PYJ — Social Learning Theory



“Learning and Doing”

Two broad bodies of research-based theory have directly informed youth development policy and practice, and in turn helped to inspire the the Positive Youth Justice Model: social control theory (Hirschi 1969) and social learning theory (e.g., Bandura 1977). Social learning theory helps us to understand how youth come to view delinquency and crime as desirable, and how we may redirect youth away from delinquent behavior.

According to social learning theory, delinquency is the outcome of an experiential process in which youth learn to value their participation in crime and other risky behaviors. Social learning theory can be viewed through a strictly behavioral lens or it can include an independent role for interactions and relationships. A behavioral perspective on learning theory would suggest that youth learn to engage in criminal acts through a process of rewards and punishment (Akers 1998). An interaction perspective would suggest that delinquency is learned through exchanges with peers and other close contacts. It is through relationships that youth learn to define crime as neither wrong nor deviant, and to justify their participation in illegal behavior (Elliot 1993).


Intervention practices associated with the behavioral aspects of social learning theory would seek to reduce the positive incentives for crime and to create new incentives for pro-social behavior. According to the behavioral approach, youth must unlearn delinquent behavior and adapt new patterns of positive behavior that bring different kinds of rewards, experiences, and connections. Interactional learning models would pay more attention to limiting a youth’s exposure to delinquent peers. An interaction approach would emphasize group learning and ensure that youth are exposed to pro-social ways of meeting their needs rather than those associated with illegal behavior (Sutherland and Cressy 1974). For both interactionists and behaviorists, “learning by doing” is the pathway into delinquency, and it can be the pathway out.

Akers, R.L. (1991). Self-control as a general theory of crime. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 7, 201-211.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Elliott, D. (1993). Serious Violent Offenders: Onset, Developmental Course, and Termination. American Society of Criminology 1993 Presidential Address. Reprinted from Criminology, 32,1.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Sutherland, E. and D. Cressy (1974). Criminology, 9th Edition, Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.