You are here

Teaching Juvenile Justice Through Problem-Based Learning

SAGE CJ Link eNewsletter Banner

 Teaching Juvenile Justice   

Incorporating problem-based activities in your juvenile justice classroom

Experienced instructor and author Jennifer M. Allen shares insights on facilitating conversations around juvenile justice with your students.

Jennifer M. Allen is co-author, with Steven M. CoxRobert D. Hanser, and John J. Conrad, of 
Juvenile Justice: A Guide to Theory, Policy, and Practice, Tenth Edition

From my own first-day-of-class experiences, surveying students in juvenile justice, I have found that most students have little consistent one-to-one interaction with kids. They actually want to avoid working with youth as much as possible upon graduation.  Often their only exposure to children is the occasional babysitting or if they have siblings.  Some have even joked that “they’ve seen them at Walmart.”  Countless students have claimed the only things they know about juvenile crime and victimization is what they’ve heard on TV, social media, or through word of mouth. 

Juvenile Justice is Different from Adult Justice

Beyond the lack of experience with youth, in general, most students come into a juvenile justice course with little to no exposure to the juvenile justice system. Often, they hold a negative perception of youthful offending that has been created by the media. They automatically assume the juvenile system is exactly like the adult criminal justice system, and all youthful offenders are violent and deserve harsh treatment.  Although there are similarities, anyone who has worked with youth and processed youth through the juvenile justice system can tell you there are many, many differences between the two. Statistically, the majority of youth crime is non-violent, and property based. 

Beyond that, there are also differences between states when it comes to diverting youth crime and adjudicating youthful offenders and victims. Unlike the adult criminal justice system, there simply is not a standard or uniformed way of handling children.  Acknowledging this on the very first day of class and encouraging students to have an open mind is central to the learning process in a juvenile justice course.  

Problem-based Learning

A second fundamental approach to be used in teaching juvenile justice is problem-based learning.  Problem-based learning presents a real problem or scenario to students and allows them to use inductive reasoning to learn information on the topic as well as how to think critically about the topic (University of Florida, n.d.). Although students may not be around children every day, they were a juvenile at some point. They have had similar experiences, thoughts, and feelings as youth who are faced with criminal or abusive dilemmas. Thus, having students relate to the material as much as possible allows them to see beyond the negative stigma placed on youthful offenders and to think about ways to apply theory to practice in diversion, procedures, and treatment programming.   It allows students to consider alternative options and to think outside of the box when working with a juvenile population. They can reflect on their learning and learn to ask questions that solve problems (Kurt, 2020). These approaches make the juvenile justice classroom so much fun! 

Using my own classroom experience teaching over the past 20 years, I’m including a few suggestions for incorporating problem-based activities in your juvenile justice classroom:

  1. One of the biggest dilemmas in juvenile justice has been the question of responsibility and at what age a person is responsible for their own actions. When discussing the age of responsibility, you can provide illustrations of real cases as well as hypothetical examples involving youth of varying ages who committed law violations. Then allow students to discuss why they believe those youth were responsible (or in some cases, not responsible) for their own actions. Take time during this process to identify a list of characteristics that students find relevant to assuming responsibility. For example, students often identify “knowing the consequences” as a factor in assuming responsibility.  You can also expand the discussion to include the fact many actions have more than one consequence. Ask questions like “Does the child need to know all the consequences, including potential death, or just one consequence to make them accountable?” When students claim that a youth is accountable for their actions because they know right from wrong, you can ask “whose definition of right and wrong is being used?” Although the family is the transmitter of culture, not all families hold the same values about crime, abuse, victimization, the police, corrections, schools, and other social institutions.  Youth also get messages from peers, school, social media, TV, and so on. Which definition of right and which definition of wrong is correct and which one makes the youth more or less accountable for their actions?   If a child listens to their family’s belief system and violates the law as a result, is that child less accountable?  Having students consider their own upbringing and the messages they received about right and wrong behaviors helps them to see the dilemma of the age of responsibility and why it’s been difficult for the juvenile justice system to resolve. Having this discussion early in the course also sets the stage for case scenarios and examples that can be used throughout the class as students learn more and more about the juvenile system and the way it works.
  2. Emotions are frequently an issue in the juvenile justice classroom because we discuss sensitive topics like abuse and neglect. No one wants to know of a child being abused and everyone wants to remove that child who is abused and place them in a safe environment. However, the system doesn’t exactly operate that way. Emotions are not part of the decisions; although, protection is. And removal from the home isn’t always the correct answer. A problem-based approach to teaching about abuse and neglect is to provide case scenarios that force students to make decisions whether to remove children from their homes, terminate parental rights, and/or work with parents and abusers to protect the youth in their current environments. Whether or not you make this a group activity with group decision-making, having students use the knowledge they have gained from course lectures and readings to initially identify the abuse, and then what to do about the abuse, is crucial. Rather than using emotions, it forces them to use the process in decision-making and to think critically about the child’s needs, research, theory, and procedures. This same activity can easily be adapted for delinquency by using case scenarios that involve criminal activities of varying severity and asking students to decide if charges should be filed and if the youth should be processed through the juvenile court system.
  3. Except for some homeschooled students, nearly every student in the class will have experienced education in some form of a K-12 system. They all know of students who caused behavioral problems in the classroom, class clowns, students who just couldn’t read or keep up, students who were pulled from class for special services, or students who repeated a grade level. Nearly every student can relate to a bad teacher experience, falling asleep in a boring class, or a bullying incident. These are shared experiences and something your class can discuss. You can use these collective experiences when talking about the school system’s contributions to delinquency and how some individuals are not as resilient at overcoming these issues than others, especially when there is not a strong family, social support system, or school connectedness.

    Incorporating theories of crime causation is a bonus in this activity as students can see labeling theory, differential association, social bonding theory, and others in application when considering the school environment. Using a group activity, you can allow students to create their own scenario where a youth acts out in class, then provide solutions which incorporate theory and/or school programs beyond detention, parental involvement, and expulsion. They can reason that their solution may have made a difference in that child’s behavior. In the absence of identifiable school programming, ask the groups to create a program or solution to address a common behavioral issue or learning issue in K-12 classrooms that could contribute to future delinquency.

  4. At some point in the course curriculum, you are likely to address the detention of youth. It’s probable that students will have never experienced incarceration, seen the inside of a detention facility, or been processed into a detention center. They will not likely be familiar with the stress and anxiety a juvenile may face while submitting to intake procedures. Intake is a scary experience and can result in juveniles acting out and engaging in self-harm. Using typical intake paperwork, you can set aside time for students to “process” each other into a detention facility.  Answering the questions asked of detainees and learning how to properly address one another can build communication skills and personalizes this process so students can better empathize with juveniles who may be booked into detention. Additionally, the paperwork requires students to critically think about their answers as they must provide valid and legal reasons for the detention, a timeline of detention and court processing, property descriptions, criminal descriptions, and other information.
  5. Finally, introducing students to pre-sentence investigations and options for treatment and rehabilitation provides an opportunity for an additional problem-based, hands-on activity where students can learn a valuable skill that translates to the real world. Allowing students to write a pre-sentence investigation report from a case study provides them the opportunity to consider:

a. theory
b. the best interest of the child
c. reasonable efforts at treatment and rehabilitation
d. school connectedness and involvement
e. community-based treatment programs
f. a secure incarceration.  

Students also learn court language and procedures from this activity.  You can provide a detailed narrative that includes the juvenile’s family history, drug/alcohol use, school attendance and performance, past and current criminal history, home environment, relationships with peers, mental, physical, and emotional health, work history, and past treatment within the juvenile justice system. 

As common in college curriculums, your juvenile justice class may be a student’s only exposure to this material.  Have fun with it and spark interest in this field by motivating students to learn new skills, problem-solving approaches, and the material. Use activities to enhance the quality of learning in your class.


Kurt, S. "Problem-Based Learning (PBL)," in Educational Technology, January 8, 2020. Retrieved from

University of Florida. (n.d.). Adopting Active Learning Approaches.  Center for Instructional Technology and Training.  University of Florida.  Retrieved from Adopting Active Learning Approaches - Center for Instructional Technology and Training - University of Florida ( Retrieved from Adopting Active Learning Approaches - Center for Instructional Technology and Training - University of Florida (

For more free content from Jennifer M. Allen, click on one of the following resources: 


Start a discussion with your students: 
Should Juvenile Court Retain Jurisdiction
of "Emerging Adults"?


Criminal Justice in Practice:
Truancy and Criminal Behavior


Criminal Justice in Practice:
Judge Sentencing Guidelines

Teach a Juvenile Justice course? Check out Allen's newest title:

Criminal Justice Offerings
SAGEcriminology Twitter Widget