The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London renewed discussions about how to stop young Muslims being radicalised.
A lot of the ideas focus on closing down social media sites, reporting “at-risk” individuals or organisations, and educating pupils on the evils of extremism. But while it’s important to be having these types of conversations, most of these suggestions are reactive. In that they are about what to do when the seeds of terrorism have already been planted, meaning there has been little mention of strategies to reduce the chances of young people coming under the influence of violent extremism in the first place.
There is no excuse for terrorism, but if there is any chance of stopping it, there has to be understanding of its roots, along with long-term strategies to undermine the causes.
And as most terrorists are “home-grown” – in that they are often born and raised in the country they then go on to attack – what happens in schools may well be critical. Of course, putting things in place in education is not a cure all, but it may help to keep all of us safe and also ensure that communities are not divided.
The following are strategies that can be used by teachers and schools to help to stop those extremist seeds from being sown. They are not targeted to specific groups but can be of benefit to all pupils.
1. Foster an inclusive environment
A sense of belonging is a basic psychological need and the groups to whom we are affiliated shape who we are and who we become. Schools that only value high flyers create “exclusive belonging” where bullying and marginalisation can thrive.
Social exclusion inhibits feelings of belonging, self-esteem, perceptions of control over the environment, and of leading a meaningful existence. It can also lead to powerful, negative, deep-rooted reactions.
Research by The Australian Policy Unit found three shared characteristics of young people who become violent Islamist extremists. They had a sense of injustice or humiliation, had a need for identity and purpose, and a need to belong.
Ultimately, all students need to believe that they matter, their contributions are valued and others care about them. Whether or not this happens will depend on the values and practices that predominate in school culture.
An inclusive sense of belonging goes beyond wearing a school uniform and includes ways in which schools demonstrate respect for the communities they serve. This could include encouraging teachers to get to know all their students, as well as identifying ways of improving communication with families.
2. Education beyond the academic
Education is more than gathering facts and passing exams, it is also about learning how to grow into who you are as a person and learning to live together.
It is not only what young people believe about themselves that matters, it is what they come to believe about others. Where schools adopt a proactive approach to social and emotional learning they encourage young people to find out what they have in common, making it more difficult to dehumanise others. Which leads us onto the next point.
3. Encourage empathy
Schools should aim to identify positive values and strengths, and help children to understand the skills that are required to build healthy relationships – including the development of empathy.
When young people are given opportunities to understand more about their emotions, they may come to a better understanding of why they feel what they do, and also find safe ways to express feelings. And they may also begin to appreciate how their emotions may by manipulated by others.
Despite evidence of its efficacy in attitude and behaviour change, social and emotional learning no longer has a place in most UK schools where higher academic outcomes are the overriding priority, so maybe it is time this is revisited?
4. Make student’s voices heard
Young people are often idealistic, want to be heard and want to make a difference. And research suggests that young terrorists have a similar motivation – even though this is demonstrated in acts of destruction.
Schools can provide constructive channels that engage pupils positively with their communities in ways that provide them with a sense of being agents of change.
Known as “service learning” this combines active engagement with community projects alongside a reflexive process. It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.
My own experience of working with challenging young people and engaging them in these types of projects is that it has been transformative – in the way they see themselves, their potential, the communities they are working with and their ability to contribute to something. For the first time they become significant.