What we have learnt about delivering parenting programmes in the time of Covid-19
The Parenting Programmes’ Alliance represents a diverse group of organisations from across the UK delivering parenting programmes and support to over 20,000 people in total. Like other organisations, the impact of Covid-19 on our day to day work has been immense. With much of our work delivered in person, in groups and/or one-to-one, and sometimes through home visiting, all of that support had to stop overnight and be reconfigured to deliver virtually, whether through online webinars, videos, chats or just an old fashioned phone call with a family, many of whom were already vulnerable and dealing with complex issues. The sector has worried about how the families we support will cope with the extra stresses and pressures that the pandemic brought with it, not to mention the longer-term impact it may have had on relationships, child development or employment. Many of us support families who are already struggling in one way or another, whether that’s due to poverty, relationship breakdown, behavioural issues or mental health.
We wanted to share our insights from this time through our new blog, to capture some of the emerging learning and welcome insights from other organisations.
Through our discussions with each other, various themes have emerged about the challenges we faced, as well as some of the unexpected consequences of changing how we deliver support to families.
Transferring offline to online
Firstly, we had to work out how to transfer offline workshops and support into virtual, digital or online service delivery. This has included making courses and modules shorter, adapting materials so that you can show something online. There were also questions of how and whether staff or volunteers could be supported to deliver from their own homes. We have to consider their own situation, do they have enough space and the privacy to do this? Are there too many people using the internet in their house so that the connection is slow? There have been lots of things to consider, as well as the emotional pressures of working in this way which we will look at later.
For some of us, this has also meant looking at new online platforms to use so that we can deliver our services, understanding how they work in terms of privacy and security, and upskilling our workforce. It has also meant looking at our business case and funding – asking if we can afford to invest in this area without raising funds for it, and asking can we afford not to?
We have had to think about the consequences of moving services online and what that means for the future. While responding to the current needs and changes in society, how do we also protect our face to face work (which we believe to be better in most cases) so that we can safeguard that work rather than commissioning moving to prefer online delivery in the future?
Mostly, however, we have found that running programmes online is better than not running them. Families have been hugely appreciative of the support and the opportunity to connect with others.
Staff and volunteers need to consider their own privacy when setting up and delivering groups and privacy is also a significant problem for many families. Finding a quiet, undisturbed space in a family home is often challenging and for many, it is impossible for others not to hear at least some of what is being said. This can limit or even make impossible real engagement with a group or one to one support. For group work, maintaining the confidentiality and other group rules can be difficult, affecting not just the participant who experiences privacy issues in their home, but making it difficult to protect others in the group who are disclosing information, or give them the confidence that they can speak openly.
Possibly most importantly, we’ve had to identify how the safeguarding of vulnerable children and adults at risk could be ensured as organisations and programmes transfer to telephone, online or other forms of remote delivery. Concerns relate to whether professionals supporting vulnerable families would be able to pick up signs and signals of risk as they would when in the same room and find ways to ensure service users have a safe and private space to engage, of particular importance for those affected by domestic abuse. Organisations are sharing their new tools, guidance and training provided to their staff and volunteers to support them to adapt their practice, pick up safeguarding flags and follow existing or adapted processes to follow up any concerns.
Lack of or outdated technology, and limited access to the data required, have also been identified as one of the potential barriers to virtual delivery. As mentioned, you need a good internet connection and a decent laptop (and IT skills) to deliver an online webinar or workshop. Staff need good equipment to be able to spend most of their time supporting people online.
We have also supported people who aren’t used to accessing online resources, such as an online course. They may struggle to navigate the sign-up process and logging in, retaining passwords and sometimes require a lot of extra support from our staff.
We also have to consider data protection and information security issues when deciding which platforms are appropriate for the virtual delivery of one-to-one support and/or group work. Organisations are learning from each other’s assessment of the risks, and the actions are taken to mitigate them.
The families who wish to engage in support and services also need access to appropriate technology and connectivity and this has sometimes been a barrier. Some families struggle with lack of data or poor internet access and shortage of laptops or phones when the whole family is suddenly reliant on being online to live their daily lives. We are also aware that in some circumstances, there are families who just don’t have access to the technology to be able to receive support, and for families where English is not their first language or there are literacy issues, accessing online services is even harder.
One positive consequence of moving workshops and programmes online has been that people from more rural areas have been able to access programmes and services that would otherwise have been too far away. It has also brought people together from different areas of the country and this in itself can be an enlightening and positive experience. For some organisations, this is true also for the staff and volunteers who have been able to meet colleagues virtually who they would not usually have been able to meet in person. Physical barriers have been broken down and it no longer matters where in the country you are based. For some organisations, this has also meant an increase in the number of people attending our programmes or courses.
Our members have highlighted examples where engagement has increased during the lockdown, for example, fewer cancellations and a greater readiness of service users, and some men, in particular, to engage in deeper, more therapeutic support when not sitting face-to-face.
However, we’re very aware of the potential adverse impact of Covid-19 in exacerbating inequalities in general across the whole population and specifically in relation to access to parenting programmes and other sources of services and support. The group will continue to work together to share their approaches to addressing these issues, including those excluded from new ways of working due to lack of access to technology, barriers around language, disability and other factors that increase inequalities.
Supporting our staff – working patterns and wellbeing
While we all strive to keep supporting the parents and families we work with, we have also all been aware of the increased pressure on our staff and volunteers as they adjust to often huge changes in the way they are doing their work. Working from home has its own stresses if you have a busy household, not enough space for a desk, or constant interruptions. But all that can be exacerbated if you are trying to support a family which is really struggling, perhaps affected by illness or death due to Covid-19, issues around domestic abuse or a family finding it hard to make ends meet due to unemployment or furloughing. If you’re sitting in your own kitchen or bedroom trying to support a family, it’s so much harder to make the separation between work and home.
We are worried about the physical impact of more screen time, and the risks of burnout as people find it harder to make that separation between work and home life, to leave work outside the home and to switch off at the end of the day.
Some staff have realised how much they needed the time spent travelling between appointments or to and from groups to provide some space to mentally prepare or to process what’s happened. It’s been important to try to create that same space before and after sessions.
Organisations are working to develop specific guidance to ensure that the health and safety of staff and volunteers are protected as they move to virtual service delivery. This includes working practices, such as the boundaries around working hours and frequency of contact, and more practical considerations, such as work-station assessment, and the group will work together to develop and share good practice as it develops.
Positives: learning for future delivery
Although restrictions are still in place, we hope to be able to return to delivering at least some of our workshops and programmes in person once more, albeit with the relevant precautions and restrictions in place. We are keen to learn what we can from the experience of delivering digitally and build on the positive consequences we’ve identified. For example, retaining increased levels of engagement of those less likely or able to access face-to-face support and services.
We are most concerned about the longer-term impact of Covid-19 on children and families, the spike in demand for all services after lockdowns and, specifically, for the future of family support. Yes, we need to get through the immediate crisis, but we need to ensure the support is still there for families – for those whose needs and vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and those for whom Covid-19 has brought new and significant challenges. More support and services will be needed as more families face the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 and the lockdown on family relationships, children’s mental wellbeing, education and behaviour as well as the practical issues for families around income, employment, housing and debt. Continuing to provide some support online will be helpful for some families but it could never replace the face to face and group support that can provide so much more and often leads to profound change.