YouthLab ingredients


During the exchange sessions, there are a lot of things happening that might go unnoticed to an inexperienced observer. However, the different elements in place are essential for the success of your YouthLab. You can see them as ingredients to be adapted to your own context, so take them with a pinch of salt and reflect with your team on what each one might bring to your YouthLab, how it can be brought to life, and which new elements you might want to bring to the mix.

1. Safe space, safe pace


A youth x justice exchange follows a deliberate gradual approach. This approach is all about building and playing with the tension and energy of the group. The right kind of tension serves all present (both young people and participants). Too much tension, however, will shut down all opportunities for growth and reflection.

Tension is a friend

In youth x justice exchange, tension is a friend. The tension you are after, does not lead to a destructive fight or conflict. Rather, we mean that it’s ok if it’s uncomfortable, confrontational, emotional or difficult. We learn that a person grows in these moments, as long as they are happening in a safe and controlled space.

A safe and controlled space

A YouthLab facilitator nurtures trust and safety. A facilitator always knows if the tension is still serving members of a group. If it is hurting instead, a facilitator will intervene or adapt the program accordingly. A safe pace is one that nurtures trust and openness; knowing that this takes time and cannot be rushed into.

YouthLab feels like a family to me now. We have fun and trust each other.

Youthlab Experience expert, Netherlands

Story: Different energy levels

It’s Yousri’s first time participating in a youth x justice exchange. He met YiP while he was in detention, but he doesn’t know the other boys very well. He is a bit nervous and has a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Samet is participating in an exchange for the 4th time. However, he is still quite new to the YouthLab . The previous time, Lamyn (the facilitator) had a little talk with him about finding a balance between taking the stage, but also leaving space for the other boys to participate in group discussions. He will address this again before the start of the exchange.

Valon has co-hosted several exchange sessions together with YiP, he is familiar with today’s target group as well as the location. He knows the drill and is excited to start. Mo is running late because his train is delayed. He arrives 10 minutes prior to the session. He needs to take a moment to unwind and tune in to the exchange. He’s a senior, so it’s easier for him to step in and start participating.

Lamyn notices that every boy arrives at the location with a totally different energy. By engaging in a relaxed conversation with them, guiding them through the program of the day, and allowing them to get acquainted with the location, he is able to ensure that everyone is at the same energy-level when starting a session.

As soon as the boys feel comfortable with the location and each other, they start to feel a connection and feel confident, which allows us to start the session as a team. This ‘tuning-in’ with each other and becoming comfortable in the space we’re in, is of great importance to create a safe atmosphere for the youth-x-justice exchange.

2. Creative forms: a shared language


We use creativity in exchanges as a way to come together. It has a connecting effect, but it is also an accessible way for a young person to position themselves in a different way. They are on stage for a while and can tell what is going on in their own text/rap.

Meet in the middle

A rap, spoken word or poetic text makes it easier for the storyteller to share his vulnerable personal story and easier for the listener to understand. Creativity produces a language “that lies in the middle, which belongs to everyone and can be understood by everyone”. Sometimes a rap also helps to distance yourself from your story because it is difficult to articulate what you feel in real life. Furthermore, the listener can take a step towards the narrator more easily, with empathy and sometimes recognition.

Creativity x Empathy

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that empathy, the capacity to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, is a capacity that is strengthened by our encounter with art. She argues that art can provide us with different outlooks, because art takes us into the world view of someone different to us. Narrative art especially, invites us into the life of someone else, and allows us to look at the world with different eyes. This broadens our own view of the world, changing our way of thinking, and provides us with new perspectives on our own lives. In short, it engages our imagination.

Nussbaum also shows that art has to be a little bit strange, but not too much. It must to some extent match the experience of the spectator, so they are willing to go along with it, but it must also deviate from their experience in particular ways, such that they feel estranged or perplexed. How to strike the right balance between familiarity and estrangement is of course different for each person.

Story: “Can I get a copy of your story?”

Shayro is an experienced YouthLab participant who gave a spoken word presentation at the beginning of the youth-x-justice exchange. His text was about the (healing) conversation he had with the victim in court. The victim admitted to forgiving him for what had happened. Shayro expressed in his text what that has done to him. It was sensitive, personal and humane, so the audience was very moved by his presentation.

So much so that after session, officers asked for a copy of his text because it was so powerful. An officer later said that she always carries this copy in her briefcase, as a reminder of the youth she has in front of her in the courtroom. This spoken-word text, the creative narration of his vulnerable story, made it easy for the audience to empathize and perhaps even identify with the humanity behind his story. In this way creativity blurs the boundaries between us/them – after which a connection can be made.

3. Translating between the ‘system’ and ‘lived’ world


Everyday experiences of YouthLab participants are exclusively in the roles of ‘young offender’ and ‘justice professional’. This relationship and its roles are reaffirmed with powerful symbols and rituals, such as a courtroom, clothing and language. A youth-x-justice exchange is a unique experience to meet and exchange outside these rigid roles and patterns.

Take your coat off

A high-ranking member of the prosecution told YiP once that she appreciated the exchange because both prosecutors and young people are ‘taking off their coat’. In this quote, the ‘coat’ is a symbol for the often-played and formal roles. Taking that coat off and engaging as ‘yourself’ can feel extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable. Active listening, then, becomes a challenge if you are not yet used to listening in this new role – one where you cannot fall back onto the things you learned in college or in the streets.

I noticed the young trainers speak freely, because the parole officers are not ‘their’ officers.

Parole Officer & Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands


YouthLab facilitators speak both the ‘formal’ or ‘system’ language of professionals, and the ‘lived’ or ‘popular’ language of young people. Without interpreting or twisting words, they are able to nudge and clarify with the purpose of growth and reflection. A YouthLab facilitator translates as a friendly mediator, never taking sides – but always sensitive for traumas and personal difficulties.

Story: Talk-a lot

Remy is very enthusiastic during the exchange. When the trainer asks the YouthLab – group ‘what helped you maktensively about his treatment and other intense experiences. While telling the story Remy goee a positive switch?’ he wants to respond immediately. After getting the floor, he starts talking exs into all directions and his emotions, at times very negative, begin to overtake him and his story. The trainer notices that the group becomes a bit restless and defensive, and intervenes to help Remy to make his point.

The trainer asks Remy short questions such as: “what did you like during your treatment?” and “who helped you stay positive?”. Through this, Remy gets his story back on track. It gets more clear and more layered. While the story was overtaken by his (negative) emotions, it seemed that it was incoherent and one-sided, thereby pushing the professionals into a corner. With the help of the trainer (who knows Remy very well) his point became clear: he found it difficult at first to listen and to move along with the rules of his new inner world. But after a while those rules were exactly what helped him to stay positive and accept help.

4. Walk in my shoes: an empathic approach


A youth x justice exchange is designed for professionals to ‘walk in the shoes and see through the eyes of young people’. A pitfall of young people telling their personal stories is that they are evoking sympathy (feeling sorry or pity for), and not empathy. In the YouthLab , we are striving for moral empathy. That is because while sympathy drives distance, empathy drives connection. Feeling and acting out of empathy allows us to feel with peopleI and connect with them by connecting with feelings within ourselves.

Check out this short animation with Brene Brown about the difference between sympathy and empathy here.

“Instead of asking questions ‘by the book’ (what did you do, why, etc), you are listening because you are attending the session as a human being.”

Parole Officer & Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

Moral empathy

Moral empathy, the ‘active’ type of empathy, is different from Cognitive Empathy or Emotional Empathy. Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Moral empathy is also called ‘perspective-taking’ and is concerned with thought, understanding and intellect. Emotional empathy is when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This type of empathy is concerned with feelings. Moral Empathy, then, is not only knowing and feeling what someone else has been through, but also acting upon that – because you know it will make someone else feel better.

Universal truths

In the stories young people tell professionals, it is the universal truths that we are after. Universal truths are feelings or experiences that are the same for almost everyone and therefore easy to imagine and understand. Being explicit about universal truths will help to evoke moral empathy. Because no matter where you grew up, or how life has treated you, everyone will understand feelings and experiences such as:

  • Once you get into something, it is hard to get out of it – even if you know it’s not right for you;
  • Wanting to feel respected, and the frustration or hurt if that is not the case;
  • Being willing to do everything for your brothers and sisters to be safe and happy;
  • How hard it is to ask for help;
  • That sometimes things can escalate quickly, without you feeling in control of it;
  • The feeling of being misunderstood;
  • Playing cooler than you actually feel.

Story: It just got out of hand

Delano tells his group of officers during training how his youth and path to crime went down. “It actually all went wrong at home, with a lot of arguments and unrest, which led me to child services. But even over there I could not settle, due to the changing of rules and of people who are in charge of you, so I was still troubled with aggression problems. I was transferred many times. In the end, everything went wrong when I was by myself somewhere on the street, cooling off from being angry, when I was tapped on my shoulder. I was so angry that I turned out of reflex, and gave that someone a fist on his head. It was an agent. That’s why I was inside for 4 years, from social services to detention.”

After the interview, the officers held a presentation about Delano’s story to the group. The officers take Delano’s vulnerability and background very seriously and, with additional questions, want to make sure they tell his story as best as they can to the group. They present the story in the i-narrative. This gives the officer the opportunity to do a step-into-the-shoes-of assignment, while being removed from his own ‘jacket’.

This assignment helps to learn how to 1) understand and replicate the language of the youth, and to 2) empathize with / feel the young person’s experiences. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes leads to (more) connection and understanding of each other’s perspective.

5. Healing through exchange


A key part of the YouthLab program are the personal (life) stories of young people. Whereas they may only be telling a fragment during interviews with professionals in the actual exchange, lots of ‘homework’ with the YouthLab team happens prior to a session. Young YouthLab experience experts are invited in tailored storytelling and spoken word exercises to learn how to tell their (life) stories.

Narrative Identities

‘What is your story?’ ‘Why did you commit a crime?’ ‘How did you feel when you committed a crime?’ ‘How do you feel about me?’

These can be big and difficult questions. Young people learn to tell their stories in different ways, sometimes with new eyes. An important objective is to be able to ‘edit’ these stories with the YouthLab team. What are the important elements to tell? What were moments of strength; what stories convey that you are more than your crime?

“Just like a book”

A professional participant told us that she appreciates how the experience experts of YouthLab ‘can flip through their story like a book’. ‘They are able to open the book at a certain chapter, move to another, and then close it again. That takes a lot of skills, and it makes you feel comfortable to ask all those questions.’

You also learn about the ‘good things’ that happened in a young person’s life. There is always so much more to tell than just the crime.

Parole Officer, Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

Story: “Painful story, man”

Today is the first time for Jaimy to participate at a YouthLab exchange for prosecutors. His team has just presented his life story from the “I”-perspective to the group. The trainer asked him if he was pleased with the presentation and if the team has presented everything accurately. He said: ”Yes, they have told my story exactly how I have told it to them. But wow, I am also a bit shocked to hear my own story back like this. I listened to it and my thoughts were: this is a pretty focked up childhood and youth actually. It almost felt like it wasn’t my own story, but then I realised: this is about mé. If I hear the story back, like just now, i-don’t-know, it really affects me,man. It’s a painful story.”

The young people may experience and feel fiercely and painful emotions by telling and hearing back their own story. Clearly, this exchange might revive some heavy experiences, which might have a healing contribution to their process, but only when there is (after)care and attention for the openness and vulnerability (of the stories) of the young people.

6. Flipping the script, a multitude of scripts


When coming in contact with one another, ‘the young offender’ and ‘justice professional’ often have ‘static roles’ that they play. With these static roles go static scripts too: scripts dictate what you are saying and how you are behaving.

The role play triggered me to think in a different way. It feels awkward, but you will definitely remember when a similar situation happens in real life.

Parole Officer – Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

From the books

For professionals, this script is often learned ‘from the books’ and protocols. A professionals’ script gets enforced by the inherent unequal power relationships between youth and professionals. And when you are working as a professional for quite some time, it is easy to think that ‘you have seen it all’:

Young people, as well, have often mastered a single and static script. This script is often based on what they have heard from others or strategize to what will serve them best in the judicial process.

Bruce, member of the YouthLab, and Susanne, a participating prosecutor, explain in this short movie how they were stuck in their scripts:

Bruce: “It used to be like a cat and mouse game. Because I am playing the ‘bad guy’ and for me, they are the evil ones.”

Susanne: “The pitfall is when you think you already know exactly what this boy will be like.”

A multitude of scripts

However, these static scripts hinder meaningful contact. The YouthLab is to inspire professionals to work with a multitude of scripts; one that is tailored for a multitude of relationships, with young people for whom not one story is the same despite their many similarities.

Tailoring each and every contact takes effort and practice. In a youth x justice exchange, professionals receive tips and practical tools to start tailoring scripts in their professional lives.

Story: “I’d rather serve my sentence than see this man every 2 weeks”

“When I was released, one of my conditions was that I had to check in to my probation every two weeks. But this man from probation – I really didn’t like him. He never asked how I was doing, nor did he show any other form of interest. He only asked me his standard questions. It felt that he was working with a standard check-list and he did not see me at all. He didn’t take into account what was important for me. Therefore, I was not motivated to open up. Nor did he. After a while, we had more discussions and finally I thought: I’d rather serve my sentence than see this man every 2 weeks. So then I stopped going to probation.”

This case illustrates how the standard script of Sahil’s probation backfired. Sahil simply wants to be seen and feels he can’t be helped in an impersonal setting. Although many youngsters seem to be non-responsive at first, thereby making it look that they do not want to cooperate, this case perfectly shows that it is also important for a young person that the professional detects the needs of the youngster, adapts and, in this case, opens op. Then a young person will feel support and is more likely to open up and stay present.

7. Empowering relationships of trust


A YouthLab facilitator holds a crucial role in the program. It is not a role anyone can easily take over or replace, as his main strength is the long-term relationships of trust with the young people. Young in Prison mostly meets the youngsters whilst they are still in detention and these relationships often last for many years beyond as YouthLab participants.

A big brother or sister

We asked the experience experts of the YouthLab how they perceive the YouthLab facilitators. ‘Like a big brother’ is an answer often heard: ‘It is someone who is not judging you, but can be honest and strict with you as well. He knows me well and I know he wants what is best for me.’

Long-term commitment

A YouthLab facilitator – and the experience experts are committing for a long term to the YouthLab. It is only with this long-term and intensive commitment (with weekly contact) that lasting relationships of trust are built and can add value to an exchange.

According to facilitators, the youngsters “know we have their backs, and will never leave them behind”.

“We know what they have been through, what their strong and weak moments are. We are there to help them be the best version – most impactful on the professionals.”

YouthLab faciliator, Netherlands

Read more about the profile and role of a YouthLab facilitator here.

Story: “Aren’t you sorry?”

During an exchange session, a parole worker asked one of the boys in the group if he regretted what he had done. The boy answered with a short ‘no, I don’t’. You could feel the tension in the room and the atmosphere changed.

The facilitator knows this boy and his background quite well and helped him explain his thoughts. The facilitator asked him: “Murat, of course I know your story, and I believe you’ve said once that at the time, you felt you didn’t have any other option than to do what you did, is that correct?” The boy confirmed this and added: “Yeah, you know, I had asked the institutions for support and I just didn’t know what else to do anymore to get some money to buy food, so that’s when I got on the wrong path.”

The facilitator continued: “Imagine your situation had been different, would you have acted the same way?” Murat answered: “No, I never thought or expected that I would do something like this.”

The facilitator is helping the boy to find the words to express the way he experienced what had happened and how he reflects on it. With the support of the facilitator he was able to express that he had felt powerless in the situation and that he wished it had not happened. The facilitator asked a different question, but the parole worker got an answer to his question about regret, as well as a better insight into the boy’s story.

8. Who am I to you? New relational perspectives


A prosecutor who joined a youth x justice exchnage once said: This exchange humbles me. It reminds me of the power I have, that my decisions mean a lot to someone else’s life. I want to constantly remind myself of this.

This short testimonial is existential in nature: it reminds someone of who they are in relation to a young person. Other professional groups, however, have other take-aways from the exchanges.

Existential vs instrumental

For parole officers, for example, we heard less existential take-aways. Their responses are much more instrumental and action-oriented in turn: I now have a better understanding of the things I can do differently and we can do together.

Value propositions

The existential and instrumental take-aways represent very different values for participants, and make sense looking at the role they play in the judicial process. The YouthLab has a deep understanding of values for different professional groups and adjusts the design of the session accordingly.

Story: Officer: “What is your image of me?”

During an exchange session, an officer asked the youngsters what their view of their fellow officers was. She showed her vulnerability with this question, creating a nice conversation between the officers and the youth. They too are aware of the great task of their profession, for which they can experience difficulties in the choices they have to make. As humans, they also feel the pain of young people, but have to serve several involved (and affected) parties in the case.

In the group discussion, it becomes clear that the officers are also people who want to be understood. They too, want to show in their work that their heart is in the right place and that they wish the best for the young people sitting opposite them. Their intention is not always/only to punish harshly, but also for the young person to learn their lesson, to get the right help and to come out better.

9. Valuing youth’s experiences


A YouthLab experience expert gets paid for training justice professionals. Although this isn’t or – or should not be – the main motivation for a young person to join the program, it plays an important role in reaffirming the agency and value of experience and stories they share.

Value in reimbursing, value in listening

We reaffirm the agency and value of young people by:

  1. Paying a fee for their participating in the YouthLab program,
  2. Assuring that they will be taken seriously during the exchanges
  3. Emphasizing that policy-makers or justice professionals will put their insights and learnings in practice.

This combination is important in emphasizing that their stories, experiences and vulnerability is valuable.

Why YouthLab: Our value proposition

The moment a young person comes in conflict with the law, is arrested and even deprived of his liberty, they enter a new and intimidating world, run by adults that speak a language full of legal jargon. Most young people feel alienated and lost, which has a negative impact on their wellbeing, contact with professionals, perception of fairness of the procedures and ability to participate.

This alienation process is largely a matter of language and communication, as many justice professionals speak in a legal and instrumental system-world language, which is a different language compared to what the young person knows and understands. Professionals also find it challenging to engage and communicate with young people, because of the split reality they are working in: the legal world and the world of the child with its own language, norms and values.

To re-engage the young person in the criminal justice process, the language and communication skills of the system-world (of legal professionals) need to be connected with the expectations and (non)verbal communication skills of young people. Child-friendly communication skills of professionals emphasize respect, demonstrate that young people are taken seriously and treated fairly, and give them the means to increase control of their own case and life.

This is what YouthLab provides: a trust-based space where professionals working in the judiciary and (forensic) youth care can learn from youth experienced in the system and improve their competences in working with minors.

“What motivates me in this project is being able to see professionals in a different light, in a better light, being able to communicate without this hierarchical relationship, even if the respect remains present. I also like the fact that I can share what I have experienced, knowing that I will be listened to and that it will help other young people.”

Young YouthLab trainer, Italy

Bridging the world of young offenders and justice professionals

Up to a point, the world of youth care and of the judiciary in the participating countries is of a systemic kind: it concerns large numbers of youth, reams of dossiers, as well as policy changes and/or budgetary deficits. Within every bureaucratic system there is the risk of the rationality of the system overpowering the life of its subjects – this risk is even greater when the subjects do not feel free to speak out.

Both in youth care and in the judiciary, where there is an unequal power relationship with the youth, the risk of the system overpowering the lived reality of youth is strongly present. For this reason, making the perspectives of the youth present and visible can be a challenge, despite the fact that youth is – or should be – at the center of all these systems. The YouthLab offers these perspectives.

Watch below the trailer of the mini-documentary ‘Exchanging Perspectives. You can watch the full documentary here.

The professional – an existential reality check

The gains of participating in the YouthLab can be plotted on a continuum, ranging from the understanding of youth perspectives to practical skills.

On one end there is the existential reality-check: ‘What is the meaning of my work in this young person’s life?’

Professionals working in the judiciary are in charge of applying the law and/or educational measures and, consequently, they (might) add suffering to the life of a young person – despite their best intentions and legitimate grounds. The severity of this task implies a heavy responsibility – a responsibility that YouthLab participants experience very strongly. In some cases, it is sufficient just to hear what a visit to a courtroom means for a youth—oftentimes, that in itself can have an enormous impact on the professional.

At the other end of the imaginary continuum, there are the practical, trainable skills that are gained: What should one do or not do? Which words resonate with the youth, and through which types of behavior do you lose (or gain?) their understanding?

Justice professionals need to hear criticism, to question themselves. Don’t hesitate to be totally frank with us, we don’t have many opportunities to know how the youth are experiencing our interventions in their lives.

Member of the Public Prosecutor’s Office
Youth x Professional Exchange participant, Belgium

Learning from experience

What Youngsters and Professionals have to say about YouthLab

Relying on the experience of those who have been a part of YouthLab and the youth x justice exchanges allows you to see the actual impact of the program on those who participated, including youngsters who were trained to become experience experts, and justice professionals who joined the exchanges.

Below you will find a collection of video testimonials from YouthLab coordinators, young trainers and participants to inspire you, potential partners and donors.

Using creative approaches

Creativity is a key element of the YouthLab program and in the youth x justice exchanges. Several activities are adopted to facilitate an open and safe environment, in which both experienced experts and justice professionals feel compelled to actively participate.

You can bring other exercises into your YouthLab, adapting them to the context and topics of each session.

Below are some of the exercises adopted by partners:

Quiz Ice-breaker

This quiz focuses on the perceptions that society has of young people based on several quotes about the educational level of youth. These quotes come from an education manual and belong to different historical periods. The objective of the quiz is to guess the period to which each quote belongs. The writing style is standardized to keep the content only, which allows participants to realize that the perception of the educational level of young people has not changed much over the years: contemporary young people are usually considered to be less well educated than the previous generation.

This allows us to draw attention to this recurrent bias that any person can reproduce in their reactions to the behaviors of young people. This exercise can be replicated with any images, stereotypes or attitudes that are associated with the “deviant” behaviors of youth through different historical periods.

Auto-biographic exercise

The auto-biographic exercise can be proposed at the beginning of a training cycle to facilitate the introduction of the various participants and serve as an ice-breaker, and/or at the beginning of each session to encourage participants’ involvement. The exercise can also be adapted to match the focus theme and format of each session – either in-person or online.

The autobiographical exercise begins with the facilitator inviting participants to take a few moments of meditation in order to recall a significant event in their lives. The specific question should be related in some way to the topic that will be covered during the session. For example: a moment in your childhood/adolescence where you felt the protagonist, or a moment where you felt in danger, or an object that is relevant to you.

Participants should always be reassured by the facilitator that they will not have to share their thoughts or memories with other participants if they do not want to; they will just have to meditate, recall the specific moment/thing and choose a key word that represents this memory.

If the session is in-perso, the trainer asks the participants to write down a keyword on a post-it sticker and to stick it to the flip chart. When all participants have completed this task, the trainer reads the key words out loud one by one and, after each keyword, invites the participant who has written it down to take the floor to explain or comment on it – if they wish to. After that, the person can introduce themselves.

If the session is online, the trainer asks the participants to write the keywords into the chat of the video-conferencing platform or in a digital interactive whiteboard. When all participants have written their keywords, the trainer calls them one by one to comment on it and to introduce themselves. The trainer creates thereby a map of the participants’ contributions, experiences and reflections during the interactive session. At the end of the exercise, the trainer takes a screenshot of the virtual white board. This material could be made available to the participants and/or be stored in a shared place.

Normally the facilitator starts communicating their keyword and should be the first to speak to set a template for others to follow. These types of exercises can be dense with emotion, so it is important that the group understands that it is in a safe space, in order to feel free to express themselves safely.

Brainstorming on problems & resources in the juvenile criminal justice system

According to the Guidelines of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on child-friendly justice,

“Child-friendly justice” refers to justice systems which guarantee the respect and the effective implementation of all children’s rights at the highest attainable level, bearing in mind the principles listed below and giving due consideration to the child’s level of maturity and understanding and the circumstances of the case.[…]”

In this exercise, each Child-friendly justice principle is briefly explained and discussed with participants, who are asked to contribute with personal experiences that are connected with this specific principle. The principles are: accessible, age appropriate, speedy, diligent, adapted to and focused on the needs and rights of the child, respecting the rights of the child including the rights to due process, to participate in and to understand the proceedings, to respect for private and family life and to integrity and dignity

These personal stories could be gathered and used during the training sessions as an example when explaining-child friendly justice to other professionals, collected in a publication or used to inspire the screenplay of the role-playing.

Role Playing I

In this exercise, a hypothetical case is shared with participants. For instance, it could be an arrest by the police, a hearing at the court, or an interview with the social worker. To divide the roles, each participants’ name is written on a card. Then cards are drawn randomly and each participant is given a role. The role playing could be recorded so that it can be used as training material during the courses, soliciting a discussion among participants. This exercise should bring out a number of critical issues in the system and awareness in participants.

Example of case:

Subject: Andrea Rossi, born in Pisa on 7 July 2003, detained on pre-trial custody – preliminary hearing in front of the judge. Present also Andrea’s defendant, the social worker , Andrea’s educator at the detention center, and Andrea’s mother.

Background information: Andrea is a 17 years old boy, he is at his second arrest for theft. His family history is complex: Andrea lived with his mother and two younger brothers (4 and 7 years old) until he was 15 years old. The parents are separated and the father lost his parental authority following complaints of mistreatment against both the mother and the children. Following different orders of the Juvenile Court, the social services proceed with Andrea’s placement in a community. All attempts are unsuccessful and Andrea returns to his mother. However, she is not able to manage the problems of the boy who presents a picture of immaturity combined with the use of substances (cannabinoids, cocaine and alcohol). In this framework, the boy starts committing small crimes and ends up involved in the robbery of a supermarket. The boy is caught in flagrante delicto with two other boys (one of whom was already an adult). At the time Andrea was visibly altered by substance abuse. Andrea’s first offense, which occurred in 2019, saw him involved, again with three other peers, in the theft of a motorcycle. The boy is currently detained, awaiting trial, in a Detention Center. The decision was determined by the previous unsuccessful placements in the community, the need to remove Andrea from the peer group and also to remove him from his family, currently unable to take care of him properly. Andrea proves to be very self aware in addressing all aspects of his life, from substance abuse, to family experiences, sexual identity, and the reason for his arrest. Not only does he not appear to be oppositional but in fact, from the very first interview, he expresses a clear request for help.

Role playing II

Part of the training program is dedicated to learning about police interviewing techniques and non-violent communication. The choice of the subject of communication between the police and the youth allows the participants (lawyers, magistrates and social workers) to have sufficient distance from their own role, while addressing the communication techniques in a concrete and practical way.

After a theoretical presentation, the professionals are divided into groups and invited to perform a scene with the youth to practice the listening techniques learned. In each group, one person is responsible for observing the play and describing the different listening styles and their effect on the communication dynamic.

Analyzing creative writing

Depending on their interests and creative orientations, young facilitators are invited to express themselves about their experiences with justice professionals in different ways. For some youth, the most comfortable means of expression is writing. These writings can then be shared with professionals during training sessions. Youth facilitators are responsible for leading the discussion by giving the floor to participants to read the different parts of the story and asking questions to check their understanding of the youth’s perspective in each situation or interaction described. All participants are invited to contribute to the discussion. When the youth feel more comfortable telling their stories orally, they can record a text that will be analyzed in the same way as the written materials.

Another type of creative support used is photographs. You can use photographs that have been taken by young people in detention during a previous project. These photographs are selected by the youth facilitators based on the messages they wish to convey to the participants.They are then presented to the participants by one of the youths, who uses them as a support to explain the aspects that seem important in the experience during detention. Through the photos, some youngsters will for example underline the importance of leisure time shared with the educators, the learning of domestic chores, the value of being in contact with nature, etc.

Working with a common tool

Using project management tools such as SWOT analysis, and problem and solution trees, participants and youth are asked to work in groups to analyze the most important problems in youth work and their effects on communication between youth and professionals.

In the case of the problem and solution tree, the starting point is the identification of a central problem (the tree trunk), after which the participants discuss and define its causes (the roots) and consequences (the leaves). Once this brainstorming and classification of information is completed, each team reflects on the solutions to be provided to improve key aspects of the youth experience with justice. Each group presents its analysis to the rest of the participants.

The final product is the common reflections of the young people and those of the professionals, making it possible to bring together the points of view and to synthesize the lessons learned during the previous sessions.

Challenges & lessons learned

A successful Youthlab takes a lot of coordination and skills. It is normal to be faced with challenges and doubts along the way. In this section, you can rely on the experience and lessons learned from partners to have a head start in your program and be ready for the challenges.

Navigating the inherent power difference between previously detained youth and justice professionals

The training is presented as an opportunity to question the roles of each actor during the judicial procedures, to take distance from those roles and to analyze their effects on the interaction between youth and justice professionals. The absence of legal implications is usually enough to create an atmosphere that is less focused on the distribution of power and more on shared reflection and perspective taking.

In order to further strengthen the power balance, you can have as a requirement for the youngsters’ participation that their judicial proceeding is finalized. That way they feel confident and free to speak and exchange with justice professionals without any fear of retaliation.

Creating the right mindset for the youth trainers to facilitate open, meaningful, person-to-person dialogue

This mindset is usually part of the training preparation sessions and other follow-up meetings – and that is why they are so important. The youth should be trained properly in order to interact with justice professionals. Peer-support, methodological skills, knowledge in terms of legislation, practices and learning from peer-experiences helps building self-confidence and self-awareness. This provides youth with many opportunities to practice this open mode of communication both with each other and with the moderator. Contact between youth and ongoing support is crucial to facilitating and maintaining this openness.

FInally, making it clear to youth trainers that they are an added value to the program due to their experience is important, while ensuring that they are not required to share their story with anyone.

Creating the right mindset for the justice professionals to facilitate open, meaningful, person-to-person dialogue

When the exchange offer is disseminated, the programme with the goals and approaches is included. The professionals who register are thus informed in advance, which can also create a selection bias: the participants who are most likely to register are also those who are to some extent aware of the issues.

Once the exchanges start, participants are reminded of the objectives of the sessions, that is to say the constructive criticism of the juvenile justice system. The youth are then introduced as junior trainers. It is shared that the youngsters were in contact with the justice system in the past, overcame these problems and afterwards undertook a specific training to be part of the program. Thanks to this, they now provide justice professionals with a very relevant perspective of the justice system.

Establishing clear boundaries that help safeguard the youngsters against undue pressure to share personal information

The youth’s experience is crucial for this program as they gained a particular perspective of the justice system. During the exchange sessions, the young trainers provide observations and analysis drawn from their experiences and reflect together on issues that are important to them. However, the scope of the training is not the analysis of their story. It should be clearly stated in the ground rules that questions about the concrete offenses are not encouraged as they are not useful for the purpose of the workshop. Instead, the focus should be on the improvement of the skills and attitude of professionals working in the youth justice system and how they relate to the youth involved in criminal proceedings.

Protecting the well-being and boundaries of individuals when strong emotions arise

It is especially important to discuss the youth’s boundaries on a regular basis, depending on each activity planned. The preparation of activities as a group allows the youth to distance themselves from their experiences and engage instead in an objective analysis of the justice system and its functioning.Likewise, the debrief moments are an opportunity to reflect on the sessions and the emotions it elicited, and how they can be managed in the future.

During the training, it is explained that one of the objectives is to understand what creates the communication blocks between youth and professionals. This leads to an examination of the limits of the system, those of the young people and those of the professionals. Here, it is important to emphasize that the purpose is not criticizing specific individuals, but the functioning and internal dynamics of the system.

Despite precautions, it happened once that a young participant got frustrated during the training. The participants responded in a professional, caring and understanding way. It is important to trust those whose job is to support young people through moments of crisis.

Youthlab Coordinator, Belgium

Nevertheless, in general, the emotions that tend to emerge are more likely to be empathy, a sense of nostalgia, or a commitment to helping youth in conflict with the law.

In addition to the training sessions, it is essential to also consider the own emotional, social, professional, and environmental conditions of the youth as they participate in the project. Depending on their age and the situation they are in, their circumstances can change rapidly, which requires a level of flexibility in participation, but also continuous follow-up based on a relationship of trust.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that involving young people in such an emotionally demanding initiative tends to blur the lines between project supervision and personal involvement for project coordinators. When a young person with a difficult past is recruited, the present is often also delicate. As part of this personal involvement, care must be taken to maintain fluid communication, ongoing support, and a willingness/availability to be flexible, to listen, and to support when needed – even outside of project activities.

Approaching subjects that can create a significant power imbalance

Topics such as remorse can arise, however the discussion should focus more on the quality and adequacy of the youth support services than on youth’s behavior. The goal is to identify communication and support approaches that help to appropriately manage the situation of a young person in conflict with the law, while making them feel heard, understood and respected.

When past behaviors are discussed, it is from the point of view of identifying the needs of young people at key moments in their development and how to best support them.

“Aren’t you sorry?”

During an exchange session, a parole worker asked one of the boys in the group if he regretted what he had done. The boy answered with a short ‘no, I don’t’. You could feel the tension in the room and the atmosphere changed.

The facilitator knows this boy and his background quite well and helped him explain his thoughts. The facilitator asked him: “Murat, of course I know your story, and I believe you’ve said once that at the time, you felt you didn’t have any other option than to do what you did, is that correct?”

The boy confirmed this and added: “Yeah, you know, I had asked the institutions for support and I just didn’t know what else to do anymore to get some money to buy food, so that’s when I got on the wrong path.” The facilitator continued: “Imagine your situation had been different, would you have acted the same way?” Murat answered: “No, I never thought or expected that I would do something like this.”

The facilitator is helping the youngster find the words to express the way he experienced what had happened and how he reflects on it. With the support of the facilitator he was able to express that he had felt powerless in the situation and that he wished it had not happened. The facilitator asked a different question, but the parole worker got an answer to his question about regret, as well as a better insight into his story.

Youngsters – profile

The youngsters you will recruit for the program will have a decisive impact in the successes of the prHow you recruit the right young experience experts will largely depend on the context you are working in. Some implementers work with their youth very closely, where others are working at more distance and therefore depend more on the cooperation and insight of third parties and on selection interviews.

They really listen to me, I could really see that they listen to me.

Jason – Experience expert – Youthlab trainer, Netherlands

Youth that benefit from exchanging with justice professionals often share similar qualities and features: 

  • Keen on telling their story: Youngsters who participate in the YouthLab are intrinsically motivated to join. They want to share their stories and communicate what they have been through in life. They feel the urge to get it off their chest, to step up and share their story in a constructive way. It’s their hope that others will learn from it.
  • Keen on taking the stage: A suitable young candidate is typically recognized by showing a certain ease taking a stand and sharing their opinion in a group. Potential participants most often stand out for their presence, for taking initiative and sometimes aiming to be the leader of the group. He or she is not scared to speak up, even if no-one in the room shares their thoughts. 
  • Is mostly from a long term stay group (in youth detention): Over 70 percent of our members have spent several years in youth detention, mostly between one and four years. Their main motivation to join is that they are done with their (previous) criminal life, going in and out of prison. They want to make a change both for themselves and for others by sharing their story. So that they can be an example for r young people and help them make different life-choices and make a switch to a life without criminality. 
  • Is someone who engaged with many guardians, social workers and therapists: The youngsters might have been in the judicial or childcare-services for many years of their young life. They might have had contact with social workers and therapists and received treatments while serving their time inside. These experiences – some good, others really bad – are all part of the motivation and eagerness for the youngsters to participate in the programme. They are motivated to make a change to the system, not thinking  “screw it”, but i stead aiming for their voices and experiences to be heard. 
  • Is someone with a critical view on the judicial and childcare-services: Having been in “the system” for a long time, experiencing both positive and negative events, typical participants have a critical view on how things are run. However, rather than opposing themselves to the system, they aim to make a change by sharing their critical view. Participants are trained to bring across their messages in a constructive way.  Also, they do take the system and its rules seriously, and do not necessarily deny the challenges professionals deal with in working with youngsters. But with their experiences they want to shed a different light, sharing their point of view – which may be an eye opener and a valuable insight for professionals. 
  • Is curious: Young participants that benefited from the programme are more often than not curious and eager to learn about how the judicial system came to be as it is now. They are open to have a look at it from a different point of view. Hence, they want to hear from justice professionals what it  is like to do their jobs and how their decision-making works in difficult cases.
  • Is between 18 and 25 year old: Most participants are between 18 and 25 years old. Most youngsters at this age have developed a certain distance to their story, becoming adults and leaving detention. They look at their younger selves with a helicopter view, which helps them to tell their story in a constructive and reflective way. 

Youth’s motivation to join YouthLab

It is perfectly clear for us what the benefits of participating in exchange with youth are for justice professionals and for the system in which they work. As is stated by the European Commission in 2011 in the EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child, making the justice system in Europe more child-friendly is a key priority. Being trained by young experts to learn about their needs, language and point of view, is one important step towards achieving this piority.

But what is in it for the youngsters? What do they win from going into exchange with representatives of the justice system? Years of close collaboration with youth made us recognize the following motivations for young experts to join:

They want to make a positive contribution by sharing their story

Several youngsters have experienced many just and unjust events after a (long) time in detention. It’s our experience that they want to express what has happened to them, to get it off their chest. They are being trained to share their honest experiences in a constructive way. This enables them to be heard – a basic need of all. Sharing their experiences allows their stories not to be wasted, but instead to make a positive contribution.

They enjoy using creativity as tool for equal communication

Creativity is a major pillar in the impactful exchanges between youngsters and justice professionals. It allows them to meet as equals, since most creative forms are no more familiar to professionals than to youth. Therefore, we encourage both professionals and youngsters to connect through creative forms. Depending on the creative approaches used in your programme, youngsters could get the opportunity to express themselves through rap or spoken word. Creativity allows them to tell their story in a language that empowers them.

What motivates me in this project is being able to see professionals in a different light, in a better light, being able to communicate without this hierarchical relationship, even if the respect remains present. I also like the fact that I can share what I have experienced, knowing that I will be listened to and that it will help other young people.

Young Trainer, Belgium

It makes them part of a supporting community

When being released after many years, youngsters might lack a sense of community. Being on a programme together with like-minded experience experts and under guidance of people that stand up for their needs, helps them to establish communal relations. They share experiences with each other and they grow as a team. Together they explore a new path and find new directions in life – without criminality.

They become a role model

The first and main motivation for youngsters to join turns out to be the opportunity to be an example and a voice for other youth. By sharing their story, they can speak up and explain how being inside detention has had an impact on them. It gives them a chance to demonstrate how to make a change and choose a different path in life. By sharing their story and learning to ask for help, they learn to open up, for new opportunities but also for support.

They get new work experiences and build a network

We believe it is crucial that youth gets paid a reasonable fee for sharing their perspectives with justice professionals. Paying a fee on top of expenses communicates that we take the youngsters seriously and that their experience and time are of true value. Also, it adds to perceived equality in the exchange with professionals. It goes without saying that the financial arrangement in itself is an important stimulus for the youngsters to show up but that doesn’t mean their engagement is uniquely about the money – as all the other motivations show.

The possibility/experience of healing

By telling their story in a creative and constructive manner, the youngsters experience a sense of healing – even if indirectly. This has been expressed by several youngsters! They explain how sharing their experiences with many people in different settings helped them process. Some even stated that it helped them understand how their lives had unfolded as it did so far. Without explicitly aiming for a sense of healing, we indirectly facilitate a safe space for the youngsters to share and process their story.

Before, I thought the professionals were like robots who wanted to punish me. It sounds stupid perhaps, but now I realise they are human too.

Jason – Experience expert, Netherlands
Hugo, youth from Belgium, speaks about his experience with the YouthLab

Moving forward: step-by-step

When developing our facilitating programme towards youth-x-justice exchanges between young experience experts and justice professionals, we were heavily inspired by the Lundy model of child participation.

This model was developed by academic Laura Lundy, Professor of international children’s rights at the School of Education at the Queen’s University of Belfast, in 2007[1]. Her model provides a way of conceptualising a child’s right to participation, as laid down in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What makes the Lundy model of such great value is the way in which it explains how exchanges are established so that they are ‘meaningful and effective’ in terms of youth participation. It anchors that the voice of the youth is not only being listened to, but also given due weight and actually influencing decision-making and policies and that is super important! Not only for reasons of effectiveness and impact, but also to prevent the youngsters from having (yet another) disappointing experience with representatives of the justice system.

The Lundy model identifies four elements for meaningful youth participation: space, voice, audience and influence. Young in Prison adapted this model for the YOuthLab and added ‘intent’ as a fifth element for meaningful participation – which has proven valuable for other partners implementing the model.

We encourage you to use this extended version of the Lundy model as a compass, as you progress designing youth-x-justice exchanges within your context. Ask yourself: Did you make sure all five elements are taken care of sufficiently? If not, how can you strengthen then?

  1. Lundy, L. (2007) ‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights o the Child ( 

Justice professionals – profile

When a young person is involved in the judicial system, they will come in contact with a large number of professionals. Each one of them can have an impact on their trajectory – either positive or negative. For this reason, the Youthlab aims to reach a diverse range of judiciary and (forensic) youth care professionals.

Justice professionals who could benefit from our Youthlab training, are professionals who

  • either play structural role in the process of a youngster and have direct working-relationship with them, while residing in closed facility and/or after release – such as: pedagogical workers/group workers or probation officers or therapists;
  • have a large impact on the lives of a youngster by their decision-making, such as judges and prosecutors;
  • might have a large impact by their approach and interacting with youngsters at the start of their arrest/trial or in the neighborhood, like police officers.

While the professional’s profile varies and should not determine their ability to participate in the exchanges, the willingness to go the extra miles and eagerness to learn have proven to be positive during the exchanges and afterwards

As adults, we always presume to teach young people, but this time it was they who taught us something, in fact a great deal.

Lawyer – Youth x Professional Exchange participant, Italy

Justice professionals meet and hear many different young people in conflict with the law, in their line of work. They often have complex professional roles, with a high workload and many (if not all!) exceptional cases. This might cause the professionals to simply lack the time to get involved in the lives/stories of the youngster, even though they might truly want to know and see the importance of their perspective.

When getting involved in the Youthlab, we underline that the aim of the initiative is to foster an understanding of the youngster that goes beyond their file. An understanding that is characterized by the perspective, needs and experiences of the youngster. Through the youth-x-justice exchanges, the juniors inspire the professionals to always be reminded that every youngster has its own life story.

The exchange sessions are a safe space and learning environment for both youngsters and professionals, to share and learn from each other’s perspectives, roles and responsibilities in the proces. The aim is to invite and encourage the professional to always try to see/understand through the eyes of the youngster, making that extra mile to understand their needs and help to find its way towards his best path in life.

Moreover, the conversations that professionals can have with the experienced experts in the session help them understand the language and reasoning of young people as well. The language of youngsters, especially with street slang, is often misunderstood and their behavior misinterpreted. Young people get the opportunity to explain to professionals why they think it’s best to use their right to remain silent or what’s actually happening within them behind the (sometimes) closed or indifferent attitude.

Facilitator – profile

The role of YouthLab facilitator (also called senior trainer by different implementing partners) is  essential for a successful program. The role includes the training of youngsters as experience experts (also called Junior member or Junior Trainer) and the facilitation of  the youth x justice exchanges. 

Both training and facilitating are  intense and often emotionally taxing. Facilitators understand the role of constructive conflict and tension and are able to at all times offer a space where all participants feel respected and confident to meaningfully exchange. 

Below are some important features of a  YouthLab facilitator: 

  • A connector: The YouthLab facilitator is able to connect and translate between the world (and lived experience) of young people and the systemic world of these justice professionals. The facilitator aims to put emphasis on both the complexity of their profession, but also challenge them to truly listen, to understand the stories and impact of the experiences of the young people with(in) the justice system. 
  • A creative thinker: Because the training is built on creative methods, the facilitator ideally has past experience in a creative discipline, like spoken word or storytelling. By opening the training with spoken word, the facilitator sets an example in opening up/being vulnerable, and thereby encouraging young people to share their experiences with professionals in the following stages of the training. 
  • A mentor: For the YouthLab juniors, the facilitator is their coach who guides them through the training. They might have certain agreed rules or signs between each other, if the tension or emotions runs up too high for a youngster. On the other hand, the facilitator navigates on a neutral ground during the session, so both parties get the space and opportunity to voice their opinions. The facilitator always makes sure the youngsters have the final word, to close a topic with youngsters, yet in a positive and constructive manner.

In Short

The facilitator should have experience and/or feel confident in:

  • providing training for professionals, and for young people;
  • understanding of judicial system/world, through perspective of young people and professionals;
  • thinking and acting creatively and feeling comfortable to take the stage;
  • coaching  young people. 
Lamym, YouthLab faciliator in Netherlands