Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2017

Jonathan Guryan’s research on the consequences of racial inequality in education has helped Chicago become a “font of scholarship and hands-on innovation that is transforming social policy worldwide,” Chicago magazine wrote in “The Social Policy Revolution Starts Here,” which highlighted the best things about the city.

Teaching Slow Thinking


By Julie Deardorff
The Becoming a Man (BAM) program

The Becoming a Man (BAM) program in Chicago Public Schools often opens with a game: One person tucks a small ball into his palm, while his partner has one minute to do whatever it takes to get it.

Inevitably, the young men begin wrestling, with one forcefully trying to pry open the other’s hand. Afterward, when the counselor suggests simply asking for the ball, the boys look skeptical—and then surprised—when their partners confirm the verbal request actually would have worked.

The BAM exercise, which demonstrates how easy it is to act on impulse and the value of pausing to consider other solutions, illustrates a promising new social policy-based approach to solving juvenile justice issues. Rather than focusing on education or punitive measures to deter crime, anti-violence programs like BAM offer behavioral strategies that teach youth to slow down and think before they do something that may carry lifelong consequences.

BAM is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people learn how to change thought patterns or behavior. Incorporating this type of “slow thinking” approach into schools and juvenile justice facilities may help young people make better choices in high-stakes situations and help steer them away from criminal activities, says Northwestern University economist Jonathan Guryan, who has been analyzing the impact of programs like BAM.

“Kids who learn to stop and think may respond more reflectively than automatically,” says Guryan, professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy, who studies racial inequality and the economics of education. “Automatic thinking isn’t necessarily bad, particularly when you live in a tough neighborhood. But the value of helping a child think about the right way to respond in the right environment is very high.”

As cities, schools and policymakers search for ways to deal with youth violence and crime, they are increasingly partnering with—and learning from—researchers at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

They’ve turned to sociologists Simone Ispa-Landa, whose research demonstrates how a criminal record can follow someone throughout their life, and Heather Schoenfeld, a prison reform researcher and advocate.

Schoenfeld’s work indicates that cost reduction efforts are driving reform. At the same time, this reform is creating “lean and mean” prisons, where there isn’t enough staff, medical care and other services to keep prisoners safe.

As the pioneering work in SESP illustrates, the system may also be blocking opportunities that could help people turn their lives around.

Guryan’s research looking at BAM and a similar program inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has been a driving force behind what Chicago Magazine called a “social policy revolution” in the city, even inspiring former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative for young men of color.

Teaching youth “slow thinking” techniques offers them a way to avoid making a mistake they will regret the rest of their lives, says Guryan, co-director of the Urban Education Lab at the University of Chicago.

As a Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center staff member told the researchers: “Twenty percent of our residents are criminals; they will harm other people if they are not locked up. But 80 percent, I always tell them, ‘If I could give you back just ten minutes of your lives, you wouldn’t be here.’”

Becoming a Man

BAM, developed and run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance, uses mentoring, group activities like the fist game, and role-playing exercises in Chicago-area schools to help young men learn to respond reflectively and increase their situational awareness.

The original BAM study was done in partnership with the Chicago mayor’s office in 2009–10 as part of the Chicago Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence Among School-Age Youth.

The overall results have been promising. Two trials suggest that BAM cuts in half violent crime arrests among youth and boosts the high school graduation rates of participants by nearly 20 percent, according to a study co-authored by Guryan and published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

“At a time when Chicago and other cities across the country are seeing increases in violence, this evidence is particularly encouraging,” Guryan says.

The researchers estimate that BAM’s benefits far outweigh the program costs, with up to $30 in societal gains from realized reductions in crime alone for every $1 invested in the program.

And because people with a high school diploma often have higher earning potential than those who drop out, researchers believe the economic returns of BAM may ultimately be even higher.

Chicago policymakers and Chicago Public Schools are now scaling BAM as part of the city’s violence reduction strategy. Leaders of other cities are taking note.

The rigorous evaluation of BAM’s impact “demonstrates the power of scientific evidence to guide urban policy,” says former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

Why ‘slow thinking’ works

Teaching youngsters to slow down and think before they act is hardly a new concept. The approach differs in that the fist exercise and other BAM programs don’t tell youth how to respond; only that they should slow down and spend more time thinking about the best way to do so, given the situation.

An aggressive reaction to a teacher who asks for a hall pass, for example, isn’t beneficial. But that same student who lives in a violent neighborhood may need to be ready to confront someone near home to avoid developing a reputation as an easy mark.

“In many ways, young people growing up in violent neighborhoods must navigate a far more nuanced social world than those in more affluent neighborhoods,” Guryan says. “They are constantly switching between the code of the street and the code of the classroom, and getting it right can be the difference between life and death. This may be why programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy are so effective.”

BAM participants say the program helped them learn how to express themselves, connect to others and cope with loss. Sometimes they turn to exercises involving meditation or breathing, which can help slow down racing thoughts.

“When someone is bothering me, I use these techniques,” one student told Chicago Booth Review. “I count back from 100. As you count back, you think about what you did. You get to 50 and you really realize what you did and what you should’ve done. It really does work.”

“Mom didn’t know I was in BAM, but she said I’ve been changing,” the student added. “The way I’ve been responding to what people say negative about me, I just go past it. And my mom, she noticed that about me.”