This article refers to a group of youngsters often times found in poor urban core areas, and often identified by schools as being "emotionally disturbed" or "behavior disordered".  It questions whether their pattern of behavior should result in those labels, and provides strategies for working positively with this subgroup of urban youth. Before reading the article, please review this caution statement:

* It is important, when speaking about any group of people, to keep certain cautions and principles in mind.  Please read carefully the numbered items found next.

Cautions to Observe when Considering Cultural Influences on Learning Style, Behavioral Patterns, and Value Orientations.

Discussing “cultural differences” and the influences of one’s heritage on learning style preferences, behavior patterns, and deeply-held values is fraught with hazards.  At any moment, we are just a few syllables away from inflicting verbal self-injury and perhaps unintentionally alienating ourselves from those with whom we wish to connect.  In order to prevent stereotyping and overgeneralizing (or on the other extreme, denying that cultural differences exist which fails to recognize and honor the characteristics that give a group their sense of peoplehood) we need to remember that:

1. All behaviors are found in all cultural groups.

2. Some behaviors are demonstrated more so in some cultures than in others, but the first point still applies.

3. Individuals within a particular culture display the traditional traits and cultural markers of that group to varying degrees… from “not at all” to “exclusively and intensely”.  These variations can be due to ethnic group differences with the larger culture, socio-economic status, degree of acculturation to the mainstream society, gender, religion, and myriad other factors.

4. If a student displays a behavior that is common and accepted within his/her cultural group, it should be viewed as “a difference” from the ways of the mainstream society that are promoted in the schools; NOT as a “deficiency” or “disorder”.


Source: Tom McIntyre (1996). Reclaiming children and youth. Winter, 38-41.

 From the Streetcorner
 to the Schoolhouse:
 Working with Streetwise Youngsters

ABSTRACT - "Streetwise" students often present manipulative and aggressive behaviors that concern educators and clinicians. Learning how to defuse streetcorner tactics and build one's "rep" are the keys to working effectively with these youngsters.

     Sonny and I grabbed the rebound, crashed to the hardwood floor, and struggled for possession of the basketball.  The whistle blew and my opponent shoved the ball at me.  We both reared up, threatening each other's health and safety, secure in the knowledge that our teammates and the referee would not let us engage in fisticuffs.

     While guarding me throughout the rest of the game, Sonny continually insulted my mother's reputation and told me all the nasty stories he claimed to have heard about her.  Knowing that he was unfamiliar with my mother, I simply told him to "Shut up and play."  I wouldn't realize until 10 years later that Sonny had engaged in a (one-sided) verbal battle known as "the dozens".  He had given me the supreme insult in his neighborhood.  In his mind, I had no honor because I failed to exchange insults or physically defend my mother's reputation.  However, because this game of verbal sparring was not played in my neighborhood, his comments were lost on me.

     A decade later, as a recent graduate of a teacher training program, I sought a well-paying job in the suburbs.  However, due to my inexperience and a lack of openings, I had to accept a lesser-paying position in an inner city area.  From the very start, I was confused by the behaviors of my charges.  Even though they were placed in a program for youngsters with emotional disorders, they certainly did not display the manifestations of emotional disturbance described by my textbooks and professors.  In fact, they did not seem "disturbed" at all.  Others agreed with me.  Their peers perceived them as being "tough", not "wacked".  My students and others like them were representative of the socially maladjusted majority of the 20 to 30 percent of urban students who display serious emotional and/or behavioral disorders (Foster, 1986; Kelly 1986).

     I struggled to create a supportive, orchestrated classroom, earning their respect with my concern, humor, self confident air, and interesting lessons, but failing to subdue their manipulative and aggressive behaviors with my behaviorally oriented behavior management system.  Seeking answers, I attended a professional conference and sat in on a session presented by Herbert Foster.  Here was a man who understood the influence of the streetcorner microculture on the moral, social, and behavioral development of many of the youngsters who live in low income urban areas.  I purchased his book (Foster, 1974) on the spot and mentally devoured it that weekend.  I finally had some idea as to what was occurring in my classroom.

     I now had an awareness of the games that kids incorporate into their behavioral repertoire when they "hang out" on the streetcorner.  My students were using behaviors that had utility in their neighborhood.  They had learned the required social skills, harsh language, "cocky" demeanor, and crude deportment necessary if one wants to walk the local streets with impunity.  Their callous and manipulative behaviors, while causing me great distress, were necessary for physical and emotional safety in hostile neighborhoods (and when enrolled in classes taught by teachers unable to counter and defuse the streetcorner behaviors of others who might victimize them).  Their learned behaviors had a survival or "instrumental" value.

     Inner-city youth are exposed to a subculture that promotes only callous masculine traits (McIntyre, 1991; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre & Mack, 1993).  They incorporate the streetcorner lifestyle to varying degrees (McIntyre, 1992; McIntyre, 1993).  Those who have earnestly adopted it have been conditioned to act in an aggressive and manipulative manner (McIntyre, 1996).  These streetcorner kids have learned that they can obtain influence and wealth by manipulating or intimidating others (Hunt, 1993).  Although many ploys are spontaneous reactions to take advantage of situations that present themselves, others involve systematic cunning.  In these latter cases, predators decide who to attack, and when and where to do so, controlling the privacy or publicity of their tactics to create the greatest impact (Hunt, 1993).

     While most of the streetcorner behaviors are derived from the African American culture (Foster, 1974; Foster, 1986; Safire, 2000*), any student (regardless of race or culture) might decide to emulate these actions.  Some behaviors are vestiges from the days of slavery (e.g., shuckin'); others can be traced directly back to Africa (e.g., the dozens); while others developed later in urban poverty areas.  All were originally used in America to survive/succeed in a hostile, oppressive society.  Today, however, these actions are used by streetcorner youth for personal gain in non-threatening environments (McIntyre, 1991).

     While some streetcorner youngsters originally adopted this manner of carrying themselves for safety or status in neighborhoods marked by social ills, for others, it serves as a facade erected to protect one's remaining self concept previously damaged during childhood by parental rejection or incompetence.  For many others, it is a way to show competence in a school environment that threatens to continue to expose their educational/intellectual shortcomings (McIntyre & Mack, 1993).

     While I now had, and would continue to develop a better understanding of the streetcorner character, I still had little guidance regarding what to do to help these young people develop a social conscience and the motivation to succeed.  Over time, via investigation, experimentation, and the emulation of others, I developed an effective style and found techniques useful in defusing my students anti-social practices.  Before providing general guidelines for practice, allow me to briefly describe the various streetcorner "games".

Types of Streetcorner Tactics
     There are many different ploys used by streetcorner youngsters to victimize others.  These tactics exist in all parts of the country (although names for them might be different or non- existent), and often extend beyond the streetcorner to society at large.  However, they are played with the greatest frequency and intensity by streetcorner youngsters.  All games have a verbal component meant to embarrass, misdirect, or disorient others.  Some have a physical component meant to frighten or intimidate others, or avoid punishment.  Further descriptions and multiple examples of these tactics can be found in other literature (Foster, 1986; McIntyre, 1991; McIntyre, 1995; McIntyre & Mack, 1993).

1) Dissin', Bustin', Cappin', Casin', Choppin', Cuttin', Dippin', Jonin', Medlin', Rankin',  Ribbin', Snappin', Soundin' This verbal game makes fun of someone's body, clothing, belongings, and so forth.  It can be played in a good natured way among friends or used to taunt others.

2) Playin' the dozens, Playin' house, Rankin' moms
This game of insults involves saying negative things about another's family members, usually female, especially the mother.

3) Signifyin', Ribbin' up
In an attempt to cause conflict, the youngster(s) separately tells two people that each said something undesirable about the other.  A milder version is often used against teachers ("Mr. Smith wants you to let me go down to help him with a project.").

4) Motor mouthin'
When caught by an authority figure, continuous talking, excuses, and pleas for mercy result despite directions to be quiet or attempts by the authority figure to speak.  The youngster hopes to avoid punishment by frustrating or distracting the adult.

5) Loud mouthin', Loud talkin'
These hurtful utterances involve saying something personal to someone so loudly that others hear the comments, thus embarrassing the recipient of them.

6) Jivin', Puttin' one over, Jazzin'
Called Shuckin' if subservient and placating behavior is also shown, this clever tactic incorporates the telling of an ad-libbed fictitious story/excuse spontaneously created to fool a stronger opponent or authority figure.

7) Hustlin', Runnin'/Workin'/Whuppin' a game
Any questionable or illegal activity designed to obtain money or desired objects from trusting and unsuspecting others.

8) The cat and the gorilla, Showin' out, Goin' off
In order to obtain a desired privilege or escape a undesired consequence, the student "sweet talks" a teacher (the cat).  If unsuccessful, the student then yells and vigorously storms around the room (the gorilla) until the request is granted.  The gorilla does not directly intimidate others as in Woofin' (see below).

9) Woofin', Punkin' `em down, Gettin' in your face, Bogartin'
This menacing behavior involves using one's voice, threats, and/or body language to intimidate another.

10) Wildin', Gettin' paid
Peer pressure, group contagion of behavior, and the adolescent desire for excitement and belonging, all combine to produce a roving band of misbehaving, bullying youth.

Intervention Guidelines
     Low-income urban neighborhoods, and the streetcorner in particular, commonly promote the traits of early independence, aggressiveness, self defense, and exaggerated "masculinity" (even among females).  These youth have little enthusiasm for schooling as typically structured (Hanna, 1988).  Traditional curriculum and guidelines do not motivate them.  If we are going to convince our students that there are better life options than hurting or hustling people, it is important to decrease the frustration and alienation that they feel in a school setting that promotes values and behaviors they presently disdain.  The first step to effective intervention is to provide an academic environment wherein they feel physically and psychologically safe enough to set aside their street-born behaviors and attempt to learn and behave in a socially acceptable manner.  The second step is to replace a curriculum that is inadequate and inappropriate for them (McIntyre, 1992).

     If educational professionals are to create this safe haven for learning and be influential in convincing streetcorner youngsters to adopt pro-social behaviors, they must first familiarize themselves with the background, culture, and  lifestyle of their students.  The increased awareness that results from having engaged in this investigation helps one to prevent and defuse any street tactics that enter the schoolhouse.

     Unfortunately, while literature abounds regarding non-urban students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders, little writing exists that provides practical guidance for working with urban streetwise youngsters (McIntyre, 1992).  Due to this dearth of knowledge, few educators understand the urban streetcorner subculture or know how to deal with its victimizing behaviors (McIntyre, 1992; McIntyre & Mack, 1993).  Confusion, conflict, and ineffective or even counterproductive interventions often result.  Referrals to special education frequently follow, after which evaluators often wrongly identify the behaviors as being indicative of psychological disturbance instead of sub-cultural training (Foster, 1986; McIntyre, 1995; McIntyre, 1996).

     Whatever the etiology of the behaviors, they must be remediated.  Yet, even if a collegial, supportive climate is created, it is no news to urban educators that influencing the lives of urban streetwise youngsters is no easy task.  Parental ridicule and inconsistent physical discipline, typical of low income households, produces many youngsters lacking "a conscience", or a pro-social, empathetic social code (Hanna, 1988).  They are then exposed to the streetcorner, a temptress with harsh, but alluring lessons.  During their developmental years, many of our low income urban youth have little or no exposure to role models who display commonly accepted patterns of behavior (Farrell, 1990).  Educators also find themselves competing for their students' hearts and minds with a primary socialization unit in the urban core; gangs (McIntyre, 1992).  To compete successfully, we must do a better job of providing the sense of belonging and purpose furnished by gangs (Bunsen & Hurley, 1993).  A conceptual model and ideas for achieving this aim can be found in Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 1990).

     Despite the obstacles, developing an awareness of streetcorner games can make educators' professional lives more rewarding.  Streetwise kids are skilled manipulators who have found that they can "con" most of the people with whom they've come in contact.  While these kids may like us, they will never respect us and work for us unless they realize that we can't be "conned".  If we are naive, and continue to fall victim to their "set-ups", we'll repeatedly be made a pawn in their games.
 Educator development of "streetsmarts" is an especially important trait because streetcorner youngsters view those who can be victimized as being unworthy of respect (Foster, 1986; McIntyre, 1992).  Along with learning "streetsmarts", there are certain traits, required of all teachers, that must be mastered and demonstrated to a higher degree by those who teach streetwise youngsters.  These skills include making the subject matter interesting to students by relating it to their experiences and interests, and helping them understand why the material is important to their future success.  Also included are modifications to assure that learning and teaching styles match.  Those teaching styles must include fun, interactive activities, and enthusiastic presentation in order to instigate student motivation to participate and achieve.  To further enhance their ability to work with these youngsters, teachers must add the traits of persistence, tenacity, assertiveness, and cultural and personal respect for their students (McIntyre, 1992).

     Along with being streetsmart and modifying lessons and style of presentation, effective teachers of streetwise youth build and maintain strong personal bonds with their students (McIntyre, 1992).  They do so by making themselves available to their kids outside of class time, and demonstrating authentic concern about issues in the lives of their charges.  During these contacts, they are patient and attentive listeners.  Back in the classroom, these consummate educators build a positive and supportive peer culture and avoid public punishment for wrongdoing, an especially important point, as public embarrassment disrupts the student-teacher bond, creates conflict, and destroys motivation to succeed in class.

     Indeed, to maintain the respect of their socially maladjusted students, educators must avoid not just the ignoring/passive (i.e., wimp) avenues to discipline, but also the misguided educational folklore that claims we must "iron-hand" these youngsters with a rigid/punitive (i.e., prison guard) approach.  With regard to the latter focus, what we have available to coarse students often isn't half as bad as what many experience at home or on the streets.  In either case, we appear powerless.  Effective discipline with streetwise youth involves modeling appropriate behavior, using humor or distraction to nip misbehavior in the bud, and reacting in a understandable, firm, consistant, and confident manner when youngsters attempt to victimize others.  Replacing victimization tactics with positive traits such as courage and empathy are perhaps best taught in "manly" ways so as to be appreciated and accepted by our streetcorner youth.

     Whenever we work on behavioral change, we must assure that students are treated with dignity and respect (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 1990).  Master urban teachers use respectful intervention to avoid conflict and subsequent escalation.  In conflict situations, they seek to de-escalate student-teacher tension rather than trying to overpower pupils and "teach them who's boss."  However, this negotiation is conducted in an assertive manner so that one does not appear weak or frightened.  They compromise without "caving in".  It is important for educators to maintain a calm and confident demeanor that does not appear either threatened or threatening.

 It is also paramount that educators of anti-social youth promote prosocial behavior by conveying their belief in their youngsters' ability to change and succeed (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 1990).  This belief in youngsters' ability to "turn things around" has been reported by now successful, but formerly "at risk" youth as the one major thing that helped them escape the unfortunate life fate of most of their former peers.  Master teachers never "give up" on a youngster, and recognize effort and progress, however small.

     Other writings (Foster, 1986; McIntyre, 1991; McIntyre & Mack 1993) provide further insight and advise in dealing with streetcorner behavior.  Additionally, these readings provide information that enables one to resist the negative attitudes that frequently result when one attempts to teach these youngsters without knowledge of their lifespace.  Indeed, increased understanding of one's students is inversely related to the development of a "ghetto mentality" in which standards and expectations are lowered and racist attitudes develop.

 Urban youth are frequently socialized into adulthood by society's undesirables (McIntyre, 1992), learning behaviors that allow them to gain power, prestige, and influence in their "tough" neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, these behaviors are often brought into the schools where they create confusion and fear.

     Sadly, while these youngsters need us badly, they are resistant to our outreach.  Our extended hand is slapped away unless it offers something they recognize and desire (e.g., popularity, acceptance, a sense of purpose, the promise of success).  Modifications in curriculum and instructional style, in addition to the implementation of respectful behavior management practices are the professional keys to motivating prosocial student change.  Assertiveness, fairness, consistency, and persistence are the personal keys.  Combining "toughness" with genuine concern, an optimistic, yet realistic outlook, and tolerant, good-natured humor gives one the "rep" as a good teacher (McIntyre, 1992; McIntyre & Mack, 1993).

     To survive and succeed as a teacher of pupils from the urban core, one must become familiar with the streetcorner culture to which many of our students belong and all are exposed.  This involves understanding the language and slang of the street, being able to recognize and deal with streetcorner ploys and tactics, and developing the teacher traits that gain the respect and admiration of these youth.  The prototypical teacher for these youngsters is a knowledgeable, friendly, supportive, respectful, competent teacher who cannot be manipulated.  This teacher can promote the positive aspects of their behavior (e.g., spunk, creativity, humor, enthusiasm) while helping them replace anti-social behavior with more socially appropriate actions.


Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M. & Van Bockern, S. (1990).   Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future.  Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Bunsen, T.D. & Hurley, B. (1993). Kids dropping out---and into gangs. Beyond Behavior, 4(3), 4-8.
Farrell, E. (1990). Hanging in and dropping out: Voices of at-risk high school students. New York: Teachers College Press.
Foster, H. (1974). Ribbin', jivin', and playin' the dozens. Cambridge, MA: Ballantine.
Foster, H. (1986).  Ribbin', jivin', and playin' the dozens (2nd ed.). Amherst, NY: Foster and Associates.
Hanna, J. (1988).  Disruptive school behavior: Class, race and culture. New York: Holmes & Meier.
Hunt, R.D. (1993). Neurological patterns of aggression. Journal of emotional and behavioral problems, 2 (1), 14-19.
Kelly, E. (1986). Social maladjustment. Presentation at the Conference of the Council for Exceptional Children. Washington, D.C.
McIntyre, T. (1991). Understanding and defusing the streetcorner behavior of urban socially maladjusted youth. Severe Behavior Disorders of Children and Youth, 14, 85-97.
McIntyre, T. (1992). Teaching urban behavior disordered youth. In R. Peterson & S. Ishii-Jordan (Eds.), Multicultural issues in the education of students with behavioral disorders.  Boston: Brookline.
McIntyre, T. (1993). Reflections on the impact of the proposed definition for emotional and behavioral disorders: Who will still fall through the cracks and why. Behavioral Disorders, 18 (2), 148-160.
McIntyre, T. (1995). The McIntyre Assessment of Culture. Columbia, MO: Hawthorne Educational Services.
McIntyre, T. (1996). Entering uncharted waters with tattered sails and a broken rudder. In B. Brooks & D. Sabatino (Eds.), (pp. 232-239). Personal perspectives on emotional          disturbance/behavioral disorders. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
McIntyre, T. & Mack, D. (1993). The streetsmart correctional educator. Educating Adjudicated, Incarcerated & At- Risk Youth, 1,   35-43.
*Safire, W. About Language. New York Times Magazine, 11/5/00 (Added to this internet version, but not in original version)
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