COVID 19: When adapting our work, we all learn from listening to children and young people
Jacqui Dunbar is the Project Lead at Our Hearings, Our Voice, an independent board for children and young people who have experience of the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland and want to help improve it. She works directly with 11 children and young people, 9 who are members of the board and 2 who are advisors for Our Hearings, Our Voice.
Writing this in July, it feels like a long time has passed since the lockdown first came into place in March. What we originally thought might last for a few weeks has quickly become a much longer period away from our ‘normal’ lives than we could have anticipated. For the children and young people I work with, the impact has been profound, affecting many aspects of their day-to-day lives and, potentially, their futures. With ‘the new normal’ has come not only lockdown restrictions, but also new fears, concerns and uncertainties. By listening to the views and experiences of the children and young people on the board, we have adapted our work quickly and in a way which keeps their needs at its heart.
Adapting to the new reality
Before the lockdown the children and young people involved in Our Hearings, Our Voice, who live across Scotland, come together to meet on a bi-monthly basis. Although this could no longer happen in this way, stopping our work wasn’t an option, so very early on we were faced with the challenge of how to maintain participation in a way that was meaningful and engaging, whilst ensuring safety and accessibility. A fundamental part of my role is also to offer pastoral care and support for the children and young people involved with Our Hearings, Our Voice, because the nature of our work has the potential to bring up sensitive issues that might be traumatic or upsetting. This need for this care has only be heightened by the many life changes experienced during this uncertain period. With this in mind, we had to quickly adapt not only our means of communication, but also our care and support.
Finding new ways to connect and communicate
Once the lockdown was in place, we made the offer to move from monthly to weekly contact. This served as an opportunity for a consistent way for a trusted adult to check in and all the children and young people agreed this would be beneficial. However, in addition to digital communication, some of the children and young people told us that they’d like to receive letters and parcels in the post. What began as a couple of trips to the post office has now become a regular part of my lockdown! We’ve sent cards, postcards, chocolates, face masks and creative packs. For some of them, in the past receiving items in the post, such as personal or potentially traumatic information about a Children’s Hearing, has at times been a negative experience. To receive items that are focused on these relationships has been a new, positive form of communication for us, and reminds us that even when we may feel alone, there are still opportunities for connection.
Time goes on: the highs and lows
In the early stages of lockdown some of the children and young people initially reported feeling fearful for their health and well being. However, once school shifted to online learning and the impact of the lockdown began to affect their day-to-day lives more, we began to notice differences in how they adjusted. Some said they struggled with online schooling and adapting to a new routine. Those who didn’t have immediate access to WiFi or the appropriate devices found the transition even more challenging. In contrast, others told us that, in the early stages, the transition to digital and the greater flexibility that came along with that was enjoyable, and they started to flourish by not being tied to a traditional school day. However, as time went on and the reality hit home, all of the children and young people voiced concerns about the uncertainties they were facing, including exam results, future jobs and placements.
Around this time, the children and young people also started talking more explicitly about their mental health. Many struggled to keep a routine, with some young people telling us that the lockdown had a bad effect on their sleep patterns, as they would regularly go to bed much later and stay in bed late into the day. With mental health issues and wellbeing becoming a much more common theme during our weekly check in, we began to adapt our support. We shared information about how to manage stress and access wider support services during our weekly check ins and even set up a WhatsApp group for those that wanted to participate in ‘PE with Joe Wicks’ to encourage physical activity. In partnership with the Resilience Learning Partnership, we drew upon the positive feedback we’d had about receiving items in the post and, in addition to letters and postcards, we sent wellbeing packs containing art materials, crafts, toiletries, and other resources to help with wellbeing in isolation.
For the children and young people who don’t currently live with their families, not being able to see loved ones also had a significant toll on their mental health, but many said they felt that this wasn’t urgent or serious enough to contact social workers. As a result, we aimed to find a way to meet the needs of the young people, and there were times when we helped with provisions including mobile data to enable communication between brothers, sisters and families. We also sent storybooks about COVID-19 to the young people to help support their little brothers and sisters.
Creating our digital ‘home’
Before lockdown we had fortuitously spent nine months developing specific systems within an already established platform to make it as secure and safe as possible. This was now catapulted to the forefront of our minds as something which could be critical for young people to stay connected whilst at home, particularly for those who cannot use social media because of safety concerns.
Once the platform went live in May, it was clear that what was originally planned to act as a more streamlined approach to communication had the potential to evolve into our own digital home. We asked the children and young people for their ideas about how it could be used beyond its original purpose and have since hosted quizzes, livestreams, polls, and held creative challenges and workshops. In June we held our first fully digital Board Meeting, which the young people really enjoyed – even with a few technical glitches! And most recently we have used it to hold consultations about returning to face to face hearings, and to hold weekly workshops to develop a new zine in collaboration with Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Computing.
Many of the children and young people have told us that in addition to being fun and engaging, the platform has helped to maintain relationships and a sense of belonging at a time when these when these are needed the most. Unlike other areas of life where children and young people’s digital spaces have become somewhat invaded by adults and professionals, participating in our online platform is entirely voluntary –they can choose how much or how little they want to engage at any time.
Here to stay?
So, will we continue using some of these new practices post-COVID-19? Yes! Although we will meet face-to-face when we can, we’re already planning to use our online platform to conduct future board meetings. I’m also confident that my trips to the local post office will continue for some time yet!
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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