Preventing Juvenile Delinquency: Early Intervention and Comprehensiveness as Critical Factors

By Alina Saminsky
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Every single person living in the United States today is affected by juvenile crime. It affects parents, neighbors, teachers, and families. It affects the victims of crime, the perpetrators, and the bystanders. While delinquency rates have been decreasing, rates are still too high. There have been numerous programs that have attempted to lower this rate. Some are greatly successful, while many others have minimal or no impact. These programs are a waste of our resources. It is essential to determine the efficacy of different programs, and to see what works and what does not. In this way, the most successful programs can continue to be implemented and improved, while those that do not work are discontinued.

A number of different types of programs currently exist. Those that get involved with the delinquent after the occurrence of deviant behavior tend to be less succesful, since by that point antisocial habits are well developed. More effective programs are ones that intervene before the onset of delinquent behavior and prevent that behavior – prevention programs. By getting involved in children’s lives early, later crime can be effectively reduced (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 282).

Prevention programs positively impact the general public because they stop this crime from happening in the first place. And there are even some prevention programs that are more successful than others. One aspect of exceptionally successful prevention programs is their comprehensive nature. Programs that are more holistic prevent future crime better because they deal with various aspects of a child’s life, not just a single one.

Two programs that have both of these features – early intervention and comprehensiveness - are home visitation programs and Head Start. Both of these programs have shown incredible results by targeting specific risk factors that lead to delinquent behavior. Once these risk factors are lessened, the problem behavior is much less likely to occur. In conclusion, juvenile justice prevention programs such as prenatal and early childhood nurse visitation programs and Head Start are largely successful at deterring crime for the children involved because they occur early in the child’s development and because they focus on holistic and general aspects of the child’s life rather than focusing on crime itself.

Although there is really no way to completely predict which children will behave in delinquent and criminal ways in the future, there are a multitude of risk factors that have been shown to correlate with these behaviors. Fetal substance exposure, prenatal difficulties, an abusive and violent family are all risk factors related to poorer executive functioning. This weakness is then shown to lead to violent behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 281).

Other precursors to later frequent offending include poor child-rearing practices, poor parental supervision, criminal parents and siblings, low family income, large family size, poor housing, low intelligence, and low educational attainment (Zigler and Taussig 998). Physical and/or sexual abuse are specifically risk factors for homicidal behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 288). It has also been shown that early-onset antisocial behavior is associated with more severe outcomes compared with antisocial behavior that occurs later, and it is more likely to persist into adulthood (Olds et al. 66).

But these risk factors generally have a more complicated connection to problem behavior than simply increasing it directly. For example, low intelligence is considered a risk factor since children with below-average intelligence have a good chance of doing poorly in school. They may also have some sort of mental retardation. Both of these factors are correlated with physical abuse from the parents. Therefore, a child that has low intelligence and is also dealing with parental abuse must face two external events that preclude delinquent outcomes (Zigler and Taussig 999).

Socioeconomic status is another interesting risk factor. While in some studies it is directly associated with delinquent behavior, other studies have found that regardless of socioeconomic status, those children who were raised by distressed and unsupportive caregivers in unstable families had a greater chance of developing problem behavior than did children who had nurturing caregivers and grew up in supportive homes (Zigler and Taussig 999). Once again, it is the combination of factors and the interactions among them that best forecasts behavior.

So one risk factor alone will hardly predict any future behavior. What is important to look at is the co-occurrence of any number of risk factors. As the number of risk factors that a child possesses increases, that may predict with increasing accuracy if they will develop delinquent behavior (Zigler and Taussig 998). So what does that mean for prevention programs? It means that targeting risk factors is a great way to prevent crime. As more and more risk factors are diffused, the child has less and less reason to misbehave.

First, it is important to define what exactly early intervention is. A program is considered “early” if it occurs from before birth until early adolescence, and before the onset of delinquent behavior. This is a valuable time period because early childhood provides an unusual window of opportunity for young children to be uniquely receptive to enriching and supportive environments (Welsh and Farrington 872). Research has shown that the later the intervention occurs in the child’s life, the more therapeutic effort is required to return the child to a pattern of normal development (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 286). If these programs are successful, they should alleviate some of the risk factors associated with delinquency and antisocial behavior and have lasting effects on socially competent behavior (Zigler and Taussig 999).

The results of high-quality early prevention programs can be tremendous. Looking specifically at preschool programs and parent educational services that improve school readiness, they help to set a pattern that prevents delinquency in later years. Children who participate are less likely to drop out and perform delinquent behavior because they have had better early school experiences and a stronger commitment to education (Zigler 5). Early interventions also show increases in IQ scores and executive functioning, better elementary school achievement, and lower rates of aggression and other antisocial behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 291). These programs focus on the risk factors that were mentioned before, and that is why they actually reduce crime.

The best programs, in fact, deal with a variety of risk factors, including ones that come from the home. The best of the early intervention programs build on the strengths of families as well as children (Zigler 5). Adults that are offered practical and social support are in a better position to become effective parents than parents who are stressed and alienated. Early intervention programs offer a support system of parental involvement and education that works to improve family functioning and with that, child functioning (Zigler and Taussig 1003). This aspect of dealing with the family also makes these programs more comprehensive, which is another factor of good programs.

Anyway, the effects of successful experiences early in childhood build on each other to generate further success in school and in other social contexts (Zigler and Taussig 1002). An important point to make is that no child is inaccessible. In fact, the greater risk factors a child has, the more they will benefit from additional support such as a strong and encompassing program (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 291).

Even in terms of cost these programs succeed. Various cost-benefit analyses show that early prevention programs provide value for money and can be a worthwhile investment of government resources compared with prison and other criminal justice responses (Welsh and Farrington 871). Especially since today the majority of money in crime prevention goes towards incarceration (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 285). If that same money could be used for prevention programs instead, the results would be outstanding.

By now it is clear that programs that target youth early in their lives are generally more successful than programs with a later onset. This is one important aspect of good programs. Another facet that predicts success is how well a particular program addresses various aspects of the child’s life. Some programs only focus on a child’s schoolwork and academic achievement. Other programs focus solely on the parents. But the programs that seem to work the best are ones that incorporate many different aspects of a child’s life into their curriculum.

One particular study used a review-of-reviews approach to identify general principles of effective prevention programs that might transcend specific content areas (Nation et al. 450). This meta-analysis found that one of these principles is comprehensiveness. The study defines comprehensive as “providing an array of interventions to address the salient precursors or mediators of the target problem” (Nation et al. 451).

Two important factors of comprehensive programming are multiple interventions and multiple settings (Nation et al. 451). The idea of multiple interventions and multiple settings relates to Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory. This theory states that there are a multitude of systems surrounding a child that all influence the development of the child. Therefore it is not enough to work with just one of the systems. True progress can only be made when many of the systems are involved.

This Ecological Systems theory influenced another article to come up with an ecological approach to enrich child development by trying to promote social competence in the various systems that children encounter. This approach is based on the assumption that the most proximal influence on children is the family, however, both children and families are interactive members of a larger system of social institutions (Zigler and Taussig 997). So by targeting these various systems as opposed to just one or a few of them, a program is able to more fully aide in the appropriate development of a child. Because the risk factors associated with delinquent behavior are based in many different systems, comprehensive prevention approaches are bound to be more effective than those of more narrow range (Zigler and Taussig 1004).

One prevention program stands out among the sea of others. It is implemented early on in a child’s life, and it takes a holistic approach in order to deal with the many aspects of the child’s life. It is also one of the most famous early prevention programs out there. Head Start began as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave enormous power to the Office of Economic Opportunities, who then founded the program (Zigler and Muenchow 2). Sargent Shriver, the initial creator, states that he had the idea for Head Start after a revelation that almost half the people living in poverty were children (Zigler and Muenchow 3).

Although Head Start was roughly based on some other educational experiments, it was a very unique undertaking – truly the first of its kind. The program provides comprehensive education, health services, nutritional guidance, parental involvement, and social services to low-income children and their families (Zigler and Muenchow 5). Almost 50 years later, Head Start has enrolled over 22 million children in its history (Mills 4). It has been called “the best investment this country has ever made in its young children” (Mills 165).

The program, which is based on income to determine eligible families, aims to improve the intellectual capacity and school performance of poor children (Zigler and Muenchow 4). The ultimate goal is to prepare kids to enter school – to give underprivileged kids a “head start” (Mills 304). So in the beginning, juvenile delinquency was nowhere in the picture. In fact, the goals spanned no later than the first few years of school. No one expected the huge impact that the Head Start program would have on its participants.

In fact, the main long-term impact is indeed reducing school failure (Mills 169). But the side effects have been unexpected and tremendous. Head Start has been shown to improve intelligence, academic readiness and achievement, self-esteem, social behavior, and physical health (Mills 165). In addition, results are also highly favorable for impacts on future government assistance, employment, income, substance abuse, and family stability.

There is evidence that suggests that these programs not only pay back their costs but also earn a profit for the government and taxpayers in terms of deflecting costs of social assistance and judicial costs, and adding to tax revenue. And finally, a meta-review of programs concludes that preschool intellectual enrichment is effective in ultimately preventing delinquency (Welsh and Farrington 873). Again, this is most likely due to the curbing of early risk factors that set children up for future success.

Another preschool program, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, was similar to the Head Start program. It was a short-term experiment however, and therefore was more concentrated and had more funding. But the basis of the program was very similar to Head Start. The Perry Preschool Project was shown to be very effective in decreasing arrest rates, and increasing achievement and success in school (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 298).

Children who participated in the project also used less special education services, relied less on public assistance in the future, had better jobs and more stable employment, showed increased home ownership, and had less children out of wedlock (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 301). It is clear that programs such as Head Start do much more than just prepare kids for school. Their effects cover various areas of children’s lives, and are visible many years later.

Another highly successful type of program, that also combines early intervention with comprehensive care, is home visitation. There are many different types of home visitation programs, but most of them share a few common factors. The premise of this program is that nurses or trained professionals meet with usually low-income and/or high-risk mothers. Often times these women are teen mothers. The professionals meet with them throughout their pregnancy and then until the child is around 24 months of age.

The general goal of these visits is to provide information and support to the mother. More specifically, the nurses aim to reduce environmental hazards, instruct mothers about nutrition for themselves and for their infants, effectively correct behavior, and reduce substance abuse by the mother (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 297). Yet before discussing the outcomes of home visiting, it is important to understand just how crucial parenting is to the healthy development of the child.

Good parenting provides children with a variety of different skills for them to use for the rest of their lives. Two of these important skills are impulse regulation and empathy. When these skills are lacking, the risk for adolescent criminal behavior increases. Another valuable skill that parents generally instill in their children is the ability to regulate their emotions, which the lack of can also predict future delinquency (Olds et al. 70).

Recent research supports the relationship between antisocial behavior and problems in emotional self-regulation and impulse control – specifically emotions like anger and aggressiveness (Olds et al. 71). Other parental factors include an increased family size. This may lead to reduced parental influence and monitoring and greater peer influence (Olds et al. 74). Moreover, increased economic difficulties and parent depression may lead to a lack of nurturing and involved parenting, which is associated with negative peer relations as well (Olds et al. 77).

As the number of risk factors increase, the likelihood of delinquency increases as well. When rejecting parenting is combined with other risk factors, such as neurodevelopmental impairment, the chance that child maltreatment or rejecting parenting will be associated with future violence is increased substantially (Olds et al. 70). Recent evidence from a Danish longitudinal study stresses the volatility of combining neurodevelopmental impairment and dysfunctional parenting early in the life cycle. The odds of poor behavior increase exponentially (Olds et al. 75). From this research, it is clear that both effective discipline and nurturing caregiving is especially crucial in preventing future delinquency (Olds et al. 78).

So do home visitation programs really improve parenting? In fact, the results speak for themselves. The effects of visitation programs include a reduction in maternal substance abuse during pregnancy, a reduction in child maltreatment, a reduction in family size, closely spaced pregnancies, and chronic welfare dependence. The negative effects of cigarette smoking on children’s IQ at ages 3 and 4 were completely eliminated among nurse-visited children (Olds et al. 67).

Nurse-visited women reported that their infants were less fussy and irritable than did women who were not part of the program. The improved temperament seemed to be directly related to a decrease in maternal smoking and a better diet (Olds et al. 69). Visitation program reduced the rates of state-verified cases of child maltreatment and health care encounters for injuries and ingestions, while improving maternal involvement with their children and use of consistent discipline techniques. Two years after the end of the program, children from nurse-visited families were much less likely to be seen in the physician’s office for injuries, ingestions, or social problems, and they had 35% fewer visits to the emergency department (Olds et al. 72).

Other benefits include improved school readiness, school performance, greater employment and educational opportunities for parents, and greater family stability in general. There is evidence that suggests that home visiting programs can pay back program costs as well as produce monetary benefits for the government and for taxpayers. Parents are also taught how to use rewards and punishment effectively (Welsh and Farrington 874).

In addition, maternal attitudes toward childrearing improved and there were noticeable enhancements in the home environment (Olds et al. 74). Within four years after the birth of the first child, rates of subsequent pregnancy were lower, participation in the work force was higher, and dependence on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was lower (Olds et al. 75). From this extensive list of positive outcomes, it can be concluded that home visitation programs decrease the occurrence of prominent risk factors, and consequently reduce delinquent behavior later in life.

One specific program, the University of Rochester Nurse Home-Visitation Program was particularly successful. It was conducted with 400 women, and home visits emphasized the mother's health throughout pregnancy, the child's health and development, and enrichment of the family's support systems within the community. The most striking result of the program was the decline of child abuse and neglect among high-risk mothers, a major risk factor in future deviant and violent behavior (Zigler and Taussig 1002).

Juvenile delinquency is a serious problem in our society that needs to receive serious attention. Even those who are not directly affected end up being touched by this issue through governmental allocation of tax dollars and the general safety of our communities. This crisis is not managed by simply throwing money at programs expecting them to work. There has been enough research in this field done to conclude what works and what does not. Early interventions have proven to be effective.

These programs focus not on reducing crime, since at this point children are too young to commit crimes. Rather, the focus is on targeting risk factors that later predict delinquent behavior. If these risk factors are properly dealt with, they will decrease the chances of this future negative behavior. Comprehensive programs also have high success rates. By working with various aspects of a child’s life – including the ecological systems surrounding a child – these programs are able to mitigate more risk factors than solely working with one or two aspects. An early start and a broad approach are signs of a good program, and many programs out there successfully integrate these two concepts.

The Head Start program aims to prepare kids for school and by doing so alleviates risk factors for delinquency. The main Head Start program works with three and four-year-olds in the classroom and in the home. In addition to offering educational services, it provides health services as well as social services for the parents. The program has been very popular and successful, and has expanded a great deal since its creation in the 1960s.

Today, Head Start is considered an educational achievement program as well as an early intervention delinquency program. Home visitation has also been hugely successful in mediating risk factors. Nurses or trained professionals visit the homes of low-income and high-risk soon-to-be mothers and offer advice, counseling, support, and social and health services. These services continue until the second year after the child’s birth. Once again, this program not only helps foster healthy childhood development, but it sets children up for future success and deters them from committing crimes in the future.

While these two programs have been beacons of light within the fog of an assortment of programs, there is always room for improvement. Research shows that truly successful programs continue beyond childhood years to provide support to at-risk youth (Zigler and Taussig 1003). The best programs do not end once a child enters school. They instead continue to provide support for as long as the particular child requires it.

The key is continuity of intervention, and that is a goal all prevention programs should strive for (Zigler and Taussig 1003). Both Head Start and early childhood home visitation programs that combine early intervention with comprehensive curriculums provide very strong examples of programs that decrease the rates of delinquent behavior in the future. However, they are only the beginning, and our society must turn to research and investigation to create programs that will bring us closer to finding an end to this far-reaching problem of juvenile delinquency.


Koffman, Stephen, et al. "Impact of a Comprehensive Whole Child Intervention and Prevention Program among Youths at Risk of Gang Involvement and Other Forms of Delinquency." Children & Schools 31.4 (2009): 239-45. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2009.

Mills, Kay. Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start. New York: Dutton, 1998. Print.

Nation, Maury, et al. "What Works in Prevention." American Psychologist 58.6/7 (2003): 449- 57. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2009.

Olds, David, et al. "Reducing Risks for Antisocial Behavior with a Program of Prenatal and Early Childhood Home Visitation." Journal of Community Psychology 26.1 (1998): 65-83. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Wasik, Barbara Hanna, and Donna M. Bryant. Home Visiting: Procedures for Helping Families. 2nd ed. California: Sage, 2001. Print.

Welsh, Brandon C., and David P. Farrington. “Save Children From a Life of Crime.” Criminology & Public Policy 6.4 (2007): 871-79. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Nov. 2009.

Zagar, Robert John, Kenneth G. Busch, and John Russell Hughes. "Empirical Risk Factors for Delinquency and Best Treatments: Where Do We Go from Here?" Psychological Reports 104.1 (2009): 279-308. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2009.

Zigler, Edward. "Early Intervention to Prevent Juvenile Delinquency." Harvard Mental Health Letter 11.3 (1994): 5-8. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. 

Zigler, Edward, and Cara Taussig. "Early Childhood Intervention." American Psychologist 47.8 (1992): 997-1007. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Nov. 2009.

Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: BasicBooks, 1992. Print.

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