How to Combat Youth Radicalization Using Learning Psychology

Youth radicalization is an increasing risk in the United States, one which social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are perfectly placed to counter. These techniques can teach young people the mental skills to resist extremist ideologies. Teachers and administrators already have experience with SEL, and it can be adapted for anti-radicalization purposes readily.

Teenagers are routinely exposed to radical messages online. © Marian Fil /

June 26, 2023 22:58 EDT

Youth are increasingly at risk of radicalization into extreme ideologies. The advent of social media has allowed extremist messaging and misinformation to reach unprecedented levels of access to young minds. This risk is amplified by higher levels of factors that have traditionally been associated with radicalization, such as economic inequality and political polarization. 

The best data we have reflects the reality of this increased risk: hate crimes, school shootings, and incel threats are all on the rise. With the mass normalization of hateful, extreme and conspiratorial views through the political system—at the time of writing, there are 469 active anti-LGBTQ Bills in the US—these trends will not improve on their own.

Schools are in a unique position to help young people build up resilience against radicalization. Not only do they have regular access to students, but, for reasons I will lay out below, many already implement programs that indirectly develop resiliency skills through social and emotional learning (SEL). To illustrate this, we need a working understanding of extremist mindsets.

Why do youth hold radical beliefs?

In recent years, radicalization research has made significant strides in understanding what differentiates extremists from non-extremists. Key to this has been what are called “structures of thinking.” Structures of thinking relate to how one thinks, rather than simply what one thinks: the ways we process and organize information.

Extremist beliefs have been linked with lower levels of cognitive complexity, such as a tendency to see the world in terms of black-and-white, and lower levels of integrative complexity, which is one’s ability to reconcile conflicting viewpoints. Extremist beliefs have also been linked with an inability to update views following conflicting evidence and a preference for intuitive (and emotionally reactive) thinking rather than analytical thinking.

While it is unclear whether these factors are direct causes of extremism, the important point is that extremists—irrespective of ideology—tend to possess specific structures of thinking alongside the beliefs themselves. Developing and maintaining healthy habits of thinking presents a direct way to build resiliency against extreme ideological messaging. 

A potential solution: learning techniques

It will come as no surprise for those familiar with SEL that it has the potential for developing positive structures of thinking. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identified five focal competencies of SEL: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

Each of these factors addresses the ways in which people think. By developing social awareness and relationship skills, it is easier to identify and validate different points of view, and by extension to reconcile them—i.e. to achieve integrative complexity. Integrative complexity, as mentioned above, reduces the propensity to hold radical beliefs. 

SEL works, and it is supported by years of data. In one study, for example, schools saw both short and long-term decreases in bullying and homophobic name-calling after two years of SEL implementation.

Social and emotional learning techniques can shed light on mental habits that encourage extreme thinking. These techniques limit school violence by enabling students to protect their own minds against violent impulses. We can take the same techniques which schools have been using to counter bullying and apply them to ideological extremism as well.

There are significant reasons to prefer SEL over other counter-radicalization proposals. Instead of developing new and untested programs, we can take advantage of something we already know how to use. SEL is already in schools, it already works, and teachers are already trained to implement it.

Moreover, schools are much better set up for prevention than counter-terrorism programs run by law enforcement. Law enforcement has shown itself poor at identifying problem youth, using profiling techniques that have proved not only ineffective but discriminatory, thereby raising risks of radicalization.

Perhaps most importantly, developing positive structures of thinking builds long-term resiliency through tools that can apply to any radical ideology, not just the ones which law enforcement may be especially concerned about at any given time.

Bridging the gap

The case that building SEL competencies can mitigate risks of youth radicalization is strong. However, there are valid concerns about how equipped we are to harness this potential.

First, teachers will need new training to identify different types of online extremist rhetoric so that they have relevant examples to instruct on. Training teachers themselves in SEL will also be key. Teachers need to lead by example to reinforce these positive structures of thinking daily.

Second, SEL programs need to explicitly address online literacy. Since the Internet is where the majority of ideological messaging takes place, students need to know how to apply SEL competencies there. Social psychologists are developing new interactive tools that could be helpful online.

Third, we need new data on what kinds of SEL best build resiliency against radicalization. While these are likely similar to the ones that have proven effective in violence prevention, there will be differences. Radicalization and education researchers who traditionally do not work closely need to come together to learn from each other.

All the above steps will require significant effort. However, as I hope to have demonstrated, the increased risk of youth radicalization and the repercussions this could have make it more than worth it. If we hope to challenge youth radicalization, we will need innovative change. But we are not running blind: SEL curriculums provide a welcome toolbox to build resilience competencies en masse.

[Erica Beinlich edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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