Changing the behaviour of boys from ethnic minority communities in south London

An Action for Children project to support ethnic minority boys affected by absent fathers has brought huge improvements in behaviour and family relationships


Boys from an ethnic minority and with an absent father have a greater risk of entering a life of crime or antisocial behaviour.

However, the Pinnacle project in Streatham, south London, has been successful at changing the behaviour of boys by addressing these risk factors and using a whole-family approach.

Set up by Action for Children in response to concern about the level of crime in the area, ethnic minority boys aged eight to 15 who were underachieving at school, at risk of social exclusion or on the edge of a life of crime were referred to Pinnacle.

The project then used “concurrent” interventions – providing services for the boys and their parents individually – to change behaviour.

Interventions included group parenting sessions focusing on discipline, coping with challenging behaviour and promoting positive interaction and relationships with their sons.

Sessions for the boys looked at feelings, behaviour and interactions with peers, parents and other adults, building self-esteem and challenging negative patterns of thought and behaviour.

The project also looked at the role of the father in the boys’ lives, and tried to reignite a relationship where appropriate. Where it wasn’t, the team found the male worker became a role model for some of the boys.

“I wanted to look at black boys who lived in units headed by mothers,” says Action for Children operational director, children’s services, Darren Johnson, who spearheaded the project. “The missing bit [from schemes such as Sure Start] was the emotional impact of missing fathers. [There were] implications around child development.”

Another key technique the project used was ethnic matching between the boys and their social workers. Johnson says the impact was “significant”.

An independent evaluation of the project by researchers at the University of Salford found “some element of matching wasseen to be helpful as it offered appropriate role models to the young people”.

Referring families

The approach to referring families to the scheme is also important, Johnson feels. As well as taking referrals from statutory agencies, the team sought hard-to-reach-families through local community groups. “I think that’s key,” Johnson adds. “Also for the way the families see the service. It’s about trust.”

Parents and boys reported improvements in relationships at home, and schools noted significant changes in behaviour. There was some reduction in police involvement.

Positive outcomes included better behaviour, parents more able to listen, sons calmer and making more informed decisions, fewer angry encounters and more co-operation within families. The boys also felt they had more confidence and were better able to make the right choices, Johnson says.

“We should be trying to target kids and parents at the same time,” says Michael Murphy, senior social work lecturer at the University of Salford, who helped to evaluate the project.

“There’s also the issue of black youth and the project doing ethnic matching – parents felt that was useful.

“I’m also impressed with projects that are flexible. [Pinnacle] had good links with local schools. It also did some good work with families who couldn’t make it to the groups and saw them in their homes.”

Made a difference

Evidence of the success of the project comes from the parents and children themselves, adds Murphy. “There are numerous quotes from parents who were at the end of their tether and didn’t know where to turn and they say Pinnacle made a difference.”

Pinnacle ran for two and a half years and closed in March, but the model has been so successful that Action for Children plans to roll it out permanently across five London areas over the next two years, and then extend into the Midlands and northern England. Each project should be able to work with between 150 and 200 boys a year.

Lessons from the south London pilot will be included in future projects. One of the original aims was to mediate between estranged mothers and fathers, but the team found it was not always possible because of the circumstances of the break-up.

“Mediation was seen by some of the mums as a more formal arrangement, so we’re looking at a more community-based approach to involving absent fathers or other significant male role model [within the family],” says Johnson.

“A key lesson is to work at the family’s pace and, where it’s safe to do so, involve fathers. Where it’s not safe, look at another significant male family member, or match with a mentor.”


“I ain’t angry every day”

Child “Made me do things better than I used to. Like I ain’t coming home angry every day just because of a teacher. Helped me be more me instead of being short-tempered and always getting in trouble and back chatting. Stopped all of that because of Pinnacle. Gave me ways of seeing how I could be better at school.”

Parent “It helped me to deal with [my son] in a different way. It helped me to think and do things differently. He has had the benefit of that so that when I am with him I do it differently.”

Child “We would argue and argue, and I would smash things and walk out. It’s not like that now.”

Parent “The service helped us to communicate.”


Positive approach

Several techniques can be deployed to aid effective working with young children at risk of offending or antisocial behaviour.

Darren Johnson, of Action for Children, recommends a strength-based approach. “Start from the point of view that young people want to aspire and do something positive with their lives,” he says.

“Work at the young person’s pace in order to realise their strengths. Work with them to ensure you get outcomes. Recognise their talents and skills. [It’s about] providing an opportunity and a road map. This is about young boys dealing with issues on entering adulthood and looking at their aspirations for the future.”

It is also vital to employ a team of people who have a similar attitude to working in this way with children, he says.

This article is published in the 15 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Calming influences

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