As we entered lockdown in March in the UK, there was significant anxiety initially that families would find it impossible to access the help they needed across many service areas, quickly followed by the development of an online offer, which has continued to evolve and improve over the ensuing months. It is clear that things will remain “different” for a long time, as we get used to living in this new world; but there is already a lot we have learned, and as always we can benefit from sharing and learning together.
In the first of what I hope will be a series of posts exploring taking services online, I bring you an interview / discussion with a team of practitioners in Bedford, using the Who’s In Charge? programme to support families experiencing violence and abuse from their children.
What is the programme that you deliver? Can you give a little detail for those unfamiliar with it
The Who’s in Charge? (WIC) parenting programme is designed specifically to support parents where their child/ren are displaying violent behaviours towards them or their siblings, this can be physically, emotionally or psychologically. It is an evidenced based parenting programme developed by Eddie Gallagher and has been designed as a part-therapeutic, part-skills based programme. The programme is designed to challenge deterministic thinking; with the underpinning belief that “parents are part of the solution and not part of the problem”. Four Who’s in Charge? trained facilitators (Rebecca Hall, Heather Noble, Sonia Rai and Julia Weatherill) deliver the programme as part of parenting support offered by the Early Help team at Bedford Borough Council.
How does it normally work? What level of communication is there normally between sessions, do you check in, is there always some online / phone contact?
The Early Help Parenting team receives referrals from a variety of professionals to work with families in need of support from the WIC programme. Referrals are made to the Early Help Allocation Panel through an Early Help Assessment, as an outcome of a Team Around the Family meeting or a social care joint working request or step down request. Following this, Rebecca contacts all families via telephone and/or email to outline the programme in greater detail and to talk through what is happening for them within their family at present. Once a family accepts a place on the course, an information pack is sent out with all of the handouts for each week of the programme. Accompanying this is a letter outlining the information of the group facilitators, session details and so on. We will make contact with a parent in-between sessions if a parent would like to talk something over in more detail or if a parent has seemed to be particularly upset during one of the sessions.
With lockdown, one of the first things that happened was a sense that it would be difficult for people in trouble to access help. How did you / your organisation get things moving after lockdown?
As a Borough we have been very proactive in creating a robust parenting offer to parents across Bedford. We identified that we were able to deliver WIC online: all families who were referred to the programme were contacted and offered the option of completing the programme virtually via Zoom.
We have offered a virtual run through for parents who have been nervous about accessing the programme virtually.
“As we implemented this quite early on in lockdown it has been successful. I feel that the parents we have had in the zoom discussion have been more open and comfortable via zoom than they would be in person and probably because they are in the comfort of their own homes” said Sonia.
A number of options were also offered to those parents who did not feel comfortable completing the programme on line, these have included:
- being able to complete a face to face group when it is safe to do so
- accessing our parent led Triple P online programme (3-12yr olds and 13-18yr olds)
- accessing one-off Triple P webinars on a variety of different topics including managing challenging behaviours; managing fighting and aggression, reducing family conflict and coping with teenagers’ emotions
- sign-posting and linking in with voluntary organisations who have delivered webinars for SEN children with violent and challenging behaviours
What are you currently offering? How is it different? How is it the same?
We are still offering the same number of sessions and have tried to accommodate families with small children by adapting start and finish times, which has worked well. Normally we would stick with the same times if sessions are face-to-face.
Many parents commented that “they preferred sessions online because they are at home, don’t need to find childcare and can be available for their children who are just in the next room” adds Julia.
What would you say you have learned from the experience?
“I have learnt that we are all very adaptable; as a practitioner I have really enjoyed doing the virtual WIC programme, I was initially worried about levels of engagement and technical difficulties, however in reality our groups have been fantastic and all participants have shared more openly”, says Rebecca.
“I have learnt that there are always other options when restrictions such as lockdown apply to help the families at the most vulnerable times in their lives. Parents are living with their children 24/7 so are more likely to put strategies into place sooner as they are more available. It has been discussed that maybe once or twice a year we could hold an in-person coffee morning where parents could meet each other and create a support network” adds Sonia
I have learnt that we are all very adaptable
“I have learnt that WIC online is not much different to our face-to-face programme: parents still engage really well, they do not talk over each other, (they are patiently waiting for their turn to speak, parents are apologising to each other if they accidently interrupt someone), they are still supporting each other, sharing ideas and reassuring each other. To be honest, by the third week I almost forget that all of these parents are not in the room with me, it feels natural as it would normally be if we are all together in one room” says Julia
“Having had a lifelong dislike of online technology I have learned that with a bit of practice it’s not that bad after all! I actually enjoy delivering the program virtually, it seems more relaxed which makes it easier for parents to engage with the material,” says Heather
What things will you change for good as you continue to offer support in future?
“I would like to continue to offer the programme virtually as well as in person, this provides greater access and opportunity to reach as many families as we possibly can. We work with a number of families who might have childcare difficulties, find it hard to travel or who are extremely anxious about leaving their homes or having to physically walk into a group. Virtual programmes are a way of bridging the gap for these families” explains Rebecca
“I would like to think that we could offer WIC sessions in person when we are allowed to and WIC sessions online for parents who have no childcare and have to stay at home. This way everyone gets an equal opportunity to access the support” says Sonia
This provides greater access and opportunity to reach as many families as we possibly can.
What do you worry about most?
We definitely must continue face-to face parenting programmes, not move every service online
“I worry that people will become more anxious and not want to leave the house as they are now accessing services online” says Sonia
“Face-to-face parenting programmes have various purposes, one of them meeting with people who are going through similar difficulties. They are also valuable for people who feel lonely and isolated and need to have support network. We also need to remember those parents who have social anxiety and it is beneficial for them to make small steps to overcome it by attending small groups. With that in mind, we definitely must continue face-to face parenting programmes and not move every service online” adds Julia
What has surprised you?
“The commitment of parents has surprised me and how well people have engaged in this programme. We have made ourselves more available and this could be why parents are so engaging” says Sonia
“The support the parents still give each other online really surprised me, I thought it would be stiff and business like but it might actually be just as powerful as parents feel safer as they are in their own homes, comfortable and not worrying about their children. I was also surprised how easy it was to co-facilitate but perhaps that is because we are all very supportive of each other and as we all trained at the same time, found a natural way of working together” adds Heather.
What advice would you offer to other people thinking about offering help online?
“Go for it! Do not suffer in silence, we are all in this together and it’s important that we work with parents to shape what you’re doing to meet their needs. It is a learning curve but barriers can be overcome and it will work well” says Sonia
If parents who live with an abusive child can do it … then I can put up with being a little bit uncomfortable in front of the camera!
“I think the lockdown created opportunities for all of us to think outside the box and helped me personally come out of my comfort zone to try things I would normally be uncomfortable with (like presenting WIC programme online and see other people watching me, also watching myself talk would normally make me blush and feel VERY uncomfortable), but it was amazing how quickly I got used to it. What helped me continue with the group is the sense of being helpful to parents who are struggling with their children and who wanted to try anything to make it better for their families and if parents who live with an abusive child can do it (come to the group online and share their difficulties with people they had just met), then I can put up with being a little bit uncomfortable in front of the camera. I also have a sense of achievement, I can’t believe I can use Zoom, something I did not even know existed back in February!!!!” shares Julia
“Have a practice, get to know how the video conferencing Platform operates, YouTube has tutorials. The more comfortable YOU are, the more comfortable the parents will be. I would suggest sending the online invites out 24-48 hours before the group. Any closer to the group and some parent might have become anxious they have not got it but any longer than 48 hours they might lose the email or forget about the group” says Heather
Is there anything you would like to tell funders or commissioners?
Who is in Charge? is a very helpful and vital programme that needs to be advertised everywhere so parents can access this and know there is light at the end of the tunnel and they are not alone in parenting. If you would like further information on how to access the Who’s in Charge in Bedford Borough, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is so encouraging to hear about how services have adapted, keeping in mind the needs of families – and about how we are all able to learn from the current situation about ourselves and our own skills if we are open to do so!
If you are thinking of taking a service online, but not sure how to go about it, I hope this might have been helpful. For more information about the safeguarding aspects of working online, do check out the guidance from Digisafe. For more information about the Who’s in Charge? programme generally, check out the website run by the team in the UK.