Secrets of a classroom youth worker by Sean Monaghan

Unlike the usual topics of sex, drugs and violence, radicalisation is not cool, sexy or something the general teen can relate to.  I can tell you this because I’m a youth worker engaging with young people on these topics.  Extremism is not quite the temptation that “Mum tells us we shouldn’t do but we really want to do it anyway” kind of thing.   Neither is it something that “all the cool kids are doing so I wanna give it a go and just maybe it’ll make me cool too.” Young people realise that it is something much darker, deeper and can affect entire nations with a single action.  How we talk to them and create awareness about this topic is as increasingly important.  Let me give you my insights of training I deliver for ConnectFutures in primary, secondary and college settings with students from KS1-5.

  1. Don’t make issues reductive: In my experience, sessions have to be engaging and broad so that young people don’t just hear a reductive and patronising “terrorism is terrible” message. And that is exactly why it is so necessary a topic to explore, because it’s more than just about acts of terror – however important –  it’s a topic that explores manipulation, racism and division.   The key ingredient is providing young people with the tools to think critically so that they can raise the complex, awkward questions outside of the formal spaces through which they engage with adults.
  1. Explore media headlines and stories: Today more than ever, information is coming at our young people from every single angle. From the TV, news, papers, from all corners of the internet including their mobile phones via social media and  from our society of social disorganisation. So many of us – we are all probably guilty of this from time to time – just sit and lap up this information as if it were all scientifically proven with overwhelming evidence. But it’s not, as ‘information’ is so often biased, taken out of context, naive or just plain wrong.
  1. Create critical thinking spaces for conversations: For example, one of the largest tabloid newspapers boldly stated the headline ‘1 in 5 British Muslims sympathise with ISIS’ on its front page.  An apology for its inaccurate claims may have been made a few months later but the damage was done. It popularised the perception that Islam is synonymous with terrorism, combined with the  narrative propagated by Far Right groups that “they” are becoming marginalised in their “own country.” Put all this together and it becomes easy to see why a lack of critical thinking and space to have difficult conversations can breed fear, distrust and even hatred towards difference. And we all know where that may lead.

So, if the news can sway a young person’s life and ideology, then it’s easy to see why someone with a deliberate and malevolent agenda can do the same. Especially when that highly trained, motivated and skilled recruiter may appear as kind and generous, with a clear understanding of that young person’s needs and struggles.

It is my opinion that societally, we are failing our youth. All of us. There is a distinct lack of safe spaces and places for people to talk and discuss what’s on their minds or share information they have overheard, their thoughts, their fears. Why wouldn’t a young person believe something if they’ve seen it for real on a video, and is too afraid to tell anyone about it through fear of the police breaking down their parent’s door, allowing no space for someone to create a positive counter-narrative? After all, seeing is believing, right?

  1. Support young people to ask uncomfortable questions: The bottom line is that we need to create more safe spaces to have challenging, sustained conversations with the youth, to help them navigate the complexities, and support their development of critical thinking.  We need to teach empathy and a willingness to understand those different from us. And that is what we try to do in our training sessions: to provide an environment where it’s OK to ask those uncomfortable questions, say things that make many adults worried, to challenge and explore their own thoughts and ideas.

At ConnectFutures, we don’t just open a hornets nest – our role is also to keep them safe – to question everything, but also to identify trusted adults who can help sustain the dialogue and growth we spark in our sessions.