How can we help troubled youth re-enter society?

According to Joseph Gagnon, professor of special education, young people need education and mental health support to keep on the straight and narrow. Skilled teachers can provide crucial assistance.

The fate of juvenile delinquents in the United States can be bleak. Tens of thousands of American adolescents have received convictions for manslaughter, robbery or car theft. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of young people awaiting their court hearing in detention centres.

According to the law, minors should be provided the same basic education in detention centres as in regular schools. According to Professor of Special Education Joseph Gagnon, this does not happen in reality. Gagnon, who has studied young convicts and their education, has recently assumed his professorship at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

"Most incarcerated minors suffer from mental health and behavioural problems, which is part of the reason they end up in trouble. In institutions, they receive a subpar education and minimal mental health services. Instead of being helped, they are being punished."

The majority of American underage convicts are boys, most of them African-American. Racism is a problem. These young people are the most marginalised group in society, who no one seems to care about.

"When they eventually are released, they go on receiving minimal education or support. This is why they often become repeat offenders and end up back in prison," Gagnon notes.

Literacy issues

Gagnon has looked into measures through which juvenile delinquents can be rehabilitated and educated. No one should be excluded, as that will only exacerbate the problems.

"For us to be able to improve the situation of these young people, we need to know the problems associated with school curricula and teachers' professional skills," Gagnon says.

Gagnon emphasises that another matter that requires understanding is the materials teachers use in teaching and how they deal with adolescents with behavioural problems.

A survey demonstrated that a number of underage convicts in the United States could not read at all. The reason for this was that their teachers lacked the ability to teach them to read.

"The knowledge helped me design a literacy programme for young people."

Gagnon is investigating policies and practices that establish frames for teaching, such as the assessment systems used in reform schools. The scope and quality of course offerings also matter, potentially making it easier to return to society.

"I also examine the practices adopted by teachers. How are they teaching math and reading? Are they able to help students who suffer from mental health problems?"

All in all, adolescents need clear plans for their future. A profession and a job will guide them on their way to independent life, while the role of parents and other close adults is significant.

Problems and gifts

Originally, Joseph Gagnon studied English literature. On a lecture in cognitive psychology, the professor noted that Gagnon would find success in the field of special education. Gagnon got excited and focused on psychology and education, especially adolescents' problem behaviour and learning disabilities.

"My mother always taught me to be very socially conscious. That has been a big part of my career. As a teacher and researcher, my goal has been to include every young person in society."

For more than ten years, Gagnon taught children and adolescents in schools, prisons, reform schools and psychiatric facilities across the United States. Some of his students had serious problems; some were extremely gifted and talented. Gagnon also worked as a volunteer in Morocco.

"I gained experiences of children and adolescents whose backgrounds and needs were a world apart. I identified the problems in the education system and wanted to develop practices to make the system better serve young people."

This is how the teacher became a researcher and, eventually, a professor at the University of Florida.

Support or punishment?

Finland attracted Joseph Gagnon with its reputation as a socially inclusive society.

"After my years in Florida, I got excited about familiarising myself with another kind of learning culture. The Finnish model with its social safety net and fairness coincides with the philosophy according to which I was brought up."

Gagnon appreciates the fact that people are not immediately abandoned if they fail. He points out that in the United States, society is very much centred on the individual.

"If you get rich, it's all because of you, and if you are poor, it's all because of you. You have winners and losers."

Naturally, there is plenty for Gagnon to study in Finland too, especially in the country's seven reform schools.

"In reform schools, adolescents are excluded from both society and the regular education system. How are they faring, and what is happening to them?"

Gagnon’s first impressions of Finnish reform schools are positive. Teachers and psychologists are committed to rehabilitating and supporting the youth.

"It's a more productive orientation than punishment, the prevailing approach in the United States."

All in one class?

Gagnon hopes to also study the inclusion of special needs students in normal teaching in Finland. Inclusion is an idea according to which all students are provided the same general instruction. Some special needs students study in regular classes, others in special classes, others yet in both.

"What takes place in special classes? What kind of methods are teachers using?"

Gagnon is looking for more information on, among other things, how many of the students return to normal instruction from special classes.

Teachers providing normal instruction are overwhelmed in classes that include students with special needs. Their resources and professional skills are not always enough for supporting special needs youth.

"This is a great challenge to inclusion which we need to tackle," Gagnon says.

The article has been published in Finnish in the 9/2019 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.