This blog has been written by Ciaran Thapar, author of Cut Short: Why We’re Failing Our Youth — and How to Fix It.
As a youth worker and writing coach, working mostly with young people who find themselves easily excluded from mainstream experiences of British society, discovering the six nurture principles over the last year has been game-changing.
Across 2015-2021, I worked for various charities in a range of settings — secondary schools, youth clubs, prisons — where I supported young people with their academic pursuits and provided safe group and 1-to-1 discussion spaces for boys and young men at-risk of serious youth violence. My book, Cut Short, documents much of this work, focusing on the experiences of three young men I worked with (Jhemar, Demetri and Carl) as they navigate through, and triumphantly overcome, the barriers of systemic inner-city inequality. In 2021, following publication, I started thinking about how to merge my youth work practice with my love for writing as an expression-of-self and medium for self-reflection. Around this time, I was contacted by nurtureuk to collaborate on some work, following their reading of Cut Short, and this birthed PATTERN, a writing course for boys and young men at-risk of permanent school exclusion.
I have therefore been on a journey of finding my deeper purpose as a youth worker, while absorbing the principles of nurture into my thinking. The following are some ways in which I have applied them to my practice, and examples of where they can be drawn from the journeys of the characters in Cut Short.
Children’s learning is understood developmentally.
Life circumstances are impossible to control completely, especially if you are a child. This means there is a constant mesh of forces playing into a young person’s experience of life, and therefore their ability to engage in learning, formally or informally. Understanding that education can only be achieved when the learner is given the space to absorb the learnings sounds like an obvious principle, but it is constantly disregarded in the British school system. Those who are able to tick the narrow boxes of high pressure examinations are rewarded; those who are unable to do this become less of a priority. One obvious signal of this is the way that the arts have been dismantled and devalued in recent years, giving way to obsessions with core subjects. Many of the smartest young people I’ve worked with were not able to excel in academic subjects. Their intelligence could shine in safe conversational settings, or in the poetic lyricism of their raps, or in their mature ability to analyse their complex social worlds, none of which is readily appreciated on paper. The fundamental differences between Jhemar, Demetri and Carl is a case-in-point: they are written into Cut Short to demonstrate three diverging blueprints of success, despite all the obstacles that London throws at them, be that academic, social, artistic or athletic. Respect must be paid to the individual and their circumstances in any process of learning.
The classroom offers a safe base.
Too often, in the rush of the timetabled day, it is missed that school regimes can provide safety and comfort to the most vulnerable students. For many boys I’ve worked with, as soon as they step foot outside the school gates, they perceive their life to be in danger. This means that the sanctity of the classroom needs constantly reinforcing. The problem is that, in many cases, this logic is turned on its head: the classroom becomes a place of punishment and shame. In Cut Short, Carl is sent to the exclusion room to sit on his own and face the wall. He is ignored or dismissed by teachers when he tries to speak to them; the more he gets sent to the exclusion room, the more some members of staff treat him automatically as a problem to get rid of, rather than to treat with greater empathy. I have seen this play out during my own time working in schools, and it extends to the way that police, prosecutors, and the wider public can respond to the most socially excluded young people. It is vital that the classroom – and school space in general – is seen as an opportunity to give young people like Carl the chance to unwind, open up about their experiences, and be vulnerable, without the constant fear of punishment or harm. This is the idea behind PATTERN: to provide a regular pattern in students’ lives where they can sit at a desk, discuss social issues and write their ideas down in a way that is valued by relatable mentors.
Nurture is important for the development of self-esteem.
The most important tenet of any youth work I do, and the core message of Cut Short, is to make young people feel like they are valued. If a young person is granted space, support and time to grow, make and learn from their mistakes and develop, and the positive aspects of their journey are reinforced by adults, the strongest foundation for life can be built. One of the main reasons that Jhemar was able to cope with family tragedy, and resist the urge to take justice into his own hands, was the deep knowledge that he mattered to adults around him, his friends and his community. He knew he needed to rewrite the script, because it had been communicated to him that he was powerful enough to do so. Carl was able to halt a cycle of crime and violence, despite the extreme dysfunctionality of his home life, and the risk of being attacked or policed, because he had a range of trusted adults around him to confide in and discuss options for his future with. Nurture ensured these two very different young men were able to develop and hold onto a strong sense of self-esteem. This is what saved their lives, and both are now able to move with confidence and give back to their communities tenfold as a result.
Language is understood as a vital means of communication.
Slang should not be punished, only challenged and collaborated with, for it exists as an adaptation for life on the fringes. Rap music should not be policed, it should be harnessed as a tool of expression, learning and catharsis. Converting the thoughts and mutterings of groups of young people into written words that can be published and handed out to their communities is a deceptively powerful step. Language is so powerful, and can say so much, yet the outbursts of children and young people are often ignored. In our PATTERN writing workshops, every contribution is valued and digested, and each participant is encouraged to write their honest thoughts down in order to understand them better, and place them in a wider social context. Increasingly, rap lyrics are being used in court as evidence to convict young people who write them. There is nothing more symbolic of how British society silences and demeans young people who face adverse life experiences. Throughout Cut Short, I try to show the vitality of music culture, literature and language more broadly as key media for understanding, supporting and communicating with young people.
All behaviour is communication.
When Carl failed to show up to mentoring sessions at his youth club, despite the fact we’d known one another for over two years, I was advised by Tony, my mentor, that he was testing the boundaries of our relationship. By continuing to show up, messaging him each time to signal that I was there when he needed me to be, and letting him come when he was ready, formed an effective communication between youth worker and young person. Working with young people can be frustrating because their behaviour can be testing, but a trauma-informed practice sees this as a product of forces outside of the room, stemming from the past. Receiving behaviour as communication is a great way of sustaining a dialogue with a young person, because it necessarily demands a response – rather than a reaction – and a careful, supportive response can make all the difference. I enjoy working with young people whose behaviour is regarded as poor in classroom settings most because they communicate honestly and aren’t afraid to challenge the structures placed upon their lives. This spirit can be channelled in the most amazing way.
Transitions are significant in the lives of children.
Year 6 to Year 7; school to college; college to university. Moving home (once, or more than once), the coming and going of parents or carers, the turnover of teachers and youth workers. These are all transitions that, if not managed properly, can have an unpredictable and often quite invisible impact on a young person’s life. I’ve learned the hard way — as I show at different points in Cut Short — that my own lack of consistency in certain roles I’ve played meant that I couldn’t forge strong, long-term relationships with staff or young people. I’ve tried to learn from these mistakes and ensure that wherever I deliver youth work there is a sense of beginning, middle and end; some control of structure and closure. But this is only possible when institutions are managed properly and empathetically, and when the wellbeing of staff is ensured, thus making their roles sustainable, which isn’t always possible in cash-strapped schools, youth services or prisons. The most impactful youth work I’ve done, and seen done by others, is that which takes places over the long-term, at multiple moments of transition. Change can be destabilising, but it is also where we learn.
Ciaran’s book Cut Short is now available to purchase in paperback: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/316628/cut-short-by-thapar-ciaran/9780241988701