Teaching law as a life skill - Street Law Maryland

'Teaching law as a life skill: How Street Law helps young vulnerable parents make the transition to successful adulthood' by Matthew M. Kavanagh and Bebs Chorak describes how Street Law's approach to legal education is reinforced by research carried out by American academics in the 1990's and 2000's. The article illustrates some of latest thinking on PLE in America and provides an invaluable reading list of related pieces of research.

Street Law has a long history, starting back in 1972 when law students at Georgetown University decided to bring law out of the courtrooms and into the under-served public school classrooms of Washington, DC.

Street Law's work is based on three core concepts: knowledge, skills and community resources, as illustrated in this diagram. Read about Teaching law as a life skill.

Kavanagh and Chorak rely on research that has shown that young people are more likely to succeed if they have practical knowledge, cognitive and social skills, and meaningful opportunities in and connections to the community.

Street Law aims to improve knowledge by giving young people practical information about law, democracy and human rights. Secondly, they aim to improve skills by

'using innovative and participatory instructional strategies and developing the skills young people need in order to use this knowledge in their community and in their lives.'

Thirdly, Street Law places great value on using community resources to

'deepen young people’s commitment to their communities through meaningful partnerships with caring adults and involvement in community activities.'

The three core concepts are covered below together with some of the examples of the research Street Law refer to in their paper.


The paper argues that one of the key characteristics of young people who succeed in the face of adversity is that that they learn 'to follow the rules and, later, the laws of society' and refer to the findings of a 20 year study of competence and resilience of 205 children, 'Project Competence' undertaken by the University of Minnesota. The research concluded:

'We learned that children who succeeded in the face of adversity had more internal and external resources, particularly in the form of good thinking skills and effective parenting. Adversity did not seem to derail development unless key adaptive resources were weak, or impaired by the adversity itself. Resilient children had a great deal in common with other competent children who had no more than the normative level of stress in their lives. They were good problem solvers, able to learn and pay attention. They were close to adults in their lives who provided warmth, age-appropriate structure, and high expectations for them.'

Significantly, the study found that the children,

'Learned to follow the rules and, later, the laws of society. They were involved in activities at home, school, and in their communities. They developed close friendships and when the time came, positive romantic relationships. Not surprisingly, they had good self-esteem and felt effective.'

On the other hand, they found that,

'Children who floundered in the face of adversity faced great challenges with very few protective resources. Loaded down by adversity, without the support of close relationships with competent adults and without the good attentional skills and thinking abilities of the resilient youth, these young people developed significant problems. By adolescence, they were stress-prone, both in the sense of getting themselves into trouble and in the sense of coping poorly with stress. They reported numerous problems and had significantly lower self-esteem than their competent peers.'

In addition to essential legal knowledge, Street Law programmes teach young people where rules and laws come from, how they can be changed, and why they are essential to society.

The paper concludes that this understanding helps young people see the system of rules as necessary, useful and just, rather than unnecessary, alien and unfair. It also refers to research which found that 'rule-governed behavior' leads to higher academic achievement, which is, it is argued, key to being successful in life.


Regardless of how you define success, 'successful' adults not only need knowledge, they need the skills to use that knowledge. In 'Teaching law as a life skill' several important studies are used to illustrate this point including the American SCANS (secretary's commission on achieving necessary skills) report 'Learning a living: blueprint for high performance' which introduces 'workplace know-how'.

SCANS states that 'Workplace know-how' is a combination of foundation skills such as decision making, problem solving, creative thinking, sense of self esteem and self management - and workplace competencies. The commission asserts that competences cannot be achieved without the foundation skills. Kavanagh and Chorak recognised the same or similar skills in other research. The combined list of skills include the ability to think abstractly and reflectedly, communicate effectively, advocate a position, listen to others, make decisions, be flexible, organise and evaluate information, plan, reason out moral problems, help others, work cooperatively as a team, generate multiple solutions, practice conflict resolution skills to reach consensus and practice response control and tolerance.

The authors use the example of mock trials where their students work together in groups to solve problems, as an illustration of how Street Law 's approach improves student skills. Mock trials encourages resiliency in young people - they build on student's ability to organise and evaluate information, listen to peers, reason out moral problems, help others, plan and work co-operatively. They also found that skills become meaningful when students must reason out moral problems that they can relate to their own lives.

The article referred to the study by Bonnie Benard, 'Fostering resiliency in kids: protective factors in the family, school and community' published in 1991 and the characteristics of a resilient child. A resilient child according to Benard is a child who has social competency, problem solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose. Her study also found that co-operative small group learning was a key method for encouraging resiliency in youth.

Ann Masten, Professor and Director of University of Minnesota published a paper, 'Children who overcome adversity to succeed in life' in 2000 looking at some of the key factors influencing a child's development focusing on resilience in children at risk. The research indicates that the greatest threats to children are those adversities that undermine the basic human protective systems for development. She writes:

'When development is proceeding normally, humans are motivated to learn about the environment and derive pleasure from mastering new skills. Children need opportunities to experience success at all ages. This means that families, schools, and communities have a responsibility to provide such opportunities and to ensure that the talents of individual children are developed. One of the great differences in the lives of children growing up in the middle class versus poverty is in the richness of opportunities for achievement that feed the mastery motivation system. Feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy grow from mastery experiences. Children who feel effective persist in the face of failure and achieve greater success because of their efforts.'

Based on evaluations carried out so far, the paper argues that serious and active engagement is the best way for young people to adopt real changes in behaviour. It is also suggests that the combination of specific knowledge, skills based training and applied learning may be the most effective way to prevent particular psychosocial problems. The paper touches on the link between legal education programmes and reducing the risk of youth offending. It refers to studies such as those undertaken by Caliber Associates in the American Bar Association's bulletin (number 19) published in 2002 which concludes:

'Law-related education (LRE) has been consistently demonstrated in the research literature to contribute positively to resiliency, risk/protective factors, and delinquency prevention. LRE helps youth build attachments to school and pro-social adults; it provides opportunities for meaningful participation and use of newly learned critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in school and community settings; and it sets high expectations for behavior and recognises youth for their achievement. Finally, it provides and promotes norms for healthy behaviors, not only through the content of instruction, but also by the behaviors of outside resource persons and instructors.'

Community Resources

Street Law believe that it is important for young people to know that communities care about them. They invite and offer support to tutors and 'community resource people' from a variety of backgrounds - classroom teachers, social workers, parole officers, business people, lawyers and law students, and other varieties of interested people. Adult involvement allows students to see adult professionals in another role - a role that clearly demonstrates that the instructor or the 'resource person' chose to offer their time.

The article refers to a well-know paper by Deborah Meier, 'In schools we trust: Creating communities of learning in an era of testing and standardisation' published in 2002. Meier champions educational reform and challenges the view that standard tests are an effective tool for measuring a student's knowledge. She stresses the importance of children learning with and along side of adults. For Meier, the core mission of schools is to produce critical, thoughtful, interesting citizens and workers.

Street Law believe that by inviting 'community resource people' into the classroom, students learn how to interact with positive adults and learn the important lesson that instructors, like themselves, do not know everything. They learn how to find, request, and receive information and help. Secondly, it shows students that people from different backgrounds and with different skills can collaborate and work together effectively. It also enables young people to find mentors and create connections that they may be able to call upon in the future. Again research has highlighted the importance of these types of connections for young people trying to escape poverty and overcome adversity.

The article concludes by stressing the importance of young people being given the opportunity to practice their skills.

'This opportunity for practice is essential in helping youth gain a sense of self- efficacy and hope for the future, which are keys to successful adulthood.'

Kavanagh and Chorak’s excellent article brings together some key ideas. The list of relevant research is invaluable and should stimulate renewed interest in the need for further research and evaluation of this important topic.

Street Law

Street Law in Maryland, USA is a non profit organisation dedicated to providing practical, participatory education about law, democracy, and human rights. Street Law programmes focus on helping young people make the transition into adulthood. They cover civil, criminal and constitutional law focusing on practical issues that affect young people in their daily lives… on the streets where they live'.

Street Law aims to provide balanced, interactive lessons and to regularly involve 'well prepared' resource persons from the legal community. Their model, with the core concepts of giving knowledge, skills and community interaction are they argue especially important for young people who are leaving the juvenile justice system, exiting the foster care system, or struggling to find their way after being homeless.

The Street Law model can be found in every US state and in more than 40 foreign countries (particularly in developing democracies).

Teaching law as a life skill: How Street Law helps young vulnerable parents make the transition to successful adulthood

'Teaching law as a life skill: How Street Law helps young vulnerable parents make the transition to successful adulthood', was written by Matthew M. Kavanagh, Programme Director and Bebs Chorak, Street Law's Deputy Director in 2004.

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