Serving 17 years as a school resource officer in New Jersey taught me a couple of tricks on how to get through to young people and help them make the right choices.
And tricks are key. Youths are one of the toughest demographics in law enforcement. They make up the highest number of offenders and can be particularly challenging in police encounters — running, arguing, resisting.
The juvenile brain helps explain this. It is not fully developed until the age of 25. Until then, youths are often impulsive and thrill-seeking, guided more by emotion than reason. They are not thinking about the future or consequences; they are consumed by figuring out the world and finding their independence. This results in plenty of mistakes along the way, and oftentimes the involvement of law enforcement.
Being a school resource officer, I was in the unique position of both enforcer and counselor. I was able to take the opportunity and time to help guide young people who were making bad choices.
What I learned surprised me. What I wanted to do, and what I did for a number of years, was try to correct teens’ behavior by lecturing them, giving them the answer, telling them what to do, commanding them to obey. I would do this when I worked on the street, too — enforce the law and then try to educate them with what I knew. But what happened time and again was that it didn’t work. The kid would keep fighting in the hall, disrupting class, ditching, running with the same crew.
One day, though, I was breaking up a fight between two teenage girls, telling them that they better calm down because their future depended on it, when one of them yelled out, “I knew this was going to turn into a fight, but no one ever listens!” And that was my lightbulb moment. I needed to adjust my hat. It wasn’t all about having the answer, lecturing and commanding — it was about hearing these young people out. It was about listening.
Trick 1: Listen
And listening, it turns out, works. I learned from the countless students who streamed through my office that their main complaint was that adults never listen and don’t understand.
This was eye-opening. Of course we understand, I thought. Adults have been through this before. But the more I listened, the more I realized that youths have their own problems and their own perspective, and they want to be heard before they can hear what adults have to offer. While we might be eager to fix their problem, tell them what to do, give them the logic they’re lacking, doing that can backfire if we don’t listen first. It can lead them to reject our efforts to educate them. This is why we find ourselves dealing with the same youths over and over again — whether it’s in the school or on the block.
Before reaching into our adult book of answers to lecture a young person, we have to learn to be active listeners. Once we have the scene safe and can talk to a young person, we need to listen before we advise. When we actively listen, we are more likely to be listened to. The young person is more likely to feel that whatever direction we’re giving them or lesson we’re teaching them has value and is not just an encroachment on their independence.
To actively listen, pay attention to what the young person is saying, and use their own words to repeat back what you think you heard from them. Paraphrase what they’ve said to let them know that you are genuinely trying to understand what they are telling you. When they feel heard, they can reflect on their actions and position themselves to take your advice and make better choices.
Trick 2: Get curious
To get them talking, though, you need to get curious. Some young people don’t stop talking, others shut you out and others still are caught in the heat of the moment. Wherever they are, you want to ask questions that get them thinking about what they are doing and why. When you do, you guide their young brains toward critical thinking and self-awareness. You make them feel like you care about where they are coming from, and you get information you can use to target your advice to the problem at hand.
Curiosity helped me one day when a young man brought a gun to school. I had him come to my office, secured his bag and told him to sit down. I noticed he was nervous. I told him why he was there, and almost immediately he bolted for the door. I blocked it so he couldn’t get by, and rather than commanding him to sit back down, I asked him what he thought was going to happen if he ran. I wanted to get into his thought process. I wanted to understand and get him thinking about how his choice to run would help him. I knew he was acting on impulse and needed a chance to think more clearly.
On hearing my question, the boy stopped in his tracks. He couldn’t help but think about it and realized on his own that running would only make things worse. I had him sit down and we talked. During our conversation, I didn’t start by scolding him or lecturing him; I listened and asked questions. What was he doing with a gun? What was going on in his life that made him feel like he needed to protect himself in that way? He told me what was going on and, in that moment, we built trust. He appreciated that I was listening to what he was saying. We had to apply the law, but listening to him led him to ask for help, and in the end, he chose a different path.
As adults, and particularly as officers in positions of authority, it is easy to jump to conclusions and think we know why a young person is acting out, defying us, making bad choices. When we think we know, it’s hard to get curious and it’s hard to listen. But in order to get through to young people, we have to. When we ask questions that gain a better understanding of what a young person is thinking and why, they open up. When we listen to what they say, we get the information we need to get through to them and make a real difference.