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Nurturing Agency for Youth in Detention through Social Control (Attachment) Theory: The Boys & Girls Club of Tabula Rasa

Social Control (or Attachment) Theory is a research-backed youth development approach to working with youth in detention which “suggests that the strength and durability of an individual’s bonds or commitments to conventional society inhibit social deviance” (Butts et al., 2010).  As one of the developers of Social Control Theory, Travis Hirschi recognizes that four elements allow individuals to develop these bonds; attachments, commitments, involvements, and beliefs. Each of these are applied in daily programming at the Boys & Girls Club of Tabula Rasa (BGCTR) in Bristol, FL. Staff and leadership at the Club use research-backed practices of Social Control Theory to bolster pro-social behavioral change and, eventually, successful youth reentry into their communities.

The first element of Social Control Theory, attachments, recognizes the “expressed concern about what others think … that would lead individuals to avoid crime and negative behavior in order to avoid disappointing a respected individual or group” (Butts et al., 2010). Having Boys & Girls Club staff within the juvenile detention facility allows trained adult youth workers to play an enriching support role for youth to form attachments in a positive social setting. Additionally, the stronger the social bond, the less likely an individual is to participate in criminal or deviant behavior. Through these attachments and relationships, youth are better equipped to understand themselves and their decisions as part of a greater web of impact. This decreases the likelihood of decisions to engage in damaging or unhealthy behavior and increases the likelihood of positive choices that strengthen their relationships.

The second of Hirschi’s four elements is commitments, which notes “programs can also advance their positive youth development goals by asking youth to select the individual activities that are right for them, which creates stronger feelings of autonomy, ownership, and commitment” (Butts et al., 2010). This element relies heavily on an opportunity for youth to commit to goals and routines that foster a stronger sense of safety and community which, in turn, serve as buffers for delinquency. BGCTR encourages youth to build commitment to themselves and their communities in many ways, such as obtaining a GED or participating in transitional job programs to earn money for restitution or everyday life expenses. Having a commitment that is transferrable to other parts of society puts youth in a position to maintain the commitment and obtain an understanding that negative choices could create a setback or even diminish what has been established.

Hirschi’s third element is involvement: “Sufficient time and energy spent on conventional activities such that less time remains for delinquent behavior” (Butts et al., 2010). Through providing engaging Club programming, BGCTR provides creative and healthy outlets for youth involvement. Executive Director Kevin Kidd states, “We have developmentally appropriate programming that uses activities to build student interest.” Programming comes in a wide variety of options, including an aquaponics and drone-flying program, as well as more standardized Boys & Girls Clubs of America curricula such as SMART Moves. Through programs that are aligned with Social Control Theory, BGCTR engages youth in long-term beneficial involvements, ultimately building their bonds with their respective communities and diminishing the prospect of delinquent behavior.

The fourth and final of Hirschi’s elements of Social Control Theory is beliefs, or “the extent to which an individual ‘has been socialized into and accepts the common belief system’, assuming there is a ‘common value system’ within the society or group’” (Butts et al., 2010). BGCTR very intentionally creates a space in which this change in belief can most easily occur. Through providing a Club space within the juvenile facility that is consistently open each day from 3-7 PM where youth consistently experience encouragement, motivation, and validation, their beliefs and values about what is most important in life can change for the better. Kidd continues, “The idea was that when youth left the program, we could refer them to their local Boys & Girls Club. They could go there with a blank slate and start back over.” At the same time, youth can continue to build on the positive experiences and opportunities that where provided to them at BGCTR. These dynamics of fostering a space where youth can change their mindset so that they begin to seek out similar positive spaces on their own are fundamental to Social Control Theory.

While Social Control Theory calls for a singular goal – that of fostering positive social bonds to lessen deviant behavior – it is characterized through the combined approach of the four core elements; attachments, commitments, involvements and beliefs. The Boys & Girls Club of Tabula Rasa’s juvenile detention program is an effective example of putting this proven theoretical approach into practice: Through mentoring/staff relationships (attachments), goal-setting/routines (commitments), Club programming options (involvement), and promoting values  (beliefs), the Club helps youth establish stable connections with themselves and society. As Kevin Kidd recalls one program participant saying, “At first, I thought the Boys & Girls Club was stupid, but then what I realized they were trying to do was to make things available to me.” This change in perspective is representative of the increased connection with the community at large highlighted by Social Control Theory. While these kinds of shifts may seem simple on the surface, they translate into decreased recidivism made possible through the Club’s adherence to the proven approach.


Butts, Jeffrey A., Gordon Bazemore, & Aundra Saa Meroe (2010). Positive Youth Justice--Framing Justice Interventions Using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development. Washington, DC: Coalition for Juvenile Justice. © 2010

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