A teenager at home on their laptop

Adapting to digital engagement; our approach, what we’ve learnt and top tips when thinking about technology

By Ellie Fairgrieve

Engaging digitally with our children and young people is something The Children’s Society have wanted to explore for some time. The current crisis has accelerated this work. We have endeavoured to act as quickly and safely as possible to develop an approach to digital engagement with young people. We have had to ensure that the measures we take are safe for those we support, and for our staff, but importantly enable us to keep connected to those young people who are in need. Because this piece of work has been accelerated we were not able to initially include young people’s and families views to inform our software choices, but it is important to note in other circumstances this would form a key part of our developments and user research.

This blog shares some of that rapid journey we have taken at The Children’s Society, including key decision making points, our learning and useful tips — all of which has been underpinned by a due diligence process that we adopted within the organisation. This was in order for us to select the right software for us to use with the wide range of people that we work with: from 10-year-old children upwards, (previously working with them face to face to provide direct interventions), to professionals we collaborate with in a multi-agency context.

Before getting into the detail of what we did, I thought it useful to share some of what we have learnt. With the first thing being, that this piece of work is really important, and not just in light of Covid-19 but for the long term. We know that the decisions we have made over the past weeks will become part of our delivery beyond the crisis. We also know that the learning and behaviours we show now at work will also stand us in good stead for the future, so are capturing organisational learning through a dedicated project working alongside our adaptations to practice. Please see this blog by Adam Groves from The Children’s Society, which introduces this work.

Key learning

Due diligence has been central to our approach to ensure that the platforms we have chosen to use are as safe as possible for our young people and families, and our staff. In typical day-to-day delivery, we would take appropriate risk assessments and safeguarding measures to ensure we practice safely, so why should this change for our digital engagement? It did not — so safeguarding, information governance, risk management formed core parts of our due diligence process (see this blog by The Catalyst for further reading about risk assessments for different software).

Skills have been shared and collectively problems solved. This has been a great way for staff to collaborate and share their skills (irrelevant of current role/service) across the organisation. Individuals from disparate teams have joined to rapidly accelerate our move online.

As we support our young people and families, we are conscious of ensuring that we support staff to work digitally too. Lockdown has been difficult enough for us to navigate and ensure continuity of delivery to young people in need, with the added work and life pressures we are experiencing. We have intentionally not bombarded staff with lots of different guidance for multiple platforms — instead we’ve followed the due diligence process below to make sure that the platforms we choose, are the ones we stick with, and alongside that we’ve set up an internal digital advice line that is open to all staff and volunteers. The advice line is available for ad hoc user queries, with good initial usage, which is now steadying — perhaps indicating greater confidence within our teams to use the software available. We want consistency for our staff operationally, whilst maintaining high quality standards, and consistency for how we communicate with the young people and families we support.

Context is crucial

At The Children’s Society, we work within a particular context. We support children from the age of 10 upwards, to around 25 year olds within some services. We provide a range of different interventions to young people across a wide geography. In some cases, the support we provide extends to families. We should therefore encourage you to consider some key questions when reading this blog and considering learning to adopt within your working context:

· What age restrictions are there on the platforms currently in use? Consider that it might mean that you are inadvertently encouraging young people to access platforms that are not suitable for their age.

· What are the terms and conditions of the software being used? Have you reviewed them and taken key aspects, like information use / data protection into account (especially when considering age restrictions).

· What consent arrangements do you have in place if you are working with under 16 year olds, under 18 year olds and vulnerable adults?

· What communication messages and guidance do you have in place for staff and young people and families to help them use your preferred software?

· Have you outlined how/when children, young people and families can contact staff? And what to do in case of an emergency?

· If you use volunteers, how (if at all) are they able to deliver support?

· What mitigations can you implement to reduce the risks of using different platforms? For young people and families and staff?

What did we do?

To provide context on how we moved all service delivery safely online, a number of key decisions were made. Seeing these written out in numerical form makes it feel like this was a linear process. The reality is that it was undertaken very rapidly with colleagues coming together to make decisions and provide resource — it wasn’t linear:

1. We set the priority objective that all staff delivering services for young people and families were able to operate through remote working.

2. We made the secondary objective that all staff would have the relevant devices to digitally engage (e.g. laptop and iPhone)

3. To support the achievement of the priority objective, we sought to enable secure remote access to our own case recording system.

4. We established a phone number for all drop-in services, which is managed and able to redirect to colleagues within that service to enable young people to access support as needed.

The next big step was to approve appropriate software for use with children and young people on a one to one basis, to allow our support and interventions to continue without seeing people face to face. To progress this we undertook a multiple stage due diligence process to lead to approved software for teams to digitally engage children and young people. The key steps are summarised below:

1. The skills and knowledge of organisational subject matter experts formed a virtual team to research, review and make decisions on the software that we use to ensure safe online working with children, young people, and families. This due diligence process has included colleagues from the fields of data protection, safeguarding, quality assurance, technology, digital, service design and practice delivery.

2. Review of software against the indicators below, only taking those forward if the response to each question is ‘Yes’:

A. Will it enable the services we deliver to operate effectively?

For consideration: Do young people and families have access to the software being proposed? Is the service able to provide quality support through this means? Is the software suitable for delivering support that is service specific? E.g. 1:1 or group work? How would we record sessions on our case recording system?

B. Is it usable and desirable for staff, young people, and families?

For consideration: Do young people and families want to engage through digital platforms? Do they already use this software? What is their experience? Does everyone involved know how to use the software? Are there aspects of each software that lends itself to support offered more than others? Can we develop guidance for those using it to ensure it is usable and safe?

C. Does it keep staff, young people and families safe?

For consideration: What age restrictions are in place for the platform to be safely used? Are there methods to mitigate risks of concerns whilst using the platform? Do young people, families and staff feel safe using it? Have we got guidance on how to protect young people and families from potential risks that come up? Have we got “safe words” established? Can young people, families and staff use this software in a safe and private environment? Can we gain appropriate consent depending on the age of the user?

D. Is it compliant with data protection requirements?

For consideration: does it adhere to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Act 2018? Does it ensure high standards of encryption security for data? Does the proposed use conforms to the product’s privacy notice, terms and conditions, and acceptable use policy?

3. Further in-depth reviews are then undertaken by The Children’s Society’s Information Governance Lead to review data protection, information governance and information services to be satisfied of platform security.

4. Subject matter experts from safeguarding, quality practice, operational delivery and digital draft and publish guidance (with Senior Leadership Team sign off) for young people and families and staff. Note that different guidance is produced for different audiences.

6. Digital Advice Line is open for all staff and volunteers to call for support who are getting used to these new ways of working and software applications.

7. Cross-departmental team review feedback on a weekly basis and issues reported the Senior Leadership Team, which cannot be addressed at the operational level.

What did we choose?

The software that we have chosen to use (with appropriate consent) at The Children’s Society currently include:

• Microsoft Skype for Business

• Microsoft Teams

• Apple FaceTime

• WhatsApp (for people aged 16 and over only)

• Phone calls and text messages

Next steps

This is an ever moving picture because we want to offer the widest range of appropriate and safe software options that will suit the different types of work we deliver and each and every individual young person we support. We are also testing as we go remaining informed by young people, families and staff to gather their views about our choices of software. As with all work with young people, we know that one size does not fit all — so we are currently conducting reviews into additional software that will expand our ability to deliver therapeutic interventions. We are also exploring further options that are suitable for the engagement of under 16 year olds — noting that Microsoft Teams can be used with under 16s (with parental/carer consent). This review includes specialist healthcare platforms and other social-based platforms. We have already issued guidance to staff that Facebook Live, House Party and Zoom Free cannot be used, as we do not believe they meet the necessary safeguarding and GDPR regulations for our delivery.

The Children’s Society are a consortium partner of the Tackling Child Exploitation Programme, with the University of Bedfordshire and Research in Practice. This blog does not explicitly draw on the experience of delivering the Tackling Child Exploitation Programme but is aimed to offer food for thought for anyone working in the children’s sector seeking to adapt their provision within the Covid-19 crisis. This blog was developed from collaboratively created content within The Children’s Society, with particular input from Nerys Anthony. Please contact Ellie.Fairgrieve@childrenssociety.org.uk if you would like to hear more. #TCEProgramme

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