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Returning to Life

How to help 'troubled' teens get a fresh start and integrate into society


Some children who don’t go to school and commit crimes manage to reintegrate into society by learning new mores and lifestyles. But others only appear to adapt, becoming ‘outsiders’ again the minute they leave the school grounds, going back to the same risky life on the streets. The two approaches offer youngsters very different opportunities in life. This IQ.HSE article, that draws on research by sociologist Irina Lisovskaya of the HSE Centre for Youth Studies in St. Petersburg, explores how to help such youth integrate into society and learn to communicate with others. Using interviews with troubled teens and their caregivers, as well as participant observation, Ms Lisovskaya identified the most successful approaches for returning such young people to society.

Fifty Shades of ‘Troubled’

Zhenya is 15. He goes to school only occasionally—a week, maybe two at a time, and then he’s gone again. He had to repeat one grade. He knows it’s time to get serious, but he keeps cutting classes. There’s no one to take care of him: his mother died and his father never lived with them. Only two people try to help the young man: a great uncle and his wife. But Zhenya is not the most troubled of teens. Students like him are called ‘quiet truants’: they almost never come to class and avoid teachers at all costs, but they don’t drink, get into fights or shoplift.

‘Troubled teens’ is an extremely broad descriptor that labels almost everything as a problem, from cutting classes and running away from home to psychological trauma (such as child abuse) to delinquency. The common denominator is that society views them all as a threat and, instead of helping, often tries to isolate them.

Of course, these children have very different life situations and the conditions of their early lives—family, living standard, health and development—very greatly. Although some teenage delinquents come from seemingly ideal homes, most come from dysfunctional families, are social orphans (homeless despite having living parents), received inadequate upbringing at home, or were treated cruelly or neglected.

Zhenya is one such teen. He’s been through a lot and is withdrawn and homeless. A decision about him is coming. They might send him to a remedial school but he’s against it. He’s afraid of being labeled for life: ‘Moron. No one will talk to me’.

Teenagers’ concerns are understandable. There really are many special educational institutions that suppress and stigmatise teens, thereby completing their exclusion and ‘fall’ from society. But there are also different organisations with a more humane approach and a desire to involve and guide the youths. There are also some ordinary, non-‘correctional’ schools that work successfully with a wide variety of contingents, including such ‘troubled’ groups as orphans, the children of migrants, and others.

Rehabilitation Instead of Isolation

In her article, HSE St. Petersburg Centre for Youth Studies junior researcher Irina Lisovskaya, looked at organisations that take a restorative approach — returning troubled teens to society. In other words, they don’t use isolation. To the contrary, they help young people correct their behaviour, make new contacts and find a more nurturing environment. The graduates of such institutions have a far greater chance of succeeding in life.

These are called social support organisations. They can be special, open-type schools with adapted programmes (the Russian education system has eight types of correctional schools), vocational schools, psychological and pedagogical rehabilitation centres, non-profit continuing education centres, etc.


Irina Lisovskaya spoke with teenagers and teachers from four social support organisations in several cities (one of national status, a regional capital and a district centre). Three were state-run organisations: two open-type educational institutions (a school and a college) and one general education school with adapted Type-VII programmes (for children with delayed mental development, to which adolescents with difficult life situations are sometimes sent). The fourth institution was a social-cultural NGO.

The researcher interviewed 29 teenagers and 12 teachers. She also made use of the participant observation method and document analysis. Based on the material she collected, Ms Lisovskaya identified five models for changing the lives of troubled teens for the better. The study refers to this process as ‘reintegration’ and ‘resocialisation’.


Resocialisation is a kind of rehabilitation, a set of programmes aimed at restoring a person’s social status. This understanding is based on the approach of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who in part defines resocialisation as restoring a person’s contact with society.

For the researcher herself, resocialisation refers to the policy of social institutions designed to ‘re-educate’ teens by helping them take on social roles unconnected with delinquency. In other words, the goal is to make the transition from a ‘deviant’ to a ‘normal’ condition by overcoming stigmatisation and labels for self-identification.

A related concept is reintegration. In a broad sense, this is when someone who has temporarily ‘dropped out’ of society returns to ordinary life. Examples include soldiers returning from conflict zones, former prisoners and migrants returning to their homelands.

In a narrower sense, reintegration involves social programmes designed to help people restore social ties by switching their social environment. The study refers to reintegration as a specific institutional programme for integrating teens into institutions of society: leisure facilities, youth cultures, etc.

Thus, resocialisation refers to an overall goal or strategy, while integration refers to specific activities or tactics.

Scenarios (or models) of resocialisation and reintegration can vary widely due to differences in external conditions, institutional design (their specific characteristics, the programmes they offer, etc.) and interaction within the organisation. The researcher identified the various types of relationships that significantly affect how adolescents adapt to new lifestyles.

From Supervision to Trust

There are four key types: formal control and guardianship, non-dictatorial control, hyper-guardianship and control, and mentoring and guardianship.

Formal control and guardianship. The roles are assigned as follows: the adults ‘supervise’ and the teenager ‘disobeys’. Educators rely on normative regulations in their work or apply firm pressure (if the first method doesn’t work). The adults might also stigmatise students and use physical force. In an interview, 14-year-old Maxim (Type-VII school), said, ‘If someone came at you with a scissors, what would you say?’

Clearly, the relationship between teachers and students is very tense. The former try to ‘brush off’ the children while the latter rebel. One head teacher complains, ‘…They [teenagers] disrupt the classes and conflicts arise. The police are often here…at the school because we must resort to that….’ According to this teacher, the children ‘insult us to our faces, put us down and swear’. They apparently have no other means of influencing the students but calling the police.

Non-dictatorial control mode. This involves less forceful methods of education and teacher-student relations are more trusting. The youngsters themselves choose which extracurricular activities to pursue and how they’ll take part in school life. ‘We initially allow them to switch between groups and career tracks’, said the head teacher. ‘…You can’t use pressure…Maybe he comes and writes that he wants to become a plumber…and after two weeks of working as a plumber he realises that it’s not for him. If we put pressure on him, he’ll leave altogether’.

At the same time, students are expected to fulfill certain obligations (to attend classes, follow the rules, etc.) in exchange for the opportunity to choose their own path. Pupils generally behave respectfully towards their teachers, but largely do not view them as authority figures.

Hyper-guardianship and control mode. Adults strictly regulate all aspects of the young person’s life, but they still tone down the manner of communication, trying not to offend but to persuade. ‘As for the quiet truants’, said one teacher, ‘I love them a little less because it takes a lot more fiddling to draw them out and get them to come to school. The hooligans are better who, at least are at school every day. There are also…sleepyheads for whom you need the help of all the other family members - grandmothers, grandfathers, moms, dads - to wake up and to persuade the youngster to…give them a kick [to come to class]’.

Mentoring and guardianship. In this mode, adults have laid back communication with the young people. Students avoid breaking the rules because they don’t want to lose the trust of teachers, who hold clear authority. 15-year-old Ivan (who studies at a non-profit, culture- and sports-focused school for circus performers) admits that he considers his head coach an example for everything. ‘I think…that you don’t meet such people anywhere, that he’s one in a million….If you ask him about something, he’ll always explain it to you in detail. He’ll give you advice and help you if you need it. He’s helped me a lot since I’ve been here’.

The ‘Scenery’ of Resocialisation

In addition to relationships, a change of environment can play a significant role in resocialisation and reintegration. Students can unite based on common values, but there are key participants in this process as well as ‘buffer’ ones who are less tied in. A teen can determine his role as a team member from those he lives with in a dormitory or passes the time with in extracurricular activities. As a result, teens who are not included in such neighbourly relationships can become outsiders.

Outcomes are also influenced by whether an organisation focuses on sports, creativity, vocational training, etc. This creates a symbolic space or even ‘whole cultures that have certain filters for participants’, the researcher explained.

Undoubtedly, many material factors also affect resocialisation models such as an organisation’s financing, its outward appearance and interior. Thus, one teacher explains how students are attracted by the beautiful old school building itself. ‘It probably also affects them somehow because as soon as the guys get comfortable at the school, they walk around like they’re in a museum, taking selfies with tapestries in the background…Then they ask, “Can I bring my girlfriend and friends to show them the school where I study?’”

Of course, it is also important which teachers work with children. If the institution is just an ordinary school that has been reorganised, then the situation can be very difficult. In one school, the teachers turned out to be unprepared for problem kids, even though they had undergone additional training. ‘The first year, I remember, was very difficult’, recalled one head teacher. ‘…We were all just shocked that parents weren’t responsive and didn’t even…want to know where their children had been sent’.

It is also extremely important which methods are used for working with children. For example, non-profit schools for circus performers might consider road tours and sponsored foreign trips as a special method of education. This provides both encouragement and assistance in socialisation (a chance to see the world).

It’s good when the organisation cooperates with city workshops, clubs and museums. This enables teens to make new contacts and overcome any drawbacks of the institution, as well as their own stigmas. As one teacher put it, you just have to ‘put a fun wrapper on moral education’.

A True ‘Reset’

To sum up, Irina Lisovskaya identified the main types of scenarios by which troubled teens can resocialise and reintegrate. The five are merger, the runaway, wider horizons, submission to the rules and isolation.

In effect, the return to normal life can occur in two ways: through merging or broadening horizons. Obeying the rules produces only ambiguous results, weak resocialisation and chaotic reintegration. Isolation and running away hold no promise whatsoever for resocialisation and reintegration.

Merging. The teen is fully involved in the work of the organisation and is motivated to achieve results. However, the group sets selective criteria for inclusion because the organisation has a particular focus (theatre, sports, etc.) and the ‘candidate’ must have certain skills to seamlessly integrate with the other students. On the one hand, the student constantly tries to best himself, and on the other hand, he competes with others for recognition. In identifying himself with the organisation, the teen begins to move away from that ‘other’ social world (that might include not only an unhealthy peer group, but also family and parents, which is a less desirable outcome).

The mentoring and guardianship scenario. Ivan, 15, refers to the non-profit where he studies as his home. ‘And every day I come here is total happiness….Even though I’ve been here only a short time [2 1/2 years], it feels like I’ve been here a long time. And I’ve already learned how everything works here’. ‘Everything is different here’, he says, ‘it’s a new community, different company’.

The runaway. This is the flip side of the merging scenario. Although the organisation provides mentoring and specialised training, it blocks those opportunities to teens who lack the necessary skills, willpower or resilience. Many students can’t withstand these pressures and drop out of school (although many return later). Another option is to remain as an ‘outsider’.

Dima, 15, explains how he overcame one situation. ‘They said I was…a nobody. But now I feel just fine, relaxed, good. I have friends, thank God…Of course, there are problems, but everything’s fine’. However, other kids who don’t fit in get hassled. Dima admits that he feels sorry for Varya ‘because they’re always putting her down…often telling her she’s fat’.

Wider horizons. This involves broadening personal connections and overcoming existing limitations by shifting to a new social environment. Many young people have moved from other cities to study and live together in the dormitory, giving the organisation a neighbourhood feel. Control is non-dictatorial, which facilitates the formation of communities of interest. Teens join various communities of interest in the city (a practice the organisation fosters with its own infrastructure and through various partnerships). Students show initiative. Viktor, 17, did powerlifting at his trade school. ‘They didn’t have anyone in my weight category but they did have regional competitions’. He later got into workout training and also traveled to compete. However, the path to success isn’t easy: he has to compete both within the organisation, and beyond it.

Submission to the rules. In this mode, the organisation regulates the teens’ everyday life completely. There is no room whatever for personal initiative. It’s nothing but hyper-guardianship and strict control. Most of the students live in the city and no neighbourhood feel develops within the organisation. Greater attention from adults helps resolve conflicts. Some students find this arrangement suitable. Igor, 14, refers to the new school as ‘paradise’ in comparison to what he had before. ‘Here, they find teachers specially for each student so it won’t be too strict’, he explained. ‘…There [at the previous school]…the main thing was that you graduated, and after that they basically kicked you out. Here, it’s kind of the opposite. Here…everyone is given attention’.

Students formally comply with the school’s requirements, but beyond the school grounds, they lead the same street life and often with the same bad company. They don’t learn or internalise new values. Arkady, 15, said that one of the students is ‘informing on the others’. This might lead to a brawl. ‘…They set the time. Wednesday, 7 o’clock, 200 against 200. Bloody hell….I’ll get there a half-hour early to see whether or not anyone comes’.

Isolation. In this scenario, the teen is subjected to constant exclusion. Adolescents can face stigmas when trying to interact with peers in society, but the organisation’s internal environment is also unfavourable. Conflicts arise, both between peers and between adults and students. Masha, 13, rarely appears at school. She ‘doesn’t feel like studying’. As a result, they threaten to send her to a special school, which the girl describes as ‘a sort of prison’. But this doesn’t scare her: ‘I told them, “Send me wherever you want’.

The dominant mode is guardianship and formal control over students. Opportunities for personal development are limited: the city has little to offer young people in terms of recreation and education, and the organisations themselves do not specialise in any particular pursuit.

In this scenario, teenagers are excluded from city life due to the ‘stigma’ of studying at a remedial school. As a result, they join street groups and commit crimes. ‘I do correctional work and that’s it’, said Vitaly, 16. Well, right now he [a friend] will come here….He and some boys went into a store and robbed it….Then they came to me and said that I, like, forced them to do it…even though he’s two years older than me’.

Rewriting a Bad Script

Irina Lisovskaya notes that with the help of ‘experiments in the programme design of organisations’ it is possible to improve the condition of re-education. Thus, an organisation can use analytical methods to study the challenges of the environment and possibilities for working with that environment. As a rule, such ‘monitoring’ is carried out purely intuitively and relies on the social capital (personal contacts and connections) of the institution’s employees.

The head teacher of one trade school explained. ‘We…frequently invite a lyceum to visit that has a good ensemble, “Spark”….with dancing girls. Of course, the boys’ eyes light up immediately. They shine their shoes and get all dressed up. They love it’. Groups visit from other schools also and build up cooperation. ‘I’ve worked there, and there, and there, and we invite all of them so that it would be interesting, so that it wouldn’t be boring for them [the students], so that they wouldn’t be locked in to…just this one place and that’s it’, she emphasised. Nonetheless, the organisation must further expand and develop its connections, for example, in working with volunteer programmes.

Here is another case: a social support organisation is located in a large city and, on the one hand, teens enjoy many opportunities, but on the other hand, they risk getting swallowed up by the city. In addition, the institution is overly controlling of the students and forces them to submit to the rules. This results in very little resocialisation. Reintegration is also unsuccessful: the teens stick to their own neighbourhood and get into conflict with those from other neighbourhoods, and even with gangs.

To be more successful, the reintegration process must change. It could begin, for example, with introductory excursions to city districts, parks and museums, and then follow with in-depth excursions or outings to the same places. It is also useful when students begin to take charge of their own affairs because it strengthens their sense of initiative.

It is worth noting, however, that even the most optimistic scenarios aren’t perfect. Even the merging model has a downside. In that system, the teenager’s world is divided into ‘us’ and them’, and ‘us’ includes only those who share the norms of the organisation. Everyone else is counted as ‘them’. Dmitry, 15, (in the non-profit) calls them ‘clowns’. ‘I just understand that people are put into boxes and told to do this or that, and they do it. They don’t have their own opinion, and that sucks’.

The fact that such dichotomies exist that split the world into black and white is yet another proof that the success or failure of a particular scenario is, in fact, relative. ‘This is why it is necessary to modernise the organisation’s programme design and monitor the quality of the programmes’, the researcher emphasised.

Our friend, Zhenya, does not divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, but he rejects the common rules. ‘No need to change anything. I’m doing alright. I’m used to it already’. And what about the future? ‘I know how to earn enough to get by. I already found work like that with the other guys. Everything else can wait’. And after that? ‘We’ll see’, he says. ‘For now, everything’s okay’.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 10, 2022