Identifying children at risk of radicalisation and recognising their vulnerabilities are now required of all schools and early years providers in England and Wales. Under the Prevent Duty introduced by British government in 2011 as part of the overall national counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST, the strategy aims at stopping people from being drawn to terrorism or supporting extremist ideology, and specific guidance has been offered to the educational sector to demonstrate their compliance.
The Revised Prevent Duty Guidance for England and Wales 2015 is an official document through which schools, teachers and early years professional will find details about what is expected of them under Prevent Duty. As its main purpose is to protect children from radical influences those who work directly with children need to understand how to recognise the individuals who may potentially be in danger of being radicalised, but also what to do when a child at risk has been identified.
Wider Safeguarding Duty
One of the Prevent Duty requirements is that all staff receives appropriate training that will help them recognise children at risk of radicalisation. Protecting children from radicalisation is similar in nature to safeguarding them from other harms and therefore should be treated as part of everyday safeguarding duties. Some of the risk factors may be similar to those typical for safeguarding, and practitioners need to refer to their experience and use their professional judgment when identifying a child at risk of radicalisation.
How to Identify a Child at Risk
Below there are some of the most typical risk factors and circumstances that may make children more vulnerable to radicalisation.
This may happen when a child feels uncomfortable with their place in the society around them, or finds it difficult to understand where they belong or who they are. Searching for identity is often more visible during early adolescence stage when being accepted, especially by friends or peers at school, becomes particularly important to young people.
Also, young people who do not understand their cultural or religious background or are distanced from it may feel the need to reconnect with their heritage to better understand their roots and find their place in the world. As their sense of belonging boosts their self confidence, experiencing rejection by friends, teachers, parents or carers may become more difficult to cope with. This is the time when young people may become more vulnerable and may easily welcome those who offer them understanding and acceptance.
Since many extremist groups use this particular vulnerability, it is important to offer young people adequate support to make sure they will not need to look for it elsewhere.
Whether it is family tensions or going through an adolescence period, children and young people are very prone to such circumstances. Teachers and carers need to understand that no matter what the reason behind a child’s crisis is, if there is no one to openly talk to or rely on among the closest people in their lives, children will resort to any possible source that can offer them consolation. Because they do not yet have enough knowledge and experience to always judge appropriately who is trustful and who is less so, they might easily fall victims to those who are aware of these vulnerabilities.
Crisis is often easy to notice for professionals — as well as extremists who know exactly what kind of vulnerabilities to look for and how to use. It is important to react in time offering adequate support.
Children tend to be more vulnerable when going through difficult times or when they are permanently affected by their life circumstances (e.g. children and young people with learning disabilities or other difficulties). An example of a temporary change in life circumstances might be a family migrating to another country, which usually causes intensive stress and tension for children.
Also, if a political situation in the country of their origin is difficult, children may live in a constant fear for the wellbeing of relative who still reside there, which as a result may make them prone to harmful influences. They may even be determined to help their relatives — and this is when extremist ideology as a last resort might appeal to them if they are not provided adequate support and offered access to reliable sources of information.
Sometimes children experience too much pressure from their parents or carers who set high expectations of them without offering enough space to make mistakes or to experiment safely. These children’s self-confidence might then be negatively affected, and they might try hard to prove their worth. When they experience failure, they might not be ready to cope with it, they may feel hopeless, guilty or think they have experienced injustice. This is when children or young people may turn to contexts, situations, people or ideologies that may help them regain temporary control over their lives.
Previous involvement in criminal groups or imprisonment can make young people more vulnerable to extremist influences. They most likely already experienced violence and their values might be seriously compromised. They might feel fearless, confident and ready to engage in extremist activities, which makes them an easier target for recruiters.
Changes in Children’s Behaviour
Many symptoms and changes in children’s behaviour will be similar in nature to other safeguarding issues, and they may not necessarily mean a child is being radicalised. Such changes may indicate that the child experiences some form of neglect, physical, emotional or verbal abuse at home, is being bullied at school, or is simply going through a difficult period — and these will not be related to extremism.
The following are signs and symptoms of behaviour that a child at risk of radicalisation may display:
- Isolation from friends or changes in friends; becoming detached or withdrawn;
- Significant changes of appearance, absenteeism and secrecy;
- Becoming disrespectful, quick to anger, advocating violent actions and means;
- Expression of extremist views, possession of violent extremist literature;
- Seeking to join extremist organisations or recruit others to extremist ideologies;
- “Them and Us” thinking.
The above should not be interpreted in isolation, as usually a child at risk will display a series of signs and changes in behaviour at the same time. As there is no single way to identifying a child who is at risk of radicalisation, teachers need to rely on their professional judgment when analysing each child’s individual circumstances. Nevertheless, each case needs to be taken seriously and should not be ignored even if not directly related to radicalisation.
Revised Prevent Duty Guidance for England and Wales. HM Government, 2015
Counter-Extremism Strategy. HM Government, 2015