We are testing a new beta website for gov.scot go to new site

Working With Hard To Reach Young People - A Practical Guide



What we mean by Hard To Reach

By hard to reach, we mean young people who are not engaged with, or are disengaged from the usual range of education or other services for children and young people, activities or constructive leisure pursuits. In the context of reducing offending by young people, we are particularly concerned with young people who are at risk of offending due to their distance or exclusion from those services that help them to reach their potential and reduce the likelihood of them committing offences and causing harm to themselves and others.

The term hard to reach has its roots in social marketing and starts from the premise that no one is impossible to reach, it's only a question of what is it we really have to do and how much will it cost?

Hard to reach can also mean the 'underserved', in other words there are either no services available for young people, the current services present a significant barrier to them or young people fail to access the services that are available. The questions then become, what services do we have to put in place? How do we eliminate the barriers? And what do we have to do ensure that young people will access what is available?

Hard to reach young people are those who because of their circumstances and the circumstances around them, don't realise that there are services around them that would make their lives a bit better and that is probably the whole crux of the problem in hard to reach young people.

In Glasgow for instance, one of the issues is the notion that in some of the poorest communities, poor in terms of health, education, etc., it has been the same areas for the past 40 or 50 years. In those areas young people's lives and social networks are limited to 4 or 5 streets or at best even 10 streets. Their job aspirations, their relationship aspirations, absolutely everything, is limited to that - those are the groups that are hard to reach. They would not cross the road to go to a community centre in an area where they would get attacked because they come from another area. And, unless we start there we are never going to sort it out.

The real critical part is matching the right solution to the right person. You need a thousand solutions. We need to be much more flexible with what we do, we need to co-ordinate things better, we need to work better together.

Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, Head of the Violence Reduction Unit

Young people as part of something

Parents and the family

Children and young people need to be protected from harm and equipped with the skills and knowledge to make healthy and safe choices about leisure activities, relationships, education, and their future as they grow up. Parents and carers play the most important role in providing all these things for children as well as being the most influential role models.

Families are where young people's values and their attitudes to others and their neighbours are formed. And, the extent to which parents and their carers encourage young people to contribute, achieve and take of themselves and others will have a fundamental impact on their sense of self worth, their confidence to make the most of opportunities and services and the quality of their relationships with others.

Families need support throughout their child's development, especially during the difficult adolescent puberty phase when their child is changing into a young adult and beginning the natural process of starting to make their own life decisions and even challenging the family pecking order. Support will range from information and advice through routine contact with services for all children and families such as schools and GP surgeries, to more specialist services for families with complex or serious difficulties such as social work or psychological services, depending on the nature and extent of children's needs.

Workers should also be sensitive to the fact that not everyone's experience of family will be the same. For some "family" may mean a foster family; living with extended family or living in residential provision. They may also have a young family of their own. Thus the key person or guiding influence in the child or young person's life may actually be a social worker, a teacher, a residential worker, a mentor or a befriender. It is important not to alienate the young person by making assumptions about their home environment and family arrangements.


It is during a young person's most difficult life transition periods that their friends and peers become increasingly important. In the safety of their peer groups, many young people begin experimenting with things like smoking, drinking and drugs. They also take much greater risks and test the rules of acceptable behaviour to its very limits and in a few cases well beyond those limits. Among their peers, young people face pressure to climb higher, run faster, break, burn or smash things to see what happens, jostle for status, commit actual offences, skirmish with rival gangs and get into real fights.

In short, young people develop their identity, change their behaviour and attitudes, both positive and negative, according to the norms of their peer group and the associations they make. Generally, the healthier and more supportive an upbringing a young person has had, the more able he or she is to manage risk-taking with their peers and to absorb the more positive peer influences. Equally, young people who have experienced a damaging and neglectful upbringing will have more difficulty.

These young people tend to have a problematic family background, one where attachment issues may occur. They don't always have the confidence to develop relationships, the emotional equipment to be able to pick up on a positive relationship in the way that less troubled young people might be able to.

Donny Scott, Children & Families, City of Edinburgh Council

The community

Young people do not exist outside the community they are a vital part of the community. And, at the risk of paraphrasing an old song, they are it's future. Investing time and resources in the social development of young people as part of a community, and the responsibilities that come with it, is the best investment you can make towards your community's safety and its future. Young people also have a right to access their share of the community's resources and not to be excluded from them. For example, young people must be consulted by community planning partnerships so that their views are heard when planning local services. Reaching out to and engaging with them, on their terms and on their territory, makes them to feel noticed, valued and respected. If someone has taken the time to talk with them, and explain things in a way they understand, they will get involved and play their part in building a safer community. However, most importantly, young people want to be listened to and be able to influence the provision of services that affect them.

Early experiences can influence later behaviour and meaningful inclusion gives children and young people opportunities to demonstrate their ability to be citizens in their own local environment through practical experiences and activities. Inclusion in the processes that shape society in a way that is appropriate to their age and ability can contribute to their growth into mature, responsible, active members of society.

Scottish Executive, 2005

The school

We must break down barriers and tackle early the things that hold people back. We need to work together in the interests of the individual learner. Building self-confidence, social skills and an awareness of the impact on others will create the foundations for good health and positive economic and civic engagement later in life.

Supporting vulnerable children and families is also at the heart of a Smarter Scotland. This means high-quality, effective, joined up and sustained support for children and families. Children come to school from a whole variety of backgrounds and they all deserve the best possible education to meet their individual needs.

That means giving children access to an environment that is conducive to learning and which provides the stability and experiences that may not exist in the child's home life.

We need to improve the learning experience in our schools and other areas of learning - our children have the right to experience relevant, exciting, inspirational learning.

Fiona Hyslop
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Young people are individuals with different needs, abilities and learning preferences. Positive relationships and access to education have a major part to play in providing life-enhancing experiences for them. The learning and development opportunities offered by schools, youth workers, children's services, colleges and other places of both formal and informal learning must be seen and valued as an integral part of what society provides for young people across the board.

Schools can work to make sure all pupils engage with and benefit from the curriculum, and the curriculum is developing to become broader, more inclusive and more engaging. The aim is for all children and young people to develop skills for life and work, in particular the four capacities of successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors, and responsible citizens. Schools can be inclusive and engaging by providing vocational learning, learning about the world of work and employability skills as part of the curriculum, valued alongside other learning not as a separate experience perceived to be of lower value. They can also adopt a wide range of approaches to motivate pupils; to support pupils to be confident and happy; and, to help children and young people to overcome barriers to learning through additional or planned support.

The youth club

There are a wide variety of youth groups, associations and clubs across the country. Some areas are well-served and others not at all. Open and more generic youth service provision is arguably the most cost effective and presents the fewest barriers to participation. There is huge value in youth work that is available to any young person who wishes to attend, but there is also a place for specialised targeted provision designed for young people who are vulnerable or who have specific needs. These specialist services help prepare young people and give them the confidence and support to access opportunities that others take for granted. Having the confidence to take part in more open access provision, and understanding and complying with the associated normal social rules, is extremely important as this allows each young person to feel they belong and to understand what to expect and what is expected of them. Ideally all young people would have the confidence and support to access opportunities that are open to them, however, this is not the case and some are much harder to reach.

Needs, wants and fears

Girls (and boys) just want to have fun

Young people need a safe place to have a good time, to stretch themselves and develop new social skills such as teamwork through youth groups, sports and other fun leisure activities. The way in which young people use their leisure time has a big impact on their future. And, it is in the company of others that they experience positive role models or be a role model. Young people need places where they can be themselves, but they also need places where they can develop healthy attitudes to their own well-being and the well-being of others - a place where they can think positively about their education, health, relationships, sexual identity, future employment, the community they live and in their role in that community.

Hair-raising changes

Adolescents can be a puzzle, a tinderbox of emotion prone to impulsive, erratic behaviour. Ask a parent why this is, and raging hormones are often mentioned. But scientists are learning that such simple explanations belie the complexity of this tumultuous stage, when the seeds of life-long problems are sown for some and others choose paths that take them to the height of their potential.

OCD, 2006

Puberty is a critical phase in the lives of young people. It is a time when they experience the most dramatic biological, physiological and socially upheaval. There's an awful lot going on for these emerging adults at a time when they have the most trouble controlling emotional behaviour and managing risk. Puberty sparks new drives, impulses, emotions and motivations. Changes in arousal and motivation outpace more slowly-developing self-regulation abilities. As well as higher rates of offending during adolescence, there are also increases in accidents, depression, suicide, violence, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. A young person's brain development is also an important factor.

While much of the brain develops during the first few years of life, shaped by both biology and experience, it doesn't stop there. Recent research suggests that several key regions of the brain, including areas of the frontal cortex and the cerebellum, undergo remodelling during adolescence. These studies suggest that much of the brain development during adolescence occurs in the regions and systems that play critical roles in regulating behaviour and emotion and in perceiving and evaluating risk.

Dahl, 2006

Fear of young people

Most young people make a positive contribution to their family, school and to a lesser extent their community. However, the Scottish Household Survey found that a significant number of adults perceive the presence of young people on our streets as threatening. Recent research by TNS Media Intelligence has also shown that only 23% of stories about young people on TV and in our newspapers are positive. Bad news clearly sells papers and this suggests that the media and we, their consumers, play a big role in distorting and magnifying the perceived fear of young people.

One of the other things that we need to do is around the notion of tolerance. In some communities and some areas we need to raise tolerance and in others we need to lower it. We need to raise it in some areas so that they don't get excited when four guys walk along the street, because they are just young guys and young guys have always done that. And so we need to raise their tolerance. And in other areas we need to lower the tolerance so that people say that is too much, noisy car park, grass not cut, three piece suites lying out at the front, the graffiti, we need to raise that.

Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, Head of the Violence Reduction Unit

Different and the same

Rather than being seen as troubled and disaffected outsiders who pose a threat to the community, or simply ignoring those who are out of sight out of mind, young people - with their different cultural identities, boisterous behaviours, sexuality, physical or mental impairments and odd friendship groups - must be viewed as a vital part of the community and their diversity as its greatest asset. Meeting young people as equals, without prejudging them, is also fundamental to successfully reaching out to those who are hardest to reach.

Accept every young person for who they are, valuing them first as individual people who are learning and who may need support before challenging their opinions and actions and confronting them with consequences. Make every effort to ensure that your services are genuinely accessible and open to all young people regardless of race, class, gender, ability, impairment, sexuality, dependants and political or religious beliefs. Ask yourself, does your equal opportunities commitment genuinely extend to marginalised young people? If not, what are you going to do about it?