Vulnerable children let down by digital tools during coronavirus lockdown, thinktank warns

The Early Intervention Foundation says more digital intervention tools should include one-to-one support

Virtual and digital intervention tools are not offering vulnerable children the levels of support they need during the coronavirus lockdown, a leading thinktank has warned.

The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) investigated 116 virtual and digital (V&D) intervention tools being used by the education sector and social services and concluded they are less effective or no more effective than traditional approaches.

The report also said many of the normal challenges facing children’s services, such as access and participation, are likely to be exacerbated when delivered remotely. Vulnerable children are most likely to require support and suffer challenges to their development and education, and so were most at risk of missing out during the lockdown.

Examples of remotely delivered interventions include one-to-one and group-based therapy, support provided by phone, messaging or videoconferencing and self-guided interventions such as online quizzes, apps and games.

The report recommends that developers focus adapted V&D interventions on the core components of successful face-to-face methods, maximise frequent contact with trained practitioners, develop strong engagement strategies and work with experts to improve the evidence base for works.

Tom McBride, director of evidence at the EIF, said: “COVID-19 is likely to increase both the number of vulnerable children and the severity of the challenges they are facing. It’s important that these children and young people continue to receive effective support and it’s encouraging to see that the sector is rapidly adapting to deliver services remotely.

“However, achieving this rapid adaptation to remote and digital delivery isn’t going to be straightforward. It’s important not to assume that face-to-face support can simply be moved online and produce the same level of benefits as before.

“It’s also important that those involved in adapting services can access what is currently known about different virtual delivery methods and the evidence about what has and hasn’t been shown to be effective.

“What we don’t want to see is the most disadvantaged being left further behind by virtual or digital services that aren’t as widely available or effective as possible.”

Providers are making a massive effort to keep vital support coming to those who need it most. The study highlights some of the challenges that exist in trying to make this transformation happen quickly, and some of the pitfalls to be avoided
– Jack Martin, Early Intervention Foundation

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The research suggested that as tools are rapidly adapted, the “core components” of effective intervention risk being lost.

Many effective traditional interventions rely on a strong relationships and regular contact between a practitioner and participant, but EIF’s research found just 3% of remotely delivered programmes were provided on a one-to-one basis. Instead, users were expected in most cases to use self-guided or unguided content, such as quizzes, games, videos and apps.

The thinktank also warned that less than a quarter of V&D interventions identified by the report are backed by “robust evidence of having been effective”. While authors noted that a lack of evidence does not mean these programmes won’t or can’t deliver benefits for children, they said evidence “provides a significant note of caution” on the effectiveness of existing remote tools.

Teaching tools were the most common apparatus studied by the report, which flagged there may not be enough tools designed to support children with their mental health and wellbeing or antisocial behaviour. Replacing all the support services within a school for vulnerable children during the lockdown might prove trickier with the existing software.

Jack Martin, lead author of the report and senior research officer at the EIF, said: “We conducted this research to support the sector during this period of unprecedented change, and to help ensure that vulnerable children and young people – and their families – continue to receive services that are grounded in the evidence.

“Providers are making a massive effort to keep vital support coming to those who need it most. The study highlights some of the challenges that exist in trying to make this transformation happen quickly, and some of the pitfalls to be avoided. We hope the recommendations in the report provide useful and actionable insights for those who are making important decisions about new and adapted services right across the country.”


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