A report commissioned by Oxfordshire Community Foundation (OCF) makes recommendations for how best to support parents of young families that are struggling in lockdown.
The study was conducted by Professor Jane Barlow and Dr Roosa Lambin at the University of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, who interviewed families and early years practitioners taking part in OCF’s Growing Minds project. This partnership project addresses the fact that disadvantaged children in Oxfordshire are five-and-a-half months behind their peers on starting school, increasing to nearly two years by age 16. The project helps children be more school ready by offering free books, one-to-one support and group learning sessions to families with children under five in Berinsfield and Littlemore.
Research looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the general wellbeing of the children and families, and on the delivery of the Growing Minds project, which had to adapt quickly to phone- and internet-based support in the face of lockdown restrictions.
The report paints a picture of children regressing developmentally, going back into nappies and becoming more clingy with their parents, but also highlights the disparities between families depending on their economic resources. Families with multiple children of different ages, more stringent work settings and a tendency to rely heavily on family networks and community level activities represented a new ‘risk group’ that emerged during the pandemic, while families with pre-existing multiple needs experienced the most significant problems in terms of the withdrawal of many professional services and access to child-parent groups and other support networks.
There are lessons for organisations working with young families. Moving group activities online presents a huge challenge to both practitioners and beneficiaries, with many of the most vulnerable families unable to benefit from the remote provision of services due to their children being too young to participate virtually; anxiety due to mental health problems; lack of expertise about use of Zoom for meetings; and lack of access to technology.
Practitioners also reported difficulties both in terms of relating to families in need using remote methods, and also in feeling confident that they were able to get a true picture of what was happening for a family. Other limitations of remote delivery included reduced opportunities for peer support; the inability to provide practical assistance in the home; difficulties in modelling good practice virtually; and more restricted opportunities for professionals to build relationships and identify the needs of families.
The study concluded that when complemented with more personalised provisions, such as phone and doorstep support for parents, the impact of projects like Growing Minds can still be transformative, even in a lockdown situation. For children, making as much use of outdoor space as possible is recommended, for example by running practitioner-led sessions in parks when allowed. Where virtual sessions are continued, practitioners need extra training in leading them; they need to happen in smaller groups; and digital poverty must be addressed.
OCF’s Growing Minds delivery partners are now taking the recommendations forward in the design of the project over the coming months.
The full report can be downloaded here.