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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

They Deserve A Medal: Working With Children And Families During A Pandemic

by Alison Prowle 5th May 2020

Exploring the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on children and families, and the practitioners who work with them.


Whilst the rest of the country is in lockdown, an army of keyworkers are out on the frontline, treating patients, caring for the elderly, keeping the nation fed, disposing of waste and keeping the streets safe. In many of these occupations, the pay is low and so is the perceived status. However, Covid 19 has caused the nation to recognise and reassess the importance of these roles. There have even been calls for medals to recognise these individuals who have worked tirelessly, often putting themselves in positions of risk.

Amongst these heroes of the hour are practitioners in the children and family sector; early years practitioners, teachers, social workers, learning support assistants and family support workers and many others. Whilst some staff may be furloughed, numerous others continue to work, playing a vital role during the pandemic.

Many schools have remained open to support the children of keyworkers whilst also enabling vulnerable children to maintain some kind of routine in a place of safety. Other schools have been busily adapting their curriculum to support learning at home. There are reports of school staff delivering lunches to vulnerable families, offering skype tutorials to distraught students, organising challenges and going above and beyond to meet the needs of families.

Meanwhile, family support workers are keeping in touch with families through telephone and internet (where available) and helping families to address the challenges they face. There is a widespread recognition that whilst Covid 19 is indiscriminate in who it affects directly, it is the most vulnerable who often end up paying the greatest price. As a family support worker explains, “Many of the families I work with are already in extremely difficult circumstances, unemployed or on zero hours contracts, in vulnerable housing and struggling to make ends meet. The anxiety of Covid 19 is impacting on their already fragile mental health.” This story is all too familiar with concerns about rising levels of domestic abuse, increased food bank use and worsening mental health crisis long before the pandemic surfaced.

During lockdown, family support services continue to ensure that children are safe and their needs are met.

Image credit: 'child behind clear glass' by Taylor Wilcox. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash License.

Yet despite this, family support services continue to work tirelessly to support families, providing emotional and practical help and advice. A key aspect of this work is to help build confidence through focusing on family strengths and helping the family to find their own solutions to difficulties. At the same time, it is about ensuring that children are safe and that their physical and emotional needs are being met. It is intensive work, requiring practitioners to be resilient, reflective, empowering and empathetic. It is emotionally demanding work, requiring the practitioner to actively listen, tune in to children and parents, build trust and deliver on commitments. It is intellectually challenging work, requiring the practitioner to have a sound understanding of child development and of family functioning, an awareness of evidence based interventions and a knowledge of how best to support and empower individuals and families.

Meanwhile, teachers and nursery workers are supporting the needs of children who may be disturbed by images they have seen on television, or worried for the safety of their parents and grandparents. They are providing routines and opportunities and even fun- a bit of normality in a situation that is anything but normal!

There is a very real sense that services working with children and families will, as we move beyond the crisis, be more important than ever. They will need perhaps, to work differently, practising social distancing measures and reflexively adapting to the new demands of their roles. There is no doubt that our sector will rise to the challenge, but we need to give them the tools to do so. Many who work in the children and family workforce, are quick to point out the enormous satisfaction that comes with their jobs, but this does not and should not compensate for low wages, unsustainable workloads and, for many, short term contracts. It is also important to mention that decades of austerity policies, and service pressures have taken a toll on these services and it is hard to see how they will be able to meet future challenges without significant investment. By all means, let’s give staff a medal, they certainly deserve one, but let’s also look at addressing the more structural issues that beset our sectors.
Featured image: Photo by Markus Spiske. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash License.