OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin, December 1997

Youth Development Series logoDevelopmental Pathways
in Boys' Disruptive and Delinquent Behavior

Barbara Tatem Kelley, Rolf Loeber, Kate Keenan, and Mary DeLamatre

This Bulletin is part of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Youth Development Series, which presents findings from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Teams at the University at Albany, State University of New York; the University of Colorado; and the University of Pittsburgh collaborated extensively in designing the studies. At study sites in Rochester, New York; Denver, Colorado; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the three research teams have interviewed 4,000 participants at regular intervals for nearly a decade, recording their lives in detail. Findings to date indicate that preventing delinquency requires accurate identification of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of delinquent behavior and the protective factors that enhance positive adolescent development.

Boys may follow various developmental pathways that lead to increasingly disruptive and delinquent behavior. To most parents, teachers, youth workers, mental health professionals, and juvenile justice practitioners, the development of disruptive and delinquent behavior in boys may appear erratic and unpredictable. These adults may be confronted by boys at various ages who display disruptive behavior at home, at school, and/or in the community and commit delinquent acts, such as minor theft, vandalism, robbery, and rape.

It is difficult for these adults to see a pattern in such behaviors or to accurately predict what disruptive or delinquent youth will do next. Parents, who are most intimately familiar with their sons' lives, may have limited knowledge of so-called "normal" child and adolescent behavior, much less an awareness of how best to handle their own troublesome boys. Teachers and youth workers encounter a fairly wide spectrum of child and adolescent behavior on a daily basis, but often are not fully aware of an individual boy's long-term progression into disruptive and delinquent behavior. Troubled boys frequently are not referred to mental health professionals or brought to the attention of juvenile justice practitioners until they have established a serious pattern of disruptive and/or delinquent behavior. Once such patterns are well entrenched, intervention efforts are more difficult.

This Bulletin summarizes longitudinal research from the Pittsburgh Youth Study, which examined an all-male sample. The study shows that the development of disruptive and delinquent behavior by boys generally takes place in an orderly, progressive fashion, with less serious problem behaviors preceding more serious problem behaviors. The researchers documented three developmental pathways that display progressively more serious problem behaviors among boys in three conceptually similar domains: authority conflict (defiance and running away), covert actions (lying and stealing), and overt actions (aggression and violent behavior).

The researchers believe that conceptualization of past, current, and future disruptive behavior can best be captured by means of developmental pathways. A pathway is identified when a group of individuals experience a behavioral development that is distinct from the behavioral development of other groups of individuals.

In a developmental pathway, stages of behavior unfold over time in an orderly fashion. Individuals may proceed along single or multiple developmental pathways toward serious antisocial behavior, with each pathway representing major dimensions of disruptive and delinquent behavior. Understanding these progressions will help us to identify problem behavior and intervene earlier and more effectively in the lives of troubled boys before they advance to the more serious stages of delinquent and disruptive behaviors.


From the Administrator

Key Questions in the Construction of a Developmental Pathways Model

Assessment of Inappropriate Behavioral Development

Basic Dimensions of Disruptive and Delinquent Juvenile Behavior

Overview of the Pittsburgh Youth Study

Developmental Pathways

Examining How Well Boys Fit Into the Proposed Pathways

Frequency of Offending Among Boys in Different Pathways

Demographic Characteristics of Persisters and Experimenter

Recurrence of Problem Behavior Among Persisters




The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, and the Office for Victims of Crime.