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Blog: The "Icelandic miracle" through the eyes of a Finnish Youth Worker

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It is important to understand that each child and young person is an individual, and their social backgrounds can vary greatly. This is why individualized and targeted support measures are needed to ensure that every child and young person has the best possible opportunities to grow up in a safe environment, healthy and happy.

(This article is translated by AI)

As I fed the AI with 10 pages of notes from a five-day intensive trip to the heart of preventive work in Iceland, it summarized the following: "Thank you for sharing this comprehensive overview of youth work and preventive activities in Iceland. It seems to be a very extensive program for promoting the well-being of young people and reducing risky behavior. The program is strongly based on knowledge, community participation, and prevention."

It is important to understand that each child and young person is an individual, and their social backgrounds can vary greatly. This is why individualized and targeted support measures are needed to ensure that every child and young person has the best possible opportunities to grow up in a safe environment, healthy and happy.

Thirty youth workers from Pirkanmaa bravely boarded the same plane bound for Iceland. Or was it really fearless? None of the participants could have avoided the assumptions related to the wonder of Iceland, and each embarked on the study trip with some preconceived notion.

Iceland is known for its magical and enchanting environment. However, for youth workers, Iceland appears as a country where miracles have been performed for the well-being of children and young people. Countless references, sources, and lectures exude enthusiasm about how this nation, once struggling, has been turned towards a path of upward well-being. It is true that the measures of the Icelandic model have brought about all of this, and the praise has been justified.

In Finland, too, inspiration has been drawn from Iceland's preventive model by incorporating a component related to hobbies for Finnish children and young people to access. According to the Finnish model of hobbies, every primary school-aged child is offered one enjoyable hobby for free. The selection of hobbies is chosen by project periods, municipality-specific children and young people's preferences, and regional resources.

My expectations for the study trip to Iceland were high! I wanted to understand what the Icelanders have done differently, what is lacking in our work with youth in Finland and in my own small municipality, and how everything in Iceland is organized. The miracle of Iceland. How can we replicate this here?

The team-building, needs assessment, and joint brainstorming of the group heading on the trip began in the spring, led by the organizing entity, Marttinen Youth Centre, and their international coordinators. Erasmus+ funded youth exchanges and mobility of youth professionals, like this study trip to Iceland, include several joint meetings before the actual trip. In pre-meetings, as a group, we pondered what we want to gain from the trip, learn, and implement with young people. We were indeed setting out to acquire competencies!

The visit program was intensive. The days started at 9 AM and ended with a communal dinner. Even though the actual content was covered during the daytime, non-formal learning occurred throughout the week by reflecting on experiences with other participants. Amidst official lectures and visits to community centers, we also had the opportunity to admire Iceland's most famous sights. Towards the end of the journey, these reflections led to not only my own professional development but also generated several collaboration ideas across municipal borders.

Cozy and Safe

During the study visit, we visited four very different community centers. Hammarinn Center was extremely cozy, radiating warmth and a sense of safety. The place was introduced by a woman who described herself as an angry Icelandic feminist. It quickly became evident in her speech how enviable the extensive and functional activities of the youth space were. It became clear that without her own enthusiasm and very strong background knowledge and experience in funding and legal matters, the space would not have become so functional. They knew which strings to pull.

Although the space exuded warmth and coziness, and there was always at least cocoa and popcorn available, there is still ongoing reflection on how to get more girls involved. As a phenomenon, it is visible in the youth space that boys dominate the area while girls tend to stay on the sidelines. However, the space itself does not experience thefts, damage to property, or other disruptions to a significant extent, because it is perceived as a safe and communal home-like place. Ensuring the sense of safety for young people is considered the most important aspect in Iceland.

The director of Hammarinn, Margrét Gauja Magnúdóttir, charmed everyone with her speech.

Around 50 young people (+16 years old) visit the community center on a daily basis, which is considered quite a high number for Hammarinn. The reason for the high visitor count is the regular and consistent opening hours. They bring everyone together by offering food, and regular gatherings around the same table. Food attracts people.

Just like in Finland, in Icelandic villages, young moped riders often face issues with the general population, and sometimes even with law enforcement. Hammarinn also had difficulties reaching these young moped riders. This issue was resolved by hiring a couple of cool individuals who understood something about engines and music, and establishing the Music & Motor workshop. The young people were invited to join and provided with tools and space to work. The problem was solved, so to speak, "overnight". The police also regularly visit the workshop to chat and assist. With these measures, they aim to steer young people away from causing disturbances on the streets and show them places where they can engage in these activities.

The Role-playing, Rainbow, and Knitting groups were excellent examples of targeted youth work. Although the opening hours of the spaces were extensive compared to what we might perceive in Finland, some evenings were decided to be reserved for these small groups, with other activities temporarily closed. These closed groups include young people who might not otherwise participate in communal activities during their free time, spending all their leisure time at home or on social media. Role-playing allows the practice of social skills through characters, and rainbow youth can gather in a safe environment with an adult present. It's justified and makes sense.

Timely Support for Mental Health

Impressive was also the low-threshold, municipality-based mental health counseling at Hammarinn, which is offered to young people within six days of expressing the need. The notification is made by the school or youth worker to the local organization (Bergid), whose representative assesses the situation and the young person's individual needs, and if necessary, directs them to a psychiatrist. There is no limit to these personalized counseling sessions. In more challenging situations, it is possible to have up to 10 visits with a psychiatrist, and if needed, even more. All of this is free for young people.

The commendable operation of mental health services at Hammarinn is something to be envious of. The service's budget is not nearly fully utilized annually, and there is hardly any queue for the service. The low-threshold counseling offered to young people has been seen to save a lot of money because most young people benefit greatly from just a few counseling sessions, to the point where only a few end up needing deeper counseling.

The service also operates reciprocally towards the youth center. Young people referred to Bergid's mental counseling through school, who are socially isolated, are directed to the community center's services for well-being support. The counselors are professionals in trauma processing, and the needs of the young people are met immediately. The operation is funded by donations and partly supported by the state.

We also visited three other community centers, where the sense of togetherness and the enthusiasm of the facilitators were strongly conveyed. However, the low-threshold mental health model used at Hammarinn is not in place at the other places we visited. In this respect, there is also observable inequality in Iceland, with differences in young people's opportunities to access the services provided by society. A lot depends on the staff leading the activities, their backgrounds, knowledge, and experiential base, but unfortunately, also on knowing which strings to pull, what young people are entitled to, and which laws to refer to. It all revolves around information.

School Youth Work or Youth Work at Schools?

In Iceland, there is no separate school youth worker at schools, but youth facilitators visit schools to build relationships with young people. Otherwise, there is hardly any collaboration with schools, yet young people do not feel excluded because youth centers reach young people very effectively.

When we asked about dropouts from school, Icelanders were puzzled. In Iceland, school non-attendance is not seen so much as dropping out, but a unique way of attending school has been created for them. These young people who do not attend regular school have their own teachers who teach exclusively through online means. Some community centers also offer the possibility to come during the day, aiming to get the socially isolated young person out of their home and thus try to prevent potential isolation and the associated effects of loneliness. My initial thought was the attractiveness of the proposed model compared to regular school routines - but surprisingly, at least in Iceland, there do not seem to be large groups of school non-attendees.

I would like to highlight the community center in Reykjanesbaer, where the connection between youth workers and teachers is close, and communication works effortlessly for the benefit of the student. The youth center is closely located in their everyday environment and accessible to everyone. In this particular municipality, a special Sports model has been developed, allowing young people to engage in as much activity as they want with a single, fixed annual fee. There are also other activities available besides sports, such as art and culture. Only the music school is outside of this support, as it receives funding from other sources. The municipality is known as a sports town. In other Icelandic municipalities, various support models for hobbies have been developed, such as partial support directly to sports facilities.

Hobby = Active Young Person

In Iceland, the importance of engaging young people in hobbies and starting a hobby was emphasized. It was considered extremely important to provide young people with at least one meaningful hobby in their lives, much like in the Finnish Hobby model. In my opinion, Iceland has taken this model a step further, so that starting a hobby is more likely to lead the young person to engage in other leisure activities more easily and become more active in their own lives overall. When a young person ventures into a new environment and among strangers, they may feel some shyness about being themselves and expressing their thoughts boldly. Gradually, the young person gets to know their community and learns to trust their environment. When they feel safe and are willing to engage in meaningful activities, they often dare to go out and experience this again.

Various events and workshops are organized at the centers, and detailed instructions have been provided for participation. Personal information given during pre-registration is required for participation, and transportation is arranged for events. Buses take the registered young people to the event, and they only leave the activities after a face-to-face meeting with a youth worker and guardian. This is considered important for the safety of young people and the transfer of responsibilities. Larger events always have security checks for all participants, in case of sharp objects or substances. If necessary, a young person is breathalyzed, and after positive findings of substances or sharp objects, contact is always made with the home, social services, and the police.

In this, as in any other potentially problematic situation in the centers, youth facilitators ask for the opinions and views of young people working in the house committee. Common problems are addressed together with young people, and their proposals are listened to in order to avoid situations. Young people have a lot of good and effective ideas. The operational model that almost became a mantra during the visit also emerged in this context: it's easier to keep young people busy, away from mischief, and show them what they could do instead. Admirable insight and approach, in the hope that decisions in other centers could be based on responsible and critical youth democracy as well.

University Education in Youth Work

At the University of Iceland, we also stopped to learn about youth work education. Youth work is part of the leisure studies program, which offers the opportunity to complete bachelor's and master's degrees in the management of leisure services and health promotion. Anyone interested in youth work can study it at the University of Iceland with a high school education. Additionally, individuals over 25 years old, with extensive work experience in the field of youth work and most of their high school diploma completed, are eligible to apply. The annual tuition fee at the university is approximately 700€ in Iceland, and there is the possibility to receive financial support.

Eygló Rúnarsdóttir providing information about the University of Iceland's study programs to youth workers.

In the field of guidance and education, there is also a significant labor shortage in Iceland. This is reflected in the declining number of students. In the fall of 2023, 57 students were accepted into leisure university studies, of which 43 accepted their study places. The number of applicants has been decreasing every year, as job opportunities in Iceland have been increasing due to the aging and retirement of the population.

At the University of Iceland, the well-being of leisure students is emphasized, and the importance of outdoor education, such as nature pedagogy, with new students has been recognized. Various outdoor trips with groups have been seen as pivotal in building study enthusiasm and also beneficial for understanding group dynamics. While solving various problems on these trips, teachers find it easier to identify group leaders, assess students' teamwork skills, and identify lonely students or those in need of more social support.

It was emphasized at the university that simply learning does not make you a good professional; it's about how you apply what you've learned. Professional methods and support are needed for the 10% of young people who do not participate in any leisure activities or need more support in their social relationships. The remaining 90% manage on their own. However, I was still left pondering about this...

After the university visit, I better understood the activities organized in community centers. Various small groups are organized extensively, and a considerable amount of resources are allocated to them. The aim is to reach out especially to those who do not socialize in groups and easily become excluded from group activities. This approach aligns well with educational principles, and perhaps we could learn more from this in our own work and in the evaluation of the effectiveness of youth work in municipalities. Often, we set minimum participation numbers for groups, and consider it a major failure if only a few participants join a new group. Why is this?

As mentioned earlier in the text, it is easier to get a previously activated young person to participate again. Even small groups are significant, but how can this be justified to supervisors, funders, and municipal councils?

What Worries the Police in Iceland?

Vaping, or electronic cigarettes! When asked by a local, experienced youth police officer, the concern arises about e-cigarettes and snuff products throughout Iceland. In addition to tobacco products, the appearance of knives among young people is also a concern. What makes this extremely worrying is that even eight-year-old children are seen with knives. When asked about the reasons for children and young people carrying these items, they do not intend to use them; rather, they are kept as a personal form of security. Youth workers also speculate that the increasing sense of insecurity due to various gang-related factors and the normalization of this issue created on social media contribute to this phenomenon. The sleeve of a knife can be seen in videos, and even in games, knives are not concealed. However, ahead of these valid concerns, the police highlight the phenomenon where young people lack respect for others. Rules are not followed, and there is no regard for the feelings of others. Threatening behavior is directed towards the elderly, children, and even the police.

Experienced police officer Kristján Freyr Geirsson, affectionately known as Kris from Iceland, has had a long career.

Police visibility in preventive work in Iceland is significant. Preventive work starts in daycare, where police officers regularly visit. The presence of police in everyday life is considered important, and there are good resources for it. However, the police identify the lack of respect for others as the biggest concern. There is a disregard for rules and for causing harm to others. Threatening behavior is also directed towards the police.

The Icelandic Preventive Model in General:

The Icelandic preventive model is based on evidence-based life promotion. The model aims to describe what has happened in Iceland over the last 25 years. Prior to this, there have been several projects emphasizing young people's own responsibility and proper behavior. However, previously, data on well-being, family conditions, hobbies, risk behavior, and substance use were not collected together in one study. Money was previously directed towards corrective work, even though the long-term cost savings of preventive action were known.

Youth workers, parents of young people, various instructors, and knowledgeable politicians have made decisions in line with the model and are responsible for monitoring the measures and their effects. In 2017, Atlandic published an article about Iceland's preventive efforts. Planet Youth experts believe that it is essential to understand potential risks, but also to focus on conditions that protect young people and support them. The family, peers, school, and leisure time should be taken into account in relation to the individual.

According to statistics and indicators, the results are significant, and target groups are doing better. The success of Iceland is not talked about in vain. Experts admit that it has been difficult to change significant things, and it requires support from the whole community. Each member of the community and actor should consider their own role in the process of changing direction and find their role in it.

The work is seen as a shared obligation to achieve the common good. Achieving Iceland's significant results required 100% participation from professionals and collaboration with researchers. The model was sold to parents in the form of various supports, and passive parents were supported. Active parents and association activists were involved in the process, and their motivation was used to disseminate information and activate communities.

The biggest challenge now, as seen by researchers, is those Icelanders who feel that everything is now ready and young people are permanently safe in the future. Researchers continuously collect data and emphasize the importance of evidence-based management so that communities and funders understand the significance of long-term preventive work. A significant development goal is to figure out how to reduce various risk factors for young people and increase protective factors.

Schools are constantly surveyed about well-being factors, and care is taken to ensure that everyone receives researched information without delay. Planet Youth researchers want to increase knowledge about promoting the well-being and mental health of children and young people and make regional researched knowledge available to communities. A trained adult in the field understands the significance of preventive methods in general and, above all, the significant role of their work in promoting the well-being and health of children and young people.

The Icelandic Model at the Municipal Level:

Icelanders are proud of the Icelandic model, and Planet Youth experts have traveled extensively around the world to talk about it. During the project (1999-), Iceland's indicators of malaise have significantly decreased. However, new challenges have emerged recently, prompting municipalities and parents to gather and make new plans. Everyone who is somehow part of young people's lives was invited to participate in the discussions. As a result of the discussions, it was decided to act together against common problems.

What are these new problems then? Energy drinks are consumed more in Iceland than in any other EU country. The harms of energy drinks were decided to be emphasized in schools more intensively. The problems and harms caused by alcohol use were, on the other hand, sought to be reduced by extending the opening hours of youth facilities on Fridays. In addition, parents were guided towards a joint agreement on young people's outdoor hours and group pressure was used as a reinforcement. The presence of police and surveillance cameras was also increased in places where young people spend their time. It should be mentioned that alcohol is not sold in grocery stores in Iceland.

Celebrities have been used extensively in recent times to market e-cigarettes (e.g., Leonardo DiCaprio). Historical examples of using celebrities in tobacco marketing can be found (e.g., Elvis Presley). The same effective marketing tactics are still being used. In Iceland, e-cigarettes are not presented as a healthier alternative to quitting smoking, but their use is assessed as equally dangerous. Only one doctor in Iceland recommends the use of e-cigarettes. Anti-smoking efforts have focused on campaigns with celebrity athletes to promote a healthy role model.

Schools and parent councils can also apply for funding from Planet Youth for their own projects to increase the well-being of young people. Community support and cooperation are strongly emphasized in Iceland, and there are ample opportunities to receive funding for organizing them. Project reporting has created prevention groups that share information about successful actions with other communities and about other impacts of the measures.

Sexual Minorities in Iceland:

During our study visit in Reykjavik, a Nordic conference for the LGBTQ+ community was held, attended by about 100 representatives from different Nordic organizations. From Finland, 25 representatives participated in the conference. Themes of discussion included hate speech and the spread of disinformation. Nordic ministers considered it important to continue promoting LGBTQ+ rights in the future.

However, during the event, there was a violent attack against a Swedish participant. Despite Iceland being considered the world's safest place for queer individuals, there are opponents of diversity, even resorting to violence. Unfortunately, opposition to the LGBTQ+ community has also been visible in Iceland. Due to safety threats and changed attitudes, youth centers have prominently displayed supportive colors and artworks. Youth workers and young people want to show their support for diversity with this measure.

In Iceland, support for equality and acceptance of population diversity was evident everywhere.

Artistic Integration and Integration

Omar Rondon, a resettled artist in Iceland, introduced us to his art project carried out with young people, which he has been leading at the center since 2022. The project began when the artist, in vain, searched for a workspace for himself. During the pandemic, he volunteered at the community center and, as a result, convinced himself to lead a small art project. After the project, the art activities gained new space in the basement of the community center. The space was renovated according to the plans of the young people.

Art projects inspire young people because they are guided by an artist who is also enthusiastic, and who has the vision and determination to bring means of self-expression to young people.

Omar Rondon and a part of his created art space

After these positive experiences, other artists who have faced similar situations have also come together to address the same issue. Artists have been provided with spaces and young, inspiring, and skilled instructors.

The activities are highly popular among young people under the age of 16, and everyone is welcome to participate. Collaboration is carried out with local stakeholders and Erasmus+. Support from Erasmus+ Solidarity Corps and separate funding for intercultural support have been essential for the operation. Young people come up with interesting and inspiring art ideas, and instructors help find ways to secure Erasmus funding for them. It's an awakening idea, which often yields the opposite result.

Challenges include a tight budget, as well as the language barrier between immigrants and locals, which has complicated teaching. The passive activity of the last grades of middle school in communal activities has also been seen as a challenge. Various theme days and event projects (such as Halloween's horror alley) have been developed to address this.

The instructor sees learning as mutual and takes joy in realizing that they, too, have learned new techniques from children due to their boundless innovativeness. But how can creativity and enthusiasm be maintained in children over the long term?

The most difficult task is to harness a child's creativity and sustain it as the child grows. Art instructors have developed a working model that offers children and young people continuous problem-solving tasks and teaches them how to solve them. Children are not given specific instructions for tasks; instead, they are given the opportunity to contemplate the matter on their own and in groups. They develop their own problem-solving strategies!

In these Icelandic community centers, community spirit is common not only outside the youth center but also within. The aim is to participate in community projects, get involved with a low threshold, and not to be concerned if a large contribution cannot be made. Even a small participation is considered important. Local communities are accustomed to the repeated involvement of young people and know how to ask for the help of young people for a variety of needs.

In this form of youth work, young people usually come to art projects without prior experience of belonging to a group. Instructors cannot influence all young people equally, even if they wish to. Making an impression on even one young person who then influences others is enough. Good begets good, and an active young person is more likely to engage in new hobbies.

More Responsibility for Young People

At the Fjörheimar Community Center, there was an active, independent house committee for the youth center. The house committee organizes various events for young people and, in addition, assists the staff in the open evenings for young people. Young people are not given too much responsibility, but they get to participate in guidance activities for younger children and young people according to their experience. Young people serve as good role models for their younger peers. Progress within the center has been made clear. It is possible to later become actual staff through the house committee.

As an example of the progress process for young people (progression in life), I highlight the "Lost Boys Group," whose members have received bans from stores and recreational facilities and have experienced various problems with the police. The issue was addressed by organizing their own, closed group where they themselves formulated the rules. Role model instructors meet them twice a week. Since the start of the activities, significant changes in their behavior have been observed from the school's perspective as well, and some participants have joined the local youth council or house committee. The boredom and inactivity experienced by young people seems to have been replaced by meaningful activities and their own tight-knit community. The importance of reliable role models cannot be underestimated.

A representative from the Youth Council sharing insights on the development of youth activities and participation.

Responsibility in Iceland has been fostered through a special summer program for young people, where every young person is guaranteed a summer job. They receive wages according to the collective agreement. Up to 70% of young people seize this opportunity and participate in the summer program with their own contribution. The program provides meaningful activities and financial support for young people during the summer when schools are closed. The jobs mainly involve taking care of gardens, but there are also opportunities to participate in art-oriented summer workshops, where various site-specific art pieces are created to delight the entire community.

In conclusion, to sum it up

At the end of the article, I can confirm the summary generated by the AI at the beginning based on my own experiential knowledge. I wrote down the memorable aspects of the journey mostly for myself, but I believe they can serve as thought-provokers or examples for other communities aiming to improve the quality of life for young people and reduce problems. As a youth worker who loves evidence-based knowledge, my thought patterns are also supported by the visibly used evidence-based decision-making and collaboration among different stakeholders in Iceland, which seem to be key factors in the success of the Icelandic model.

The trip can be deemed successful, as the youth workers who traveled together with me showed strong enthusiasm for international youth work. We gained tools and ideas on how to pass on this enthusiasm to our own young people in our own environment. Peer reflection and idea-sharing were challenging at first, but also motivating, and will surely carry us far into the future in the form of various development ideas. Competence in European youth work is thus being built in the youth work of the Pirkanmaa region.

Thanks to Martti Youth Center for the excellent arrangements and to Erasmus for the funding! Thanks also to my fellow travelers and the local youth work professionals for the inspiring company and numerous discussions.

One of the 30 youth workers from Pirkanmaa who participated in the study trip,

Moona Räty

Leisure Coordinator

Juupajoki Municipality

Page modified: 13 May 2024

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