Engagement with families is crucial to providing a safety net – and agencies must work together as a family  to support the most vulnerable, writes Jon Yates

During this pandemic, many young people have been left without the support they need. They’ve lost time at school and they’ve struggled to access support from the adults they rely on – including teachers and youth workers.

For those children who are living in some of the most difficult circumstances, those trusted relationships may well have been built through the wraparound support that schools and their external partners provide. And even though lots of schools have done an exceptional job of making sure that children can still take part in those programmes, the reality of social distancing and forming bubbles has meant that maintaining relationships with children at risk of becoming involved with crime and violence has been incredibly challenging.

It was this challenge that led us to invest £6.4 million to help different agencies to re-connect with those children. And as well as providing funding to charities, youth centres and local authorities, we also commissioned a team led by Dartington Service Design Lab to build our knowledge of the best ways to support vulnerable children during this crisis.

Family activities meant our partners could check on a young person’s wellbeing at home

Based on the experiences of more than 100 of the projects we funded, we have released our first set of findings. They offer practical advice on how to best adapt to ongoing challenges schools are facing to ensure children who are most at risk continue to get the wraparound support they need. Two of the key themes are:

  1. Use the right tools: If an activity doesn’t need to change much if it moves online, then that can be a good way to continue to engage children at risk. Online fitness and cooking activities work especially well, while discussion-only activities are a turn-off. Working with local sports clubs to provide outdoor activity that meets social distance restrictions can also be a good hook to make sure children are still getting time with mentors or other trusted adults.
  2. Be flexible: Use different methods together, personalise your responses based on what young people tell you and start small by piloting new activities.

It’s also important to stress just how vital engagement with families has been to keep in touch with children – particularly if they’re already at risk of going missing or being criminally exploited by county lines operations. Our grantees told us that they’ve increased their efforts to build relationships with parents and have been engaging with them first, which means they’ve had more support keeping young people engaged with services – including school – throughout lockdown.

One of the ways they’ve done that effectively is by offering shared activities that the whole family could take part in. Garden visits, cooking classes over online calls and other family activities meant that they could check on a young person’s wellbeing at home, as well as providing an opportunity to support improved family relationships. As one grantee told us:

By providing challenges that siblings and the wider family could take part in we got stronger engagement with the whole family. Also, by having one-to-one sessions in the garden, we were able to engage families, but it also functioned as a safeguarding check.”

For schools, partnering with organisations that are already providing family support will help to make sure that children aren’t falling through the cracks.

And right now, that’s incredibly important. We can all see that the pandemic continues to place an enormous strain on many young people, adversely affecting their mental health, limiting opportunities and amplifying structural disparities, including poverty and racial inequalities. For many, the risks of exposure to or involvement in crime and violence will increase as the economic fall-out of the pandemic sets in.

That’s why we hope this guidance will be useful for a significant time to come, to make sure those children stay engaged with school and the other services they need. We’ve seen some incredible work as projects have revised existing approaches and created new ones to continue to reach children most at risk.

Both teachers and youth workers have worked tirelessly to adapt to changing conditions. By working together in partnership, there’s real opportunity to make sure children maintain relationships with trusted adults through this crisis.