Promoting social competence and inclusion:
Taking alternative paths
Patricia Sarmento, Katia Almeida, Mary Elizabeth Rauktis, and Susana Bernardo Trilhos
Alternativos (Alternative Paths) is a community-based program that aims to integrate African-Portuguese urban youth from low-income families into Portuguese society. This article describes the first year of the program and presents formative data about effectiveness of the program. The motivation system seems to be an indirect variable that influences social skills’ acquisition by motivating youth to attend. Finally, outcomes are discussed in terms of improving practice in the second year of implementation.
During the last 50 years, Portugal has experienced a growing influx of immigrants. Until 1999, when patterns of immigration became more diverse, immigrants primarily came from the African-Portuguese speaking countries and former Portuguese colonies of Cape Verde, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau (Martingo and Silva, 2003). This immigration has led to the emergence of a new status in Portugal of second and third generation African-Portuguese. These young men and women were raised in Portugal often speaking Creole at home and European Portuguese in school and at work. As one young man described his cultural duality, “My friends say that I’m a white black which means someone who has integrated into white community. When I’m back in my neighborhood or with my family, I talk Creole and listen to music from Cape Verde, and eat the food from my parent’s homeland” (Queiroz, 2005).
Social inclusion of African-Portuguese immigrants into Portuguese society is critical, but in order to become truly multicultural, real integration must occur. One approach has been the creation of a “loja social” or social house in the African-Portuguese neighborhood Estrada Militar do Alto Damaia in Lisbon. At the loja social, adults can learn to read and write Portuguese and participate in family activities, and youth can attend after-school programs and participate in social groups. However, the loja staff identified a group of youth that were at risk of being excluded from loja activities because of their poor social skills, truancy, and oppositional behavior. Pressley Ridge Portugal was asked to provide additional services to these youth, and the program “Trilhos Alternativos” (Alternative Paths) was born. This article describes the families and youth of Trilhos Alternativos, the program components, and a formative evaluation of the program.
A new ethnic identity is formed when individuals emigrate from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa to Portugal. Youth experience both the African and Portuguese cultures within the family, and the mother is the central figure in guiding the moral and cultural development of the youth (Santos, 2004). As a minority group, they have second class status, occupying the least desirable neighborhoods, working for minimal wages, and surviving on a day-to-day basis. Many feel that they do not have the same rights as “white” Portuguese, and that the values of the Portuguese culture compete with African values. What appear to be poor values and choices or
manipulative behavior are often survival strategies. Santos (2004) observed that African-Portuguese youths create an identity by adopting a strategic view of their relationship to the culture which guides their actions. Therefore, the ability to read situations, assess which strategies are more personally advantageous, and use arguments to advance their cause is a survival skill that often puts them at odds with the Portuguese culture. In addition, the youth do not internalize their second class status, but instead act defiant and brash; for example, the name the group at Alternative Paths chose for themselves translates to “Lions of the Neighborhood”. Finally, the youth do not look to Portuguese figures for their role models, preferring instead to admire African-American Rappers (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent) and musicians such as the late Bob Marley. They do not internalize their marginalized status but rather aspire to become wealthy and notorious.
The role that conduct disorder and externalizing behavior play in their exclusion must also be considered. Both race and behavior become barriers to acceptance to the mainstream of culture. The etiology of conduct disorders is complex, but risk factors appear to include inconsistent early nurturing, environmental deprivation, poverty and exposure to violence, poor parental mental health and parenting practices (Reid and Eddy, 1997; Domitrovich and Greenberg, 2003). Prevention of these conditions is the optimal intervention, but other secondary interventions have been studied. Social skills training and coaching use small group work, often in the classroom, as well as parental intervention to promote positive social behaviors and extinguish asocial and externalizing behaviors (O’Donohue and Krasner, 1995). At best, the evidence for efficacy has been modest (Domitrovich and Greenberg, 2003). However, several parent training interventions have shown efficacy with youth conduct disorders: Parent Management Training, The Incredible Years, and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (Barth et al., 2005). These evidence-based practices have not been implemented with African-Portuguese families.
The second group of interventions used to intervene with conduct disorders is after school programming delivered in communities where children live (Roffman, Pagano and Hirsch, 2001). Besides providing alternatives to most illegal activities available in the communities, after school programs provide social support, structured activities, positive adult role models, exposure to cultural events and academic support. Program contexts that have been empirically proven to promote positive outcomes for young persons include physical and psychological safety, appropriate structure, supportive relationships, opportunities for belonging, positive social norms, opportunities for skill building, and integration of family, community and school (Eccles and Gootman, 2002). Roffman, Pagano and Hirsch’s (2001) study of after school programs for inner-city youth found that in environments characterized by high poverty and single-parent homes, after-school staff members play an important role by motivating young males to spend their afternoons in a safe, enriching environment. They concluded that the two central features of after school programs, relationships with staff members and participation in activities, were linked to several aspects of positive child functioning for high-risk older males.
There is a scarcity of research on how to effectively work with culturally isolated youth with conduct disorders. The remainder of this article describes Alternative Paths (AP), an after-school program designed and implemented by Pressley Ridge Portugal for a group of African-American Portuguese youth, and includes the evaluation of how effective Alternative Paths has been in increasing social skills and other desirable behaviors.
Description of the youth and families
AP was initially designed for a group of ten African-Portuguese youth, but two youth were placed in a juvenile justice residential program in the first month. The group included one girl and seven boys who ranged in age from nine to fourteen, with an average age of eleven. The youth were identified by the social worker and coordinator of the loja social as the most troubling kids. All attended public schools. Two were in the third grade, four in the fourth grade, and two attended the fifth grade. The main problems initially presented by the group included: Oppositional behavior (100%); Learning disabilities (38%); Lack of motivation (100%); Difficulty in following rules (88%); Troubles with Justice — Trials in court (63%); Absence of civic consciousness and social values (88%); Lack of selfcontrol (100%).
The language spoken in the youth’s homes is Crioulo, a Creole language of ancient Portuguese with African words. The caregivers for the youths are primarily the mothers. Most of the families are composed of half-siblings and some of the older minor sons are institutionalized in residential programs run by the juvenile justice system. Fathers are absent, and if they are present, it is sporadic (with the exception of two families in which the father is the primary caregiver). Alcoholism is a problem for two of the families and one of the families has had to cope with ongoing domestic abuse. In the Alternative Paths program, there are youth who have the same father but different mothers. Due to lack of education, parents are typically employed as housekeepers or in building trades; however, these jobs are often temporary and low paying. Illegal activity is a second source of income for many families in the neighborhood. Most of the homes are barely habitable, with poor sanitation, limited space, and no heat.
In many cases, the youth take on the role of pseudo-adults, supporting the family through legal or illegal activities and caring for younger siblings. Because they are taking on the roles of adults, they also have unrestricted access to being out late and being unsupervised, and the adults have a difficult time re-establishing their authority in the home. As a result, family life is often chaotic, with few established routines in the home and few, if any, boundaries for the youth.
In summary, these families and youth have many of the characteristics associated with social exclusion and poverty-limited education, poor living conditions, and unstable income sources. Because they are from another culture, they additionally have the challenges of adjusting to new cultural values and norms while trying to retain their ethnic values. It is important, however, to note that the picture is not completely negative. The AP youth have a great sense of hope; they find great joy in their lives and they also have talents and gifts. One young man is a promising artist, another loves animals. Although families are challenged, they do care about their children or grandchildren and want them to have a better life.
The goal of AP is to re-integrate youth into the community through experiential exploration of social and emotional skills; using motivation systems; teaching pro-social skills though modeling and coaching; creating opportunities for development; and finally, providing consistent positive adult role models. The underlying Re-ED values that apply to AP include the following: youth should be helped in contexts as close to natural ones as possible in order to strengthen the natural support systems; trust is essential and teacher /counselors have the capacity to promote change as role models for youth; youth learn more efficiently when exposed to meaningful learning experiences and opportunities for personal growth; multiple contexts and intensive learning accelerate and consolidate the learning of new behaviors (Hobbs, 1994).
Prior to the initiation of AP in September 2004, there was a start-up phase in which ten youth were identified from the loja social who displayed behavioral problems. Histories on the families and youth were collected, and the AP and the loja social staff were trained to implement a motivational system. During this period, the evaluation plan was created, measures were selected, and baseline data was collected. The AP staff includes a clinical psychologist who is the supervisor/ coordinator and two teacher/ counselors. The ratio is two adults to eight children with three adults to eight children when doing outdoor activities. Weekly supervision occurs between the coordinators and the teacher/ counselors.
AP sessions last 1.5 hours twice a week, and are held in the loja social. Each session is planned in advance, and sessions always include a snack, a planning session before starting, and a debriefing session at the end. In addition, there are planned outdoor weekend activities such as rock-climbing, archeology expeditions, and trips to the zoo and to a farm.
AP has several key program components. The first is the motivation system. The motivation system was implemented in all groups at the loja social and aims to motivate youth to participate in the activities and follow rules. Points are given for the accomplishment of certain rules of AP:
to speak in a low tone;
to respect others’ opinions;
to pay attention to T/C’s instructions;
to ask permission to do something outside the activity; and
to wait to speak in turn.
These rules were chosen and discussed by the group. The theory behind this system is to reward youth not only for participating in activities but also for the effort they apply in learning and practicing new personal and social skills. For this reason, the system only focuses on positive behaviors. A youth can win between 1 and 5 points per session. Failure to attend a session results in no awarding of points. At the outdoor activities, a youth can win up to 15 points per day by following the rules and showing adaptive and appropriate behaviors. In both situations, the points are awarded at the end of activities, with youth self-evaluations followed by group discussion and teacher/ counselor feedback. Points are then translated to colored beads with different colors representing a different number of points and type of skill. The beads are strung and then hung on the wall for display. These beads can be used to purchase soccer balls, tennis shoes, and other highly desirable goods.
The second AP component is working with families. Family work includes meeting with family members individually to discuss how their child is doing or to help create individualized plans. In the second year, the family component includes fifteen informal family gatherings organized around craft activities. These meetings will allow the families to join together in fun activities and provide support for each other. When youth miss AP meetings, the teacher /counselors do outreach in order to try to re-engage the youth and the family in AP activities.
A third component is group activities. The group is important to adolescents, and all of the activities of AP occur in a group. Every session starts with a planning group followed by the group activity. For example, one of the AP activities was creating games for the loja social’s “Tournament.” The group had to brainstorm and then select what kinds of games it would create and then create the games. All of this requires working cooperatively, communicating and taking turns, attending to the task at hand, etc. Other group activities include organized games, debates, and role playing.
Outdoor experiential activities are another component. These activities expose the youth to situations that they would not normally experience, such as archeology and rock climbing. In addition, these activities are in a new environment which challenges youth to use their developing skills.
The final key component includes the ongoing evaluation of each youth’s progress in developing social skills and following rules. It was hypothesized that the amount of time spent in after school sessions as well as the number of points accrued would associate with better social skills and greater satisfaction with the program. Weekly attendance reports were used to determine the amount of time in the program (“dose”), and the number of points earned in sessions and in outdoor activities was calculated per child. At the last session, the youth were asked about their satisfaction with the program using an open-ended survey. The teacher/ counselors completed observational checklists of social skills (translated from Goldstein and McGinnis, 1997) at three time points; before the program started, in March 2005; at the 29th session; and at the last session in July 2005. This checklist rates six types of social skills. (See Table 1).
Table 1. Social skills
|Basic social skills||Listening; starting a conversation; having a conversation; asking a question; saying thank you; introducing yourself; introducing other people and giving a compliment.|
|Advanced social skills||Asking for help; joining in; giving and following instructions; apologizing and convincing others.|
|Skills for dealing with feelings||Knowing and expressing your feelings; understanding the feelings of others; dealing with someone else’s anger; expressing affection; dealing with fear and rewarding yourself.|
|Alternative skills to aggression||Asking permission; sharing something; helping others; negotiating; using self-control; standing up for your rights; responding to teasing; avoiding trouble with others and keeping out of fights.|
|Skills for dealing with stress||Making and answering a complaint; being a good sport;
dealing with embarrassment and being left out; standing up for a
friend; responding to persuasion and to failure; dealing with
contradictory messages, with an
accusation or with group pressure; getting ready for a difficult conversation.
|Management skills||Deciding on what to do; deciding what caused a problem; setting a goal; deciding on your abilities; gathering information; setting up priorities; making a decision and concentrating on a task.|
Formative evaluation results
The results of AP are presented in the following section. The data were collected prior to the beginning of AP (September 2004) until the end of the sessions (July 2005). In total, there were 62 sessions over a 10-month period.
Drop-outs from the program
Initially, AP included 10 youth. Two left in November because they were institutionalized in Justice Residential Programs by court decision. The remainder of the group was maintained until the end of the sessions in July 2005. Since this is a voluntary program, and youth can choose to attend, the absence of drop outs is a very positive outcome.
Attendance to the program
There were 62 sessions and the group mean for attendance was 42 sessions (SD=12.68).
Points earned in the motivational system in
The average number of total points awarded was 145.75 (SD = 55.20). The maximum possible was 220 — if they won 5 points in all 62 sessions. When the points for each youth are graphed together over time in months, some group patterns emerge. All of the youth achieved high percentages of awarded points in December 2004 (the “honeymoon” period), followed by a large drop in February. After this point, the patterns of point acquisition become more individually variable, although most are above 50% from March 2005 until July 2005.
Points earned in the motivational system in the
The average number of points won during weekend activities was 19.38 points (SD = 5.95). The maximum possible was 45 — if they won 15 points in all 3 days.
Because the weekend activity occurred in a different and unknown context, it turned out to be more challenging and demanding for the group to follow the rules, making the transfer of learning harder.
Table 2 displays the means of average social skill development over time. The teacher/ counselors completed observational checklists of social skills at three time points; before the program started (Time 1), in March 2005 (Time 2) and at the last session (Time 3).
The means of the group increased for all 6 social skills from evaluation time 1 to time 2, and from evaluation time 2 to time 3.
There was a significant difference for all 6 social skills; the group showed significantly better social skills by the end of the program than in the beginning. While this was true for all the appraised social skills, the greatest improvements were seen in alternative skills to aggression and dealing with stress.
Table 2. Average social skill development
|Social skills||Time 1||Time 2||Time 3|
|Basic social skills||10.88||3.14||15.13||3.87||18.00||5.07|
|Advanced social skills||9.38||2.67||13.38||1.92||16.88||2.00|
|Skills for dealing with feelings||10.00||3.34||14.63||2.72||17.50||3.30|
|Alternative skills to aggression||12.88||4.76||20.25||4.74||23.00||5.16|
|Skills for dealing with stress||14.50||3.38||23.75||5.80||26.75||5.58|
Correlations among attendance, motivation
points, and social skills
As expected, the 2-tailed Pearson correlation analyses showed a positive relationship between the number of sessions and the number of motivation points earned (r=.91, p= .01). However the relationship between motivation points earned and social skills development was non-significant. There was a strong positive correlation, given the small sample size, between the number of sessions and advanced social skills at the end of the program. This was true for the average number of sessions attended (r=.79, p=.02) and also for the sum of sessions attended (r= .83 p=.01).
In other words, the greater the number of sessions that the youth attended (both in terms of average as well as the total number), the greater the degree of advanced social skills demonstrated by the youth by the end of the program.
However, this relationship did not become significant until the end of the program. This suggests that the motivational system may play an indirect rather than direct role on the development of social skills. Youth who attend the sessions earn points; this encourages them to attend sessions until they have enough points to purchase something. The more sessions attended, regardless of motivation, the greater the exposure to the intervention and the more socially skilled the youth becomes. It is not the points that associate with better skills but rather, the time in the intervention.
However, this correlation should be interpreted with caution since the pre-post-test research design does not allow for causal statements. It could be that youth who are more socially skilled are more likely to attend group, rather than the students getting more skilled socially because they attend group. Other studies that control for threats to internal validity and causality need to be conducted in order to better understand how motivation systems work.
Satisfaction with AP
Overall, the youth expressed satisfaction with the program. When asked to answer an open-ended question they responded: “I liked to listen to the T/C’s advice”; “I learned that it is important to respect the rules”; “I learned how to play with my friends.”
In December 2005, five months after the end of the first year of AP, all the youth are still living with their families. Two of the eight are now attending a weekly group in the loja social and the other six youth are still attending the Alternative Paths program, twice a week, in the present school year.
Table 3. Analysis of means difference between evaluation times 1 and 3 N=8
|Pairs (Time 1 and 3)||Mean’s
|Basic social skills||-7.1||-3.51||.010|
|Advanced social skills||-7.5||-5.98||.001|
|Skills for dealing with feelings||-7.5||-5.45||.001|
|Alternative skills to aggression||-10.1||-7.95||.000|
|Skills for dealing with stress||-12.2||-6.66||.000|
Discussion and conclusions
The evaluation of AP has several limitations. The research design is pre-experimental and does not allow causal statements — only associations. In addition, the observations of social skills were done by the teacher/ counselors and do not include parent or teacher observations. Therefore, there is no report concerning the transfer of these skills to other settings such as school and home. Future evaluation will use a single subject design with multiple observation points so as to strengthen the conclusions that can be drawn. Additional analyses with larger samples and other groups are needed to fully examine what role motivation systems play in changing behavior. Since many programs use systems such as the one used in AP, this is a rich area for further research. Finally, the impact of the program on families was not evaluated. This is probably the least developed aspect of AP and would benefit from a more qualitative evaluation.
Despite these limitations, implementing Alternative Paths has been a positive learning experience for the staff of AP and the youth. It appears that the motivation system associates with higher rates of attendance. When youth are oppositional, powerful incentives are needed in order to get them to attend voluntary programs. By increasing attendance, the amount of time in the intervention is increased. In this case, more time spent in the program associated with better social skills. The youth were positive about the program and this is reinforced by the fact that there were no voluntary drop outs (the two youth who left were forced to do so due to prior legal charges).
From a formative perspective, this evaluation and subsequent discussions have provided some confirmation as well as suggestions for program improvement. Engaging the families will continue to be a challenging but critical part of AP. Without family involvement and commitment to supporting the work of AP at home, it will be difficult for youth to transfer learning from the loja social to home. The AP program staff is working on finding ways to engage families and to strengthen the family component of AP. The teamwork between the loja social and the AP staff was also critical, and allowed for the motivation system to be applied in a consistent way in the loja social. The communication and involvement with the loja social counselors also aid in the smooth transition from the AP program to the loja social after school groups.
A limitation of AP is that the intervention time is not very intensive at 1.5 hours, two times a week. If increased intervention time is connected to improvement in social skills, then more time spent with the youth in the group may improve the outcomes. Unfortunately, the loja social and the municipality of Damaia have limited funds, and the future of the loja social is uncertain after the European Union funding ends. Increasing the amount of sessions is not a possibility given the funding, so the program is finding other ways of increasing intensity. For example, holiday breaks from school are a good time to schedule more groups and outdoor activities. The lack of school routine during breaks hinders the continuity of the AP program, so this is one way of creating structure and also increasing time in the program. If there is a large time period between school ending for the day and the start of the AP groups, youth are not likely to come to the AP groups. School schedules were taken into account in scheduling groups and activities, both in terms of holidays and school exit time. In addition, outdoor activities are critical to transferring learning outside of the group. These activities are challenging to implement but essential. In the weekend activities context, youth have an opportunity to learn how to modify their behavior and experience consequences in a novel setting. Thus, more weekend activities are going to be included in the AP program. Finally, one change that came out of the observation checklists is the difficulty that the youth have in managing anger and strong feelings of aggression. The staff is investigating curriculum specific to managing anger and aggression.
Although social exclusion is a much larger problem
with roots in poverty and discrimination, AP is trying to find pathways
for these youth by helping them to develop better social skills and
control aggression and anger. We believe that by continuing to improve
and evaluate AP, we will be able to better help the youth find a place
in Portuguese society.
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This feature: Sarmento, P.; Almelda, K.; Rauktis, M.E. and Bernardo, S. (2008). Promoting social competence and inclusion: Taking alternative paths. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 4. pp. 47-54.