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Repairing with gold: the case for a strengths-based approach to preventing and reducing (re)offending and radicalisation

Repairing with gold: the case for a strengths-based approach to preventing and reducing (re)offending and radicalisation

On 22nd January 2018, Khulisa presented at the first International Conference on Preventing Youth Radicalisation, hosted at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.

The conference, and associated book “Young, Marginalised but not Radicalised: A Comparative Study of Positive Approaches to Youth Radicalisation”, is the first output of the Youth Empowerment and Innovation Project (YEIP), bringing together research and best practice in the prevention of youth radicalisation from across seven European countries.

Following their presentation, Iman Haji, Khulisa’s Research and Programme Coordinator, reflects on how the adoption of a strengths-based approach to working with socially excluded young people can be replicated in initiatives that aim to prevent radicalisation.

In presenting at the YEIP conference in Italy, we had two aims in mind. Firstly, to show how a holistic strengths-based approach focusing on reducing social exclusion can be highly effective in tackling youth (re)offending, and to highlight the benefits of our model (and others like it) in contrast to the current risk-based approach.

Secondly, using our 25 plus years’ experience as practitioners, our paper highlighted the value a strengths-based approach has added to our work in the criminal justice system and the value it can add to the reduction of youth radicalisation.

At a foundational level, like (re)offending, radicalisation is at once a cause, effect and indicator of social exclusion

Reoffending is linked to many of the factors that contribute to social exclusion. These include; a lack of access (to social mobility, education, health services and housing), a lack of fair recognition (due to discrimination, hostility, stigmatism and segregation), and other personal intensifiers (such as a negative lifestyle, poor mental health, low levels of engagement with education and a subjective sense of exclusion from ‘mainstream society’).

Through our work in the youth justice system we have found that focusing on risks – rather than young people’s underlying needs – provides some explanation for high reoffending rates and general social exclusion of young people in custody. This is particularly true for the current cohort of young people in custody who have fundamental complex needs. We know that seven in ten young people released from custody go on to reoffend. We also know that 65% of children in custody are reported to have suffered traumatic brain injury, over a quarter have a learning difficulty, and 30% of boys and 44% of girls in the youth justice estate are looked-after children. Despite these figures, our youth justice system continues to seek to reduce reoffending through risk management, focusing on criminal status rather (and therefore assuming typical levels of cognitive and emotional ability) rather than understanding the underlying causes of a young person’s criminal behaviour and their needs.

Current practice fails to fully address the multidimensional elements of social exclusion, as both an objective and subjective phenomenon

According to the Good Lives Model of Offender Rehabilitation (GLM) all of us as human beings seek valued outcomes – whether these be good relationships, money, power or status – and the only reason some turn to crime is they feel unable to reach these goals in prosocial ways. Therefore, the most effective means of engaging young people who subjectively feel excluded from society is by equipping them with the internal (i.e. attitudes and values) and external (i.e. skills, resources and opportunities) conditions needed to live a positive life. In other words, unless and until we address the underlying conditions that drive young people to committing crime, efforts to reduce their social exclusion and (re)offending are short-sighted.

With this strengths-based approach in mind, given that a lot of the young people we work with have multiple and complex needs, we adopt Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model in our programmes. According to this, without regulating and physically and emotionally settling traumatised young people, they are unlikely to be able to relate or feel connected and comfortable, preventing them from having capacity or motivation to engage in higher level cognitive processes critical to reasoning, logic and practical problem-solving.

To deliver this model we use creative facilitation – such as art, drama, and storytelling – and other experiential techniques such as restorative circles and reflective practice. These encourage participants to explore their thought processes (thoughts, feelings, body sensations and unmet needs) and introduce alternative coping strategies and ways of thinking. Examples of this include our hat and mask making exercises. We encourage participants to create a symbolic representation of their abusive self with masks making exercises and contrast this with their perception of their ‘ideal’ self with hat making. The purpose of this is to help participants step back and reflect on their actions, and to motivate the individual to change their behaviour in order to be more consistent with their ideal self.

In creating a safe therapeutic space for young people with complex needs and supporting the development of their executive functioning skills, such interventions are proven to have a positive impact on behaviour, self-worth, confidence and personal agency – the foundation blocks needed to live a positive healthy life: only 7% of our participants go on to reoffend against a national average of nearly 50%.

The best analogy for our approach to reducing the social exclusion of young people is through the Japanese art of Kintsugi

In Kintsugi, a potter fills the cracks of a broken pot with materials like gold and silver.

The broken pot represents each of the socially excluded young people with unmet needs who are at risk of engaging in criminal behaviour and/or radicalisation.

Managing risk without first engaging with underlying issues represents the water the broken pot cannot retain.

Strengths-based (GLM) programmes that focus on developing social and emotional learning mechanisms are the golden lacquer that enables transformative repair, whilst a strengths-based culture is the scaffolding that supports this transformation.

In short, unless and until we respond with a strengths-based approach, recognising social exclusion as both an objective and subjective phenomenon affected relationally, we cannot effectively prepare young people to actively and legitimately fulfil their role in society.

Khulisa, which means ‘to nurture’ in Zulu, deliver trauma-informed behaviour change programmes in schools, prisons and communities across the UK. Our name represents our South African heritage as well as our core belief that everyone – no matter their background – has the capacity to learn and grow and, given the right conditions of a safe, nurturing environment, can make more positive life choices.

Our programmes were originally developed in South Africa where we have been supporting excluded or marginalised people in some of the most volatile communities of post-apartheid South Africa. In the last ten years we have supported more than 3200 people to develop their emotional literacy and resilience; improving their self-confidence and helping them to envisage a safer, more fulfilling, crime-free life. We have also trained more than 2000 professionals in our methodology; helping to develop institutions and communities which are restorative and promote social cohesion.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons