How do we stop today's youth from becoming tomorrow's socially excluded adults?

How do we stop today's youth from becoming tomorrow's socially excluded adults?

By Sandy Hore-Ruthven, for DHI's Vision Project

Liam is a young man with dyspraxia, dyslexia and mild learning difficulties. His problems started to become more serious later on during primary school. He fell behind with reading and his dyspraxia meant he was ‘disorganised’; never having the right pencil or the right book and rummaging around in his bag for 10 minutes before he could get started. Occasionally this would lead to a fractious argument with a teacher who couldn’t start the lesson until he had got himself sorted. During primary school this was manageable but when he went to secondary school things became worse. The pressure to achieve grew, as did the complexity of lesson timetables, homework and the need to be generally prepared. His poor reading skills meant he fell behind in most of his subjects. He began to get into more trouble and became violent – partly as a way to avoid being shown up or made to feel ridiculous. He hung in there for a couple of years but soon started to play truant more regularly until eventually he left mainstream school in year 9.

This example is important because truancy from school is the single most reliable indicator that a young person is going to become socially excluded.

Social exclusion can take many forms – at its simplest, it’s not having the money to take part in things that our peers do. But at its deepest it can be caused by serious trauma and the problems can affect our very personalities. The causes might be anything from serious physical or sexual abuse to neglect. Or, it may be caused by bullying, a disability (sometimes simply a personality that doesn’t fit with the mainstream) or low resilience to the ‘slings and arrows’ that life throws at us. We know too that those who are in a minority are more likely to suffer – for example those who are BAME or LGBT are more likely to experience exclusion. At its most extreme, it changes our brains. We know that neglect and abuse changes the neural pathways we develop as we grow. It can lead to things like anxiety or hyper-vigilance. If we are anxious we see danger everywhere and act accordingly. Panic, aggression, fear or passivity above and beyond what is ‘normal’ can cripple a person’s development leading to lack of friendships or ‘bad’ behaviours. We can, in turn, resort to drugs, alcohol or other behaviour that ‘treats’ the problem in the short term but of course, in the long run, does more damage. Many young people hang out with the ‘wrong crowd’ because they are looking to belong and will forgo their own wellbeing, getting involved in crime or sexual exploitation at worst.

But let’s start with the reality – most young people don’t become socially excluded adults. Most young people, including some who suffer from serious trauma or troubles in their early years, go on to live fulfilling lives. So, we are discussing a minority of young people, those whose trauma is so great that it affects their lives irrevocably.

But if we are to work out and answer the question we need to look further at those who do lead fulfilling lives. Study after study highlights that the single most important factor, when successfully dealing with difficulty in life, is the relationships we have around us. This might be family, friends or professionals. Having people around you to help you through problems and make sense of them. This in turn allows us to moderate our behaviour as we recover. Good relationships also allow problems to be spotted early reducing the damage they do in the first place.

Liam became a carpenter. His mother and father sent him to a special school where he thrived. Now 19, he is supported by his parents to find the right course for him and is now ‘on his way in life’.

The second thing is time. Recovering never takes a few days or weeks. We have to process it, understand how it has affected us. Our experience at Creative Youth Network tells us that young people have to go on a journey of discovery. It has ups and downs, successes and failures, so people must have the time to work out how to live their lives.

Jacob went into foster care aged three and while he was perfectly able with his reading and writing, he began to struggle at school. Going into foster care only happens when there has been significant trauma or neglect and so, as he entered his teenage years, the trauma led to him losing his confidence, getting into trouble and starting to ‘misbehave’ at school. He enjoyed it there but ultimately the school couldn’t help him with his behaviour. Despite entreaties from his foster carers, they did not provide him with the support he needed and he was excluded at the end of year 8. He disengaged even from the Pupil Referral Unit and became homeless for a period. The education system had failed him, but persistence from his carers meant that aged 16 he contacted them to ask for help getting a job. He returned to college, got a one-day-a-week job that has now (aged 18) turned into a full time apprenticeship. This journey has been 15 years in the making and is not over yet.

So, what do we need to do differently for those who are at risk of exclusion?

First and foremost, we must build relationships with young people, spending time getting to know them, not just responding to their behaviour. When we have a good relationship and understanding, we often see a different way of resolving a problem. It might be something as simple as getting them involved in a positive activity where they find their self-confidence or new friends. It might be they need long term counselling or even foster care. But too often stressed professionals do not have or take the time to see the real problems under the surface.

Secondly, we must walk the journey with them. Relationships only work when they are for the long term. Success is not guaranteed, but walking the long journey and taking time with young people can help them to recover, come to terms with problems, and start to build a new life for themselves.

Yet, as a society and as professionals we don’t yet structure our support for young people for the long term. The short term intervention is king! We measure ‘outcomes’ like returning to school or entering training when we know well that a tick in the box is not the end of the journey. Three-year contracts and grants ‘demand’ results for knife crime, obesity or isolation when those facing such problems have no positive relationships and will take years to recover from their experiences.

If we are truly to stop our young people becoming tomorrow’s socially excluded adults, then we need to look hard at the very structure of our society; what we value and resource. Where a young person does not have the support of family or friends, for whatever reason, then we must structure support and allow professionals the time to build relationships with young people in the long term.

It is these long term relationships that help our young people to thrive, to grow and to overcome any difficulties they face. In that way they are like all of us – we need friends along the way to help us be the best we can be.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Sandy Hore-Ruthven. Sandy is the Chief Executive of Creative Youth Network, Chair of Voscur and Green Party candidate for Mayor of Bristol.

We will be exploring the questions posed in this article further at our Just Say It! event on 26th March, where Sandy will be a panelist.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards and seeks a range of diverse views to really inform this process and develop its services for all.

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