Ellen Hao

Chicago is trying, make no mistake. Consider the Army of Moms based in Englewood, the Violence Interrupters of Cure Violence, the anti-gang violence work of community members Benny and Jorge in Little Village, or Father Pfleger’s parish in Auburn Gresham; examples are everywhere. From the high-profile work by artists like Chance the Rapper and athletes like Joakim Noah, to the anonymous daily struggles of overworked, under-appreciated parents and guardians of our city’s children, Chicago is trying. And yet, in spite of the tireless efforts by our city’s bravest, brightest, and most passionate citizens, we are obligated to reckon with the sad, simple truth: many of Chicago’s young people are still killing each other. And so we keep trying.

The solution we propose expands upon an empirically proven, cost-effective, highly reproducible methodology known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through workbooks of defined exercises, CBT teaches us how to slow down our thinking in order to fully consider decisions before we make them. Mastering impulsivity in this way leads to fewer decisions we regret. The most important thing to understand about CBT, however, is that it does not teach anyone anything except this single skillset. There is no agenda. Instead, it empowers us to act in ways consistent with how we were raised, who we are, and what we believe.

One of CBT’s most thrilling success stories has been the Becoming A Man (BAM) program. In 2013, BAM garnered the attention of President Barack Obama as an inspirational model for his initiatives aimed at curbing gun violence among low-income men of color. The University of Chicago Crime Lab formally evaluated BAM’s effectiveness in two separate randomized control trials of seventh- through tenth-grade boys in Chicago public schools on the South and West Sides. Taken together, these studies showed that for the duration of the BAM program, it decreased violent crime arrests by forty-four to fifty percent, increased high school graduation rates by twelve to nineteen percent, and returned up to thirty dollars in societal gains for every single dollar invested in BAM programming.

Unfortunately, after the study ended and the youth in the study left the program, the extraordinary effect on violence did not last. Within a year, the arrest rates for those teenagers returned to pre-intervention levels. We have identified two important reasons for this limited success: the program’s short duration, and its focus on a small subset of students. By addressing these issues, our proposal builds on previous victories of CBT to create lasting, lifelong change.

We advocate for full implementation of these proven CBT methodologies for children of all ages—not just in middle or high school, but from kindergarten through graduation. There is a consensus among medical and social scientists regarding the absolute importance of early childhood education as a social determinant of health, and CBT interventions have shown success in elementary school students. Despite the incredible political pressure to find a quick fix for the problem as soon as possible, it would be a mistake to only focus on young men who have been judged to be at risk of committing crimes now, as BAM does. Rather, by teaching all young children CBT methodologies during their socially and emotionally formative years, we take this intervention as far upstream as possible, forming a lifetime of cognitive habits.

Our curriculum is intended for all children. This is necessary for several reasons. First, the ability to slow down one’s thinking is a skill every person deserves. Our society is painfully ripe with examples of adults making a variety of terrible decisions simply because they cannot stay calm long enough to see a better option. Second, providing the intervention only to children with specific problems further isolates them, inviting ridicule and stripping them of the untapped self-agency they possess. Finally, with every child learning the same simple skill, the changes will permeate throughout every corner of every classroom.

In summary, our vision is a CBT-based curriculum—separate, defined, consistent, reproducible, and built into the daily schedule of every child in the Chicago Public School system. Rather than imparting students with a set of moral or political imperatives, this curriculum would teach students how to act in ways which are consistent with the values given to them by their families and communities, thereby matching their actions with the good and just people they truly are. By providing this skill to every child in every classroom, the proven benefits of CBT will last a lifetime.

If you believe you can help and want to become involved, please contact us at ChicagoCBTPilot@gmail.com.

Tim Porter, MD, is a general pediatrician in Chicago. He received his medical doctorate from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and completed his pediatrics residency training at Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Alex Armonda was an eighth grade teacher in at Chicago Math And Science Academy. An alumnus of Teach for America Chicago, he is a graduate of the Masters of Arts in Teaching Program at Dominican University. This fall, he will be entering the Ph.D. program in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Did you like this article? Support local journalism by donating to South Side Weekly today.

Join the Conversation


  1. This is a very important topic and as a Public Defender the court system waits until the person is in the criminal court system and the damage is done. I am all for utilizing this therapy in the early grades.

  2. I believe this could work as a plan, but one major point needed is these kids ran to gangs for the feeling of family and the hopes of having someone watch their backs. I’d say if you partner to take the leaders of gangs and all off the streets to protect these kids then it will work quicker, as most of these kids would have made a pledge. I hope this does work as hoped

  3. Couldn’t be more timely given today’s climate, which is often filled with rhetoric of hate and violence. Our youth need to learn effective coping skills from an early age. Excellent piece.

  4. It seems that the flaw is that this program is based upon values given to the child at home (as stated repeatedly). Is there any measure planned to introduce positive values? The most at-risk children are raised with few and poor societal values. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *