How to build students’ resilience to extremism

Written by: Lucie Parker | Published:
Radicalisation: Extreme Dialogue features the stories of Daniel, who describes his abusive childhood and subsequent descent into violent white-supremacist groups, and Christianne, who talks about her son Damian, who was killed fighting for ISIS in Syria
You cant build resilience TO extremism or anything else; that's resistance. Resilience comes after ...

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With more and more scrutiny on the prevention of radicalisation among young people, Lucie Parker offers schools eight recommendations for how to build your pupils’ resilience to extremism

With this year’s introduction of the Prevent statutory duty into frontline institutions nationwide, schools have been feeling the pressure to adopt clear practices that safeguard pupils against extremism.

This can be incredibly difficult, and given the lack of clear guidance, many schools are struggling with how to fulfil this duty effectively.

The eight recommendations below are aimed at supporting schools’ and teachers’ implementation of the Prevent Duty.

1, Treat extremism like other safeguarding issues

Extremism is a highly complex subject. It gets huge attention in the press. But ultimately it should be treated in the same way that you would treat other safeguarding issues, such as drug abuse, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, pornography, gang involvement, bullying and cyber-bullying.

As with these issues, a crucial thing to remember is to contextualise the behaviour you are observing and to look at patterns of behaviour rather than one-off “warning signs”.

This is not about spying on behavioural changes. It is about pre-emptively guarding those under your duty of care from harmful risks.

Just as keeping an eye out for signs of sexual abuse is correctly perceived as proactive protection, rather than spying on the child, so too should safeguarding against extremism.

2, Build up emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills

Teach young people how to be fair-minded thinkers, who think in a flexible and impartial way. This can protect them against the rigid, black and white narratives that characterise the thought processes of extremist groups.

Building empathy and tolerance for different perspectives will strengthen resilience to the pull of these extreme ideologies.

Support your pupils to explore attitudes and experiences that are different to what they are familiar with. Draw out empathy for different perspectives and build strong emotional and social skills through putting pupils in other people’s shoes.

Get them to research the story of someone else and then adopt that story, either through a simple presentation or perhaps acting out the story in drama class.

Another technique is the “ripple effect” method, where the story of a significant figure could be presented to the class, with it being their job to consider who may have been affected by that figure’s actions and how.

3, Facilitate open dialogue and honest realism

Creating a safe space for open conversation about difficult issues is crucial. If a pupil feels like their curiosity about something complex, such as the suggested link between foreign policy and violent extremism, is not properly fulfilled they may go elsewhere for information which could be inaccurate or dangerous.

Help and support students in discussing these issues. Allow them to understand that people will have different opinions and this is something to be celebrated. Encourage openness and nurture curiosity. Where necessary try to set the record straight on the facts surrounding controversial issues, but allow group discussion to unfold organically.

Adopt an “honest realism” approach when facilitating dialogue on difficult subjects. Frank discussion on current affairs, such as the recent Paris attacks, will allow pupils to understand fact from fiction and how these events have an impact on both themselves and the world.

Don’t be afraid to use real photographs from news reports. The more honest you are, the more respect you will gain from pupils. Debates are a fun way to encourage semi-structured conversations around subjects like this.

Get a pupil to mediate too, giving them a sense of ownership of the subject at hand. If you wanted to have a more in-depth discussion of issues relating specifically to extremism, there are many easy-to-use tools and programmes out there that will support you in having these conversations, such as Extreme Dialogue, Miriam’s Vision and My Former Life.

With open discussion some difficult questions could arise. The key here is not to shut down such questions. Instead enquire as to where the question is coming from in a non-judgemental manner. If you are unsure as to how to respond, it is acceptable to tell the pupil that you will find out the answer and get back to them later, or work with them to explore the issue further.

4, Increase pupil knowledge of extremism and its roots

Possessing at least some basic knowledge of various extreme ideologies, from the far-right to Islamism, will equip pupils with the understanding needed to be aware of extremist movements. You cannot protect yourself against something without first knowing what that something is.

Imparting this knowledge is easily done through the existing curriculum. The subjects of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China are already on GCSE and A level history syllabuses.

Teaching pupils about the origins and effects of these ideologies will provide them with an understanding of how extremism rises and takes hold in similar ways, regardless of the content of the ideology in question.

Going on day trips to places like the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire can be an interactive and engaging way to impart this knowledge, without needing an extensive knowledge of these subjects yourself. Another innovative way to understand these issues is through using one of many tools out there, such as the Not in My Name resource. It is a play script that any school can use to deliver a play that grapples with the cause and impact of terrorist activity and the impact it has on a local area.

5, Focus on digital critical thinking and internet safety

The ability to use the internet in a safe way is the key to protecting children from becoming susceptible to the kinds of social media propaganda used by extremist groups online, including their use of conspiracy theories to consolidate their narratives.

More broadly, the ability to discern what is propaganda and what comes from a legitimate source is a skill that not only will build resilience to extremism, but will equip young people with the critical thinking skills that are necessary on a day-to-day basis.

There are a number of ways through which to teach young people what online propaganda looks like and how to approach it. ICT lessons are a good place to expose pupils to different viewpoints online, while history lessons can teach about the providence of sources and the importance of thinking about where information and opinions come from before passing them on.

If you wanted to try something different, programmes like Digital Disruption provide digital literacy techniques through creatively engaging ways, some of which are freely available online.

6, Increase awareness of propaganda

Following on from the focus on digital literary techniques, it is important to teach pupils how to recognise and challenge the myths and misconceptions they will come across in everyday life, including conspiracy theories and extremist narratives.

Extremist narratives may contain kernels of truth, but it is important to point out how they manipulate these truths to create division. Continuing this strain of critical thinking training will allow pupils to discern what information to trust, for example in the media, and what information to take with a pinch of salt or disregard altogether. This will ensure a degree of resilience towards extremist materials, as well as a broader competency in knowing where to find trustworthy information.

One effective method is to divide the class into groups, give them a news story, and ask them to make a sensationalised news bulletin out of it. This will demonstrate how easy it is to skew the perception of facts or add extra things to keep an audience interested.

Another interesting technique is to show the class images without giving the provenance of the source. Get them to guess what is going on in the picture, and then give them the truth. This will show them how easy it is to jump to conclusions about situations they don’t have the full facts about. These methods are easily applied, to history or English lessons in particular.

7, Encourage positive social activism

An often-cited reason for membership of extremist groups is that the individual concerned was struck by the desire to act in the world and wanted to engage with something meaningful.

So encourage your pupils to become socially empowered and politically engaged citizens. The inevitable curiosity and principles that young people will have should be channelled in positive ways. Encourage active participation in the school and wider community. Pupils should be taught how they can become involved in influencing and affecting change in the world.

Setting up volunteering groups between the school and the local community is a fantastic way to get pupils involved with local issues. Programmes like National Citizen Service, Envision, and Raleigh International can support you in strengthening youth engagement with society.

8, Use the curriculum to your advantage

Use the existing curriculum to implement the outlined methods. Each recommendation will fit into a lesson somewhere. Anchoring them in the curriculum will keep these methods sustainable and increase their maximum impact potential.

It should also reassure you that the Prevent Duty does not necessarily require anything innovative in terms of teaching methods or subject matter. Although this is not to dissuade your creativity, the majority of best practice in building resilience to extremism in pupils will exist already in some form in your school.

Further information and resources

Extreme Dialogue

Extreme Dialogue is a series of tools for teachers to help facilitate safe classroom discussions around extremism and radicalisation and meet the new statutory safeguarding guidance.

Combining multimedia resources with short documentary films, it aims to develop students’ critical thinking skills and resilience to radicalisation, explore shared values and challenge all types of extremist propaganda and ideologies.

The films tell the personal stories of people profoundly affected by violent extremism, including former members of extreme groups, survivors of extreme violence, and the families of those that have travelled abroad to join extremist movements. Extreme Dialogue began in Canada in 2015, and will be launched here this year with new films and resources featuring the stories of people from the UK.

You cant build resilience TO extremism or anything else; that's resistance. Resilience comes after something, not before or during. Look it up. It's not the same as reluctance or reticence either.
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