Toolbox 2 – Focusing on individuals and communities

Psychosocial scaffoldings

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.

Conditional scholarships programme


This is a programme implemented by AfroReggae, across different projects. As a rule, participants of all projects generally receive some kind of material incentives in the form of food, trips and leisure activities. In addition, participants who fulfil eligibility criteria (not all project participants are eligible) receive a monthly stipend. This cash transfer is conditional upon continued attendance at school and has the objective of supporting young people in their involvement in arts and sports.

The scholarships programme allows participants to be ‘held’:

  • In the sports or arts course they are engaged in, they have a coach or teacher who sometimes acts like a parent. As expressed by participants, they “ask how you are; go to your house to talk to your parents”.
  • They receive material incentives that support their travel expenses and give them some relief in their manifold needs.

At the same time, scholarship holders are ‘handled’:

  • Continuous enrolment and attendance at school is compulsory.
  • Rules within the courses need to be respected. For example, participants must arrive on time for rehearsals, practices and classes.

Sustained involvement in sports and the arts gives participants life structure: they must attend school at a given time, do their homework and study (to progress in school), save time for the arts/sports course and schedule rehearsals, performances and/or matches. This, for a youth, is a busy life that, in the words of participants, serves to keep them focused on productive activities rather than on a lifestyle characterised by idleness or crime.

LIIBRA (and sports in general)


Street basketball is a sport that was developed in Brazilian favelas and promoted by CUFA. It started freely in the streets and is now widely practised, and has its own national championship. The first edition of the rules for the game (Athayde, 2008) expresses the combination of creativity in approaching it and, simultaneously, the restrictions applied to it: “ball juggling and tricks of all kinds are allowed …   the player can walk or even run with the ball … this dispensation, however, does not allow the player to step on [another player]” (2008: 33).

In outlining “the rules and tricks of urban basketball” (2008: 87), social development activists exemplify the process of holding/handling. They provide an organised, safe ground in which players can express themselves, their physicality and their drive in a collective, concerted endeavour. At the same time, they set the boundaries of what is and is not allowed in the pursuit of the players’ objectives. The simultaneous use of “tricks” and “rules” helps to raise awareness that, even in contexts of ludic engagement, there are limits to our behaviour. These lessons can in turn be transferred to other contexts of participants’ lives.

Psychosocial scaffoldings in action


Holding/handling activities are those in which an identifiable person or institutional figure (coach, teacher, or activities coordinator) provides support and sets behavioural limits to participants.

First, participants receive support in various forms. Examples include new knowledge and skills and having a space of care and containment for self-expression. Second, while these activities need to be flexible to cater for people who may have experienced hardship (broken families, inconsistent schooling and lack of trusted authority figures), they also implement rules and set boundaries on culturally acceptable social behaviour, such as listening to others and taking-turns to speak.


  • Usually, in contexts such as favelas mothers and grandmothers use holding and handling with their young children. However, fathers are also crucially needed for offering this support.
  • Holding and handling can be used with people of any age, but the young are more likely to benefit and transfer it to other areas of their lives.
  • Holding and handling can be implemented by anyone willing to support others. Teachers, church groups and community leaders are well suited but any person can be a role model in certain aspects (sports, academic achievements and civic engagement) or in their lives in general.

What for?

  • The development of the full potential of community members through structures of support.
  • The establishment of self-management skills among individuals.
  • The promotion of life structure and work ethics.


As in the example of LIIBRA and scholarships, there are concrete initiatives that can combine holding/handling. Here you will find a number of Action points for each process:


  • Role models and pastoral support. Incentivise the creation of mentorship and support schemes within the community. Especially in contexts in which families are broken, young people can benefit from the interaction with positive role models that inspire them and provide them with pastoral support. Knowing that they have someone to discuss their problems with, to consult regarding important decisions or simply to chat, can make a great difference in times of crisis.
  • Material support. Organise communities to collaborate in catering for the needs of their members. Raw materials to create handicrafts, stationery needed for school and shoes might seem simple, but can certainly make a difference in the lives of those that have very little. Support also comes in the form of material incentives.
  • Learning support. Promote the organisation of schemes for learning in its many forms. Literacy skills, learning a new trade and being creative to produce new knowledge, are some of the ways in which formal and informal learning can be incentivised. Having one or more people leading in this kind of support is beneficial for those who are learning: they can rely on the knowledge of others and use it as a scaffold for their own.


  • Establishment of routines. Encourage the undertaking of community activities at regular times. Disrupted lives in contexts of hardship greatly benefit from the establishment of structure and routine in their lives. Apart from attending school, set activities in the community such as ‘homework help’ groups can aid in setting the boundaries between work and leisure (and give them the confidence of challenging these boundaries when needed).
  • Instituting codes of conduct. Promote the establishment of behavioural rules in community meetings and of codes of conduct and civility in social relations. While rigidity should be avoided when supporting someone, it is important to specify what can and cannot be done, under the terms of the host institution or the house (in the case of family home) where support is being given. This provides a good basis for behaviour outside the community and in the world of work. Sports and games of interest in the cultural context in which the NGO is working (for example, football, in the case of Brazil) work very well for introducing rules in a ludic way.

Download Mentoring scheme template

Download Workshop exercise on psychosocial scaffoldings


Self–esteem and networks

This tool focuses on individuals’ sense of worth and the role played by social networks in enhancing how they think about themselves and what they do.

What is this about?

Self-esteem and social networks are interconnected. The notion people have of who they are is tightly related to their community and the networks to which they have access. They draw on these to understand themselves and to build self-esteem – that is, the value a person gives to herself.

The range and quality of networks people have can boost or undermine their sense of worth. In contexts of hardship and lack of opportunities, the ideas that people have of themselves and what they can achieve can be seriously undermined. Access to other parts of the city and, if possible, the world, allows people to be exposed to more experiences, people and knowledge, and to have wider networks of acquaintances and friends (people who can support them at any given time).

When we have access to different places and a diversity of contacts with other people, the opportunities to experience varied situations and to imagine different worlds are greater. Enabling freedom of movement in the city (and the world) broadens the horizons of community members and has an impact on the positive development of the person and on the expansion of her networks.

Why does it matter?

The more places and people we know, the greater our chances of expanding our identity and our sense of who we are and what we can do. This enhances our chances of coping with adversity, empowers us psychologically and socially, opens up horizons, and creates voice, dreams and thinking. All of these contribute for social protagonism and agency.

Key facts from the favelas

Favela organisations actively use the expansion of networks as a tool for boosting self-esteem and the sense of individual worth of favela dwellers. They build partnerships and networks at local, national and global levels using social media, cultural exchange, and their own artistic and territorial expertise. This takes the identities and culture of the favela to other contexts and worlds and provides community members with a platform for self-exposure and recognition.

The following are examples of actions that take place in the favelas:

Favela to the world


This project was developed by AfroReggae with the goal of taking a local project, Escolando a Galera [Schooling the gang] for an exchange with students of London’s Barbican Centre. This is a prime example of expanding the networks and horizons of community members.

AfroReggae implemented this action in the following ways:

  • physical mobility of favela youth to a different context;
  • focus on the arts, developing skills and showing what favela dwellers can contribute to cultural exchange;
  • multiplying the networks of the organisation and the favela as a whole, showing “to the world” what they are about through a narrative of creativity;
  • seeking and establishing partnerships with academic and cultural institutions in the UK.

Favela dwellers who have travelled overseas through AfroReggae, or know someone who has done so, narrated these experiences in awe. Travelling and exposing themselves to a new culture opens the professional and cultural horizons of favela dwellers and reinforces their entitlement to dream, to have hope and to work hard for a future that is realisable.

Pixaim Project


This is one of CUFA’s programmes especially targeted to black women. This intervention implements a multi-method approach which aims to generate reflection and expansion of beauty standards, to train users in a trade and ultimately to bolster their self-esteem as a result. This project includes two main streams:

  1. Discussion of beauty standards in relation to the specific aesthetical characteristics of black people. Theatre and reading are the main activities in this stream, which connect the self to other stories and ideals of beauty.
  2. Fostering entrepreneurship through training workshops. Afro braiding and the manufacturing of black dolls are the two means by which women can generate income and connect to wider networks.

These two streams complement each other in encouraging participants to think critically about who they are, their community (how they fit in relation to other black, like-minded women) and the society at large (how their physical characteristics relate to the standards of beauty, and possibilities to offset them). A critical understanding of their reality and engagement with other stories and networks strengthens self-esteem.

Self-esteem and networks in action


Actions for self-esteem and the expansion of networks seek to provide opportunities for members of the community to interact in other contexts. They give users knowledge, connections and access to the material resources of institutions, communities and agents that they would otherwise not have access to on their own.


Actions that expand networks can be pursued by grassroots organisations individually or in partnership with other institutions.

What for?

Actions that develop self-esteem and expand networks are at the heart of social development initiatives because they combine a focus on the individual with an emphasis on the relationships, links and networks of a community.


Action points:

  • Forging partnerships through sponsorships. Grassroots organisations can seek partners and sponsors who are interested in bringing their services or products into the community. Partnering with the private sector and government brings financial support, sustainability and infrastructure to communities. This enables the exchange of knowledge and expertise and gives to community members benefits such as meeting new people, job prospects and opportunities to participate in sponsored schemes.
  • Forging partnerships through exchanges with other communities. Grassroots organisations can expand networks through agreements with other community-based organisations, NGOs, social movements, civil society organisations, academics and multilateral organisations. These can multiply reach and networking power while generating internships, volunteer schemes and coalitions.