Tolerance, not terror: Preventing radicalisation (Part 3)

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Concluding her three-part series on how schools can engage with young people at risk of being radicalised, Karen Sullivan looks at some of the warning signs and signposts some useful resources

In my last two articles, published last month, we examined some of the reasons why an increasing number of young people are being radicalised, and pointed out measures that can help to prevent this problem from growing further.

We are all encouraged to be alert to extremism in any form, and to report it to the authorities (both police and MI5 in the UK). This is not just a civic duty but also a legal responsibility; anyone who does not report or disclose information about someone who they believe might be planning an act of terrorism can be jailed under the Terrorism Act.

It’s worth remembering that radicalisation has one purpose, and it is not generally peaceful.

Research shows that even in cases where radicalised young men and women (far fewer in the latter case) have acted alone, the “lone wolf” scenario, it has been revealed that they had large social networks or online contacts that aided their radicalisation.

In an article in the Independent, Raffaello Pantucci, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that many terrorists were part of radical families or friendship groups. He suggests that mental health services and the education of teachers and other authorities to spot signs of radicalisation is important. But how many of us do know the signs, particularly when much activity is undertaken subversively and below the radar?

The organisation Educate against Hate points out that radicalisaton can occur both quickly or over long periods, and sometimes the warning signs are not obvious, particularly in teenagers, who are often “solitary, quick to anger and distrustful of authority”.

However, they do suggest that parents and educators should look out for the following:

  • Refusal to engage with or become abusive to peers who are different to themselves, perhaps on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexuality.
  • Becoming susceptible to conspiracy theories and feelings of persecution.
  • Changes in friendship groups and appearance: young people may distance themselves from friends, both online and offline, convert to a new religion, significantly change their appearance or clothing, and reject activities they used to enjoy.

They also suggest keeping an eye on social media activity, in particular watching for a change in online identity, often two “parallel online profiles”, one of which shows an extremist identity or activity under another name. Secretiveness about online activity or excessive periods of time online or on the phone should be noted, too.

The NSPCC suggests that signs that a child might be being radicalised include:

  • Isolating themselves from family and friends.
  • Talking as if from a scripted speech.
  • Unwillingness or inability to discuss their views.
  • A sudden disrespectful attitude towards others.
  • Increased levels of anger.
  • Increased secretiveness, particularly around internet use.

Childline provides a similar list of signs, and mentions watching for young people who talk positively about “dangerous groups or people who promote hate”, “refuse to talk to people from a certain country”, “or are rude, aggressive or violent towards a particular group of people”. Childline has a confidential helpline to provide support for adults worried about a child being radicalised.

The Home Office offers an online course that centres around safeguarding vulnerable people from being radicalised, and every educator should have access to this. It’s also worth passing it on to parents, who need to be alert to the signs and understand that there is help and support available for children at risk.

A TES poll last year showed that two-fifths of teachers said they’d had just an hour of training on the Prevent Duty, which requires teaching staff to identify children at risk of being radicalised and to take action over concerning behaviour. Just over half of those polled felt that this was not enough.

If this is the case at your school, it’s essential that you provide all resources to your staff (see below, in the Educate against Hate material), and also provide tips on how lessons can address the subject of extremism.

In its report Guidance for working with children and young people who are vulnerable to the messages of radicalisation and extremism, the Camden Safeguarding Children Board says that the type of social media being used can suggest that a child may in contact with an extremist, because some sites are harder to monitor and identities can be hidden.

These include sites such as Kik, Whisper, Messenger, Yik Yak or Omegle. They go on to suggest that: “Extremists often manipulate young people by using emotional triggers to engage with them, often targeting them when they are experiencing difficulties such as bereavement, emotional trauma, mental health issues or social isolation,” – so kids who are struggling may be natural targets.

One important way to tackle this problem is to ensure that young people understand when they are being targeted – helping them to develop a healthy suspicion of people with extreme views who might be showing an unusual interest in them.

It’s worth noting, of course, that isolated and vulnerable young people will probably welcome any type of interaction and interest, so tread carefully.

Childline suggests that we should advise all young people to ask themselves some questions, and to examine carefully anything that is making them “change their behaviour” and how they treat others.
In particular, they suggest questioning whether they are being pressured to change opinions or beliefs in anyway, or being promised that they can become “important” or “in control”, as long as they do what is suggested. There are many more points that are covered (see the link below).

While it is very important to establish a fine balance between being alert – watching vulnerable students closely, and taking action when suspicion levels are high – and becoming over-zealous in reporting to social services and other authorities, the importance of educating students, parents and teachers on the subject can’t be underestimated.

Too many young people are being drawn into dangerous situations under false pretences, and too many of those young people go on to lose their lives and/or their freedom. If we are to make any headway in stopping the threat of terror, it has to start here, and now.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to

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