of a large scale research study on the program’s effectiveness, and the mental mechanism by which the program may be achieving its goals (reductions in crime rates among high school age boys).
The article is worth a read for a number of reasons, including:
- The program’s relevance to any educator attempting to make an impact on this age group,
- The thoroughness of the research design,
- The possibilities opened up by some of the findings of the research,
- The way BAM is oriented towards the teenage participants, focusing on validating their experiences and helping them to understand themselves rather than impose on them a specific value set.
The most interesting takeaways of the article include what BAM is doing that is new for interventions that aim to help young people change their behavior.
In some ways, BAM is an old program in new packaging, and in some ways BAM proposes a new approach to working with teenagers who are at a high risk of falling into criminal activity or academic failure.
BAM incorporates elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with active team-building exercises and skill-building. CBT techniques have been used over the past several decades to help people in a variety of ways, including giving people with drug problems the tools to change their behavior patterns and providing individuals with anxiety with a set of thinking strategies that allow them to slowly overcome this anxiety.
Some of the team-building activities in BAM resemble low ropes-course activities meant to build a sense of team unity, but other activities in the program do not resemble anything from interventions currently in wide use.
A great example of this is the “ball activity.” The boys pair up, and one partner is given a ball. The instructions are simple: the other boy must get the ball from his partner. The task begins, and the boys’ actions are fairly predictable – they try to grab the ball away from their partner using speed, or attempt to wrestle it away using strength. After a few minutes, the facilitator tells the boys to stop.
First, the boys who are trying to get the ball are asked to explain how they tried to get the ball away from their partner. Then, the boys with the ball are asked what they think would have been a good way to get the ball away from them. Inevitably, the boys with the ball are able to explain that they would have given away the ball if their partners had simply asked for it. After all, it’s only a stupid ball.
Activities like this help young men reflect on the situation they are in, and realize that their initial response instincts – in this case using aggression – might not be the most successful given the situation. This is where BAM really showcases the unique aspects of the program.
The point is not that aggression is bad. In fact, BAM is very careful not to tell boys what is right and what is wrong. Rather, the goal of the program is to get boys to take a little longer to reflect on the situation they are in before they determine a course of action.
This is how BAM differentiates itself from other interventions that exist whose goal is to reduce problematic behavior in young men. The focus of the program is the process that proceeds behavior, namely how young men think about the situations they are in. This is largely the subject of a great article at FiveThirtyEight titled “Teaching Youth To Think ‘Slow’ May Help Reduce Crime.” This is perhaps the most novel element that BAM has to offer.
Given the fact that BAM was statistically shown to reduce criminal recidivism, there seems to be an important lesson to be learned for all educators focusing on socio-emotional learning.
The creators of BAM acknowledge that the boys in the program may be coming from incredibly difficult circumstances, especially in neighborhoods where sometimes choosing not to fight or not to engage in violence can be a display of weakness that ends up causing the boys more harm than good. The educators involved openly admit something to the boys that many adults never think to voice: we don’t know your life, we don’t know your problems, and we don’t know what the right choice is for you in a given situation.
Instead, BAM has tried to teach boys to notice the details and particulars of each situation and context in order to help them choose the right choice of action.
With news last year of the City of Chicago expanding BAM to reach more youth in the city, we’re hopeful and proud that the years of work put in by the founders of BAM is finally starting to pay off in a big way.