Among the chief influences on a child’s behavior—parental example, peer groups, media exposure—school holds monumental potential to either enrich or undermine the psychological growth of any child. It is impossible to understand our nation’s juvenile justice woes without also examining the education informing kids’ behavior. In the September 14th broadcast of NPR’s This American Life, host Ira Glass speaks with scholars of education, economics, and health, as well as youths themselves, about what is missing from the American curriculum and new research pointing to solutions.

Children are expected to learn hard and soft skills, yet time in the classroom is dedicated only to hard skills, such as math and reading comprehension, because they can be quantatively measured with standardized tests. As a result, soft skills (also “non-cognitive” or social skills), which cannot be measured so easily with numbers and tests, have been eliminated from the formal curriculum. For children growing up in low-income, high-stress environments, the road to gaining these skills significantly more challenging. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the CMPC Bayview Child Health Center, reports, “if [the kids] had four or more adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning or behavior problems in school was 32 times as high as kids who had no adverse childhood experiences.” Glass and interviewees continue to illustrate how this obstacle can be overcome, highlighting Chicago’s OneGoal program and the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

As this post is typed, thousand of kids are serving time for some form of behavioral misconduct: being unable to implement soft skills. They are punished because they cannot exercise skills that their schools fail to teach.

Learn more about what kids really need to learn by listening to the broadcast or reading the transcript. Let us know what you think by leaving comments on the blog.

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