Toolbox 2 – Focusing on individuals and communities
This tool is about structures of support that help people to learn, grow and develop their lives. To understand this, we need to think about scaffoldings on a construction site: they help to sustain and support the structure of buildings so that they can stand and be built upon.
What is this about?
Psychosocial scaffoldings are actions and structures that support development at the individual and social levels. They refer to the central role of supportive people and institutions in the healthy development of human beings. Scaffolding as a metaphor for describing psychological structures of support goes back to psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. They showed that human beings need other people and society’s support to grow and fully realise their human potential. Scaffolding is an action between people; the support given by more experienced caretakers or peers acts as a springboard that provides emotional sustenance and takes people forward.
Many psychologists used to think that that this support was provided only by the family and that it worked mainly in the early years of life. However, more recent research has found that psychosocial scaffoldings can be provided by manifold support institutions, work throughout the life span and play a crucial role in fighting marginalisation and exclusion.
Supporting a child, a young person or indeed any adult from a position of care, be it interpersonal or institutional, produces positive specific individual developmental changes and can lead to processes of development at the community level.
People and organisations can provide psychosocial scaffoldings to any human being at any stage of life
In practical terms, psychosocial scaffoldings need two actions: holding and handling. These two complementary processes were identified by British psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott and refer to the ways in which a caretaker (usually a mother) provides unconditional love to her baby and at the same time teaches rules and restrictions. This combination of love and rules enables the growing child to relate to the world in a socially competent and healthy way.
Holding comes first. The caretaker gives the baby love and reliable, careful supply for its needs, from feeding to reassurance and physical comfort. In holding, giving is unconditional.
Handling comes after or with holding. The caretaker gradually, and with loving care, sets rules and boundaries for the child. From handling, the child learns that she is part of a larger social world: she is a person capable of doing things on her own, but also must respect rules and accept the rights of others.
Why does it matter?
Psychosocial scaffoldings help individuals exposed to difficult life conditions to develop trust and reliance on themselves and the social world. It is the basis for self-esteem, citizenship and the ability to work with others for transforming their reality.
Key facts from the favelas
Psychosocial scaffoldings are a widely utilised tool in bottom-up social development in favela contexts. Grassroots organisations such as AfroReggae and CUFA use holding and handling on a regular basis through relational strategies and interventions:
- Leaders and activists relate to the community as parents by proxy, offering emotional support and care as well as rules and restrictions.
- Organisations invest heavily in building the capacity of young people who will later act as scaffolds for others in similar situations in the community.
- Community members frequently identify one key person within a grassroots organisation who has provided them with support, advice, encouragement and, when needed, ground rules for behaviour.
- Leaders and activists reintroduce trust and offer roles models to community members who may not have experienced stable relationships and frequently feel angry, hopeless and disillusioned.