Lockdowns threaten child development – can parenting programmes help?

Alexander Dummer, unsplash.com
Alexander Dummer, unsplash.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has been making life difficult for parents around the world. In these exceptional circumstances, many have struggled to give children the care and education they need.

Stuck at home, families from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds have been particularly affected, says Jamie Lachman, an Oxford University researcher who co-founded the Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) initiative, a collaboration between WHO, Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the universities of Oxford, Bangor and Reading in the United Kingdom, and UNICEF.

Factors such as increased financial stress and cramped living conditions have made it even harder to create a positive home learning environment, he says. “[Parents] are spending more time with their children, and the question is: what’s the quality of that time?”

“[Parents] are spending more time with their children, and the question is: what’s the quality of that time?”

Lachman has spent recent years co-developing and testing interventions designed to improve child development at home, for example by increasing parent-child engagement and discouraging harsh discipline. These interventions are traditionally delivered in an in-person group setting, however, which was not feasible for most of 2020.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lachman and his PLH colleagues have been adapting these interventions for remote use, making evidence-based, open-source resources available online. Since March 2020, these digital resources have reached more than 135 million people globally.

So how do the interventions work, and will they be effective when implemented remotely?

Attention is key

Developed and tested in South Africa and elsewhere, the PLH initiative has achieved a range of positive impacts on child development and early learning.

In PLH for Toddlers, for example, trained facilitators guide groups of parents in reading with under-fives. Often referred to as “dialogic reading”, adults employ interactive behaviours such as labelling objects and commenting on pictures.

A study that looked at the implementation of the programme in a deprived South African community found significant improvements in language and cognitive development, with children understanding far more words and showing more sustained attention than those in a control group.

“We know that attention is key in learning in school,” says Mark Tomlinson, who co-developed the intervention at Stellenbosch University. “We’re not actually trying to change parenting, we’re trying to facilitate a particular way of engaging using a book.”

Other PLH interventions address such factors as parental stress and domestic violence – which are known to have a negative impact on child development.

The initiative’s new open-access COVID-19 resources include parenting tips and advice on such challenges as helping children learn through play and how to control stress. Now translated into more than 100 languages, they are being distributed across various platforms – from loudspeakers in Laos to grocery stores in Romania.

“The tips were all derived directly from these programmes that had been rigorously tested in multiple randomised-control trials in different low- and middle-income countries,” says Lachman.

Aware that information alone may not change behaviour, PLH is piloting more interactive digital interventions targeted to parents of children of different ages and stages of development, according to Lachman. Targeted, interactive video and audio messages are being piloted in several countries around the world, utilising platforms such as WhatsApp.

Moving the dial on parenting

Lachman acknowledges that evidence on the impact of these messages during the COVID-19 pandemic is currently lacking. The initiative has chosen to prioritise quick distribution and will be gathering evidence on effectiveness over the coming year.

“Whether or not [the digital interventions] can have a substantial effect on child learning and outcomes is an empirical question, and that is where we are at a critical stage now,” he points out.

The main question is whether it will be possible to engage parents sufficiently when they are unable to meet in person with trained facilitators. In 2021, experiments will be conducted to determine how best to optimise user engagement in an effort to reduce programme dropout rates – which tend to be high.

“With more parents at home now, and perhaps in the future, the home learning environment could be a vital place to make educational improvements.”

Lachman believes that during the COVID-19-related lockdowns and beyond, this digital initiative could become a vital resource for increasing numbers of parents that are helped. Because in-person parenting programmes are so human resource-intensive, it has not been possible to scale them up more broadly.

With more parents at home now, and perhaps in the future, the home learning environment could be a vital place to make educational improvements.

“It’s an opportunity to really move the dial on parenting,” Lachman says.

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