• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 04th February, 2011

When good intentions are not enough

Good intentions themselves are no guarantee of good outcomes. To achieve positive change we must be critical and examine the evidence of what works. Moreover, it is imperative that when something does not work we find out why it didn’t to ensure mistakes are not repeated. The only real mistakes are ones that we don’t learn from, which is why it is crucial to look at the study by Denise Gottfredson and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, which found how after-school projects aimed to reduce criminal behaviour, in fact, had negative results.The team analysed previous studies on the effects of after-school programmes for middle school students and compared programme characteristics and programme effects of 35 different after school programmes. They found that the studies provided mixed results on the effects of the programmes. While there were positive effects by some of the programmes, some of them were, in fact, making it more likely for the young people to misbehave.One of the schemes that was found to have negative effects was USA’s largest after-school programme, the 21st Century Community Learning Centre, that provides mainly recreational activities and homework assistance to about 60 young people a day in each centre. A rigorous randomized controlled trial, done by Dynarski and colleagues for the US Department of Education, found that pupils who attended the after-school activities in the centre were more likely to report conduct problems such as drug use and drug dealing and also be unable to resolve conflicts positively. Furthermore, 22 other after-school programmes available in the US also produced negative effects.When Gottfredson’s team looked at the different programmes’ characteristics, they found that whereas large, unstructured programmes had negative effects, the smaller, more structured programmes had positive ones.Gottfredson suggests that the ineffectiveness of the larger, unstructured programmes is due to “deviancy training”. By this the team means that many after-school programmes provide a great deal of unstructured activity to large groups of young people, which gives them an opportunity to socialize with their friends. If the young person attending the programme is already showing negative behavior and, indeed, may already have had scrapes with the law, then mixing with others with the same problems will reinforce this behavior and the unstructured time will allow for “deviancy training”. Rather than being steered away from a delinquent path, the young person will be encouraged to pursue it. To look into whether deviancy training could explain the negative effects of some after-school programmes, Gottfredson’s team did a further study looking at what happens within after-school schemes. Direct observations of behaviors during a programme, which was run in five urban US middle schools for 224 young people, found that the young people encouraged each other’s undesirable behaviors more during the more unstructured activities, while the group leaders responses to misbehavior were mainly neutral rather than corrective Thus, while deviancy training did occur, adult supervision did not counteract what was happening.What we can learn from this study is that good intentions behind providing after-school programmes are not enough. Before investing in them simply to keep the young people off the streets, we need to understand why some of these schemes do not work and, in fact, may make things worse. The next steps are making sure that people providing such programmes are aware of the damaging effects of deviancy training and are trained to discourage the reinforcement of negative behaviour.Gottfredson concludes: “All too often, evidence of harmful effects in preventive interventions is downplayed.” While finding out what works is important, it is invaluable to look into the processes behind what does not work and learn from the mistakes. Without this, prevention work can too often be a futile or damaging exercise.References:Gottfredson, D.C. (2010). Deviancy Training: Understanding how preventive interventions harm. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 6, 229-243. Dynarski, M. James-Burdumy, S. Moore, M. Rosenberg, L. Deke, J. & Mansfield, W. (2004). The national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers: New findings. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Washington: U.S Government Printing Office.

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