When I cast my mind back to some of the hundreds of young people I have been privileged to work with during my career in youth work, there’s one young man who always stands out. He is an example of just how much a person’s future can change if they are given a fair chance.

Pushing the boundaries

Nick was a year nine pupil on a restricted school timetable due to his disruptive behaviour in the classroom. He was disengaged, hard to reach and had multiple fixed-term temporary exclusions from school.

At home, the situation was bleaker still. Family life was chaotic. He was constantly pushing the boundaries with his mum and he had no relationship or contact with his dad. Nick was mixing with a negative peer group and they were well-known by the police and PCSOs for their anti-social behaviour and low-level crime. As time went on, Nick tried to ‘top’ whatever his friends did and his behaviour was spiralling out of control.

Exploring the issues

Eventually, Nick was referred on to a ten week programme for young people at risk of exclusion. Its aim was to explore the issues each person was dealing with and to challenge and overcome their negative behaviours by engaging in positive activities. One day each week was spent within the school environment and a second day was off-site.

A disruptive influence

From the very start of the programme, Nick made it clear that he was going to challenge every ground rule that was set. He was overtly rude to the youth workers, ignored their instructions, was disruptive and completely refused to engage in any discussions or group activities.

My initial reaction to Nick’s behaviour was to take him off the programme. I felt that he posed a significant risk to the other young people and that he would jeopardise their outcomes.

It was important that the programme was a constructive and supportive environment for all the young people who were participating in the session. They were all vulnerable and they each had their own complicated needs.

After lots of consideration and discussion between the youth work team, the decision was made to give Nick another chance. This programme was the only hope of helping to turn his life around. Nick was at risk of entering the criminal justice system and if we didn’t work with him, there was no one else to.

A fair chance

As time went on, I could see past Nick’s negative behaviour to the person he really was. He was quick-witted, highly intelligent and had strength of character and enthusiasm which was simply lacking the right direction.

Nick quickly became very influential amongst his peer group on the programme. He established himself as the leader of the group and when he spoke, the other young people listened.

Above all, it was very clear that Nick had ambitions. He wanted to be ‘somebody’ and to achieve ‘something’. Most of all, he wanted to be heard.

Channelling ambitions

Up until then, Nick had never had the support he needed, nor the encouragement or opportunities to express his opinions.

As a team, we collectively ignored his negative behaviour and instead, proactively asked him for his opinion and encouraged him to share his ideas. Whenever there was an opportunity within the group for a leadership role, we offered it to Nick because that was what he needed.

Fulfilling potential

Nick stayed for the entire 10 week programme and was a completely different person at the end. He became the first to arrive at the sessions and would always challenge the youth workers if he thought that the day could have been better in some way.

Nick found that there was a way he could get his voice heard and a way in which he could lead and change things – but this time in a constructive and productive way.

Nick went on to play an active role in a Youth Steering Group and then became Chair of a funding body for a project he was on. He also got involved in other local democratic projects including ones which saw him speaking in the Houses of Parliament.

Inspiring future generations

Nick credits the support of his effective youth workers with helping him realise his potential. They saw that his negative behaviour was a shield and that it was masking his true potential. Through positive youth engagement they were able to work with Nick to turn his life around.

Fast-forward several years and Nick now has his own successful business in the local community where he employs other young people – offering them a fair chance, just like we gave to him.


The programme coordinators were key in making sure Nick was able to remain on the programme and achieve a successful outcome. How can project coordinators support their staff to persevere with particularly challenging  young people?

What strategies can youth workers  implement in their work with young people to overcome similar situations to the one we have described here with Nick?

If you would like support engaging young people, please contact Youth Work Toolbox on 0121 288 0011 or complete the form on our website.