Food for thought: implications for parent partnerships in results from #5BigQuestions study

The Duchess of Cambridge has unveiled the findings of the biggest ever UK study on the early years, in a milestone moment for her work on the importance of early childhood in shaping the rest of our lives and broader societal outcomes. The Royal Foundation commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct the research, aiming to discover what the UK thinks about the early years. It also explores how COVID-19 has impacted the perceptions and experiences of parents and carers of the under-fives. Ofsted has also conducted research in to the impact of COVID-19 on children’s learning and welfare that can be found in briefings here and here.

The publication of this research follows nine years of work by The Duchess of Cambridge in which she has looked at how difficult experiences in early childhood are often the root cause of key social challenges such as poor mental health, family breakdown, addiction and homelessness – with the cost of late intervention estimated to be around £17 billion per year in England and Wales. This ties in with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research; the Home Office Early Intervention Fund has free online training on the subject here. We also deliver training which includes information on ACEs in depth, find out more here.

In January, the ‘5 Big Questions on the Under Fives’ survey was launched and attracted over half  a million responses, making it the biggest ever survey of its kind. The research published this month includes the findings of the 5 Big Questions as well as further qualitative and ethnographic research, a nationally representative survey conducted before the pandemic, and a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on families.  Taken together, these studies have generated #5BigInsights:

1. PEOPLE OVERWHELMINGLY BELIEVE THAT A CHILD’S FUTURE IS NOT PRE-DETERMINED AT BIRTH. HOWEVER, MOST PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND THE SPECIFIC IMPORTANCE OF THE EARLY YEARS.

Answering the 5 Big Questions, 98% of people believe nurture is essential to lifelong outcomes, but just one in four recognise the specific importance of the first five years of a child’s life.

2. THE REALITY OF LIFE MAKES IT HARD FOR PARENTS TO PRIORITISE THEIR WELLBEING.

90% of people see parental mental health and wellbeing as being critical to a child’s development, but in reality people do very little to prioritise themselves. Only 10% of parents mentioned taking the time to look after their own wellbeing when asked how they had prepared for the arrival of their baby. Worryingly, over a third of all parents (37%) expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have a negative impact on their long-term mental wellbeing.

3. FEELING JUDGED BY OTHERS CAN MAKE A BAD SITUATION WORSE.

70% of parents feel judged by others and among these parents, nearly half feel this negatively impacts their mental health.

4. PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SEPARATED FROM FAMILY AND FRIENDS DURING THE PANDEMIC AND AT THE SAME TIME PARENTAL LONELINESS HAS DRAMATICALLY INCREASED. DISTURBINGLY, PEOPLE ARE ALSO LESS WILLING TO SEEK HELP FOR HOW THEY’RE FEELING.

Parental loneliness has dramatically increased during the pandemic from 38% before to 63% as parents have been cut off from friends and family. The increase in loneliness for parents is more apparent in the most deprived areas. These parents are more than twice as likely as those living in the least deprived areas to say they feel lonely often or always (13% compared with 5%). Compounding this, it seems there has been a rise in the proportion of parents who feel uncomfortable seeking help for how they are feeling from 18% before the pandemic to 34%during it.

5. DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, SUPPORT FROM LOCAL COMMUNITIES HAS SUBSTANTIALY INCREASED FOR MANY – BUT NOT FOR ALL.

Across the UK, communities have united to meet the challenge of unprecedented times. 40% of parents feel that community support has grown. However, parents in the most deprived areas are less likely to have experienced this increased support (33%) than elsewhere.

These insights highlight the need to help people understand the importance of the early years and suggest that parents and carers need more support and advice to ensure good mental health and wellbeing as they raise young children.

The findings provide an unrivalled insight into public attitudes on the topic and provides us in the early years sector with some valuable information. While many of us are already aware of the public perception of early years (sometimes seen as ‘babysitting’ or ‘just playing’), this study shows that it is rooted in a lack of understanding about the importance of the First 1001 Days and the impact that early educational experiences from 0-5 can have on vital life-long skills, such as communication and language.

So, what can we do?

We need to create systems of education and support, without adding to the workload of early years practitioners. Luckily, we do not have to be specialists in mental health or community initiatives to make a difference:

  1. We can provide parents with information on the potential and opportunity of their child’s early years – including just how important they are as parents (#PAFT)! This is an area in which we are already specialists: young children’s development and learning! Whether that’s making copies of What to Expect When available on admission or doing a ‘Weekly Wow!’ that focuses on a key developmental step or something children learn at a particular age – share your professional knowledge! No one takes a qualification or sits a test or gets a licence before becoming a parent. Depending on their own early experiences and parenting role models, parents’ knowledge and awareness is highly variable. I once had a chat with a father about his 6 month old’s speech development and asked how he communicated with his baby at home (was it mostly during nappy changes and cuddles or did they read stories/sing rhymes?) – his reply was ‘well, she doesn’t speak yet so that’s not something we’re doing.’ Some settings also find that ‘stay and play’ sessions (or more recently, video sessions with home learning packs sent out) are vital for role modelling those lovely play and communication skills, as well as being a key time to discuss and share information (two-way!) with parents. Often you can find out a huge amount about parents’ knowledge and their views on child development during home visits, settling sessions or when collecting information about children’s starting points.
  2. We can ensure our settings are welcoming and non-judgemental places, where parents feel valued and at ease (parenting is as tough as it is important). Use your parent surveys or questionnaires to find out their views on your service and its atmosphere – make the surveys anonymous if you can, to encourage honesty! Remember, parents bring their own experiences of education and authority figures with them – you may be a lovely, friendly manager but their memories of a terrifying headteacher and their foreboding office are hard to shake! Also consider how your arrival and collection times are structured (tricky at the moment with the Covid-19 restrictions) – particularly if children are unsettled as they can sometimes act as a mirror for parents’ own anxieties or worries. You may also find it beneficial to train one or two staff in Mental Health First Aid – not only will this encourage support between colleagues, but enable staff to recognise signs and feel confident to have conversations about mental health. [We deliver Staff Well-being Surveys and group supervision sessions to support staff to ‘keep their cups filled’.]
  3. We can make space for leaflets or posters sign-posting vital services such as local GP services, self-referral details for NHS therapy services, local perinatal mental health teams, Family Support/Early Help services, children’s centre details – if your area has children’s centres still, and more practical services such as housing, Citizen’s Advice, food banks, community support groups for EAL families, etc.. If your setting has limited space (or in the case of childminders, is your home!), consider featuring key services on your social media feeds, parent portal (Tapestry, BabyDays, etc.) or website – wherever your families read! A key consideration for this is to site information in places where parents can use their mobile telephones – often they might prefer to take a quick photograph of a leaflet’s details rather than be seen to take one; ‘mum[dad] guilt’ and perceptions of judgement are powerful things. You might also wish to advertise parent apps, such as BabyBuddy or Peanut – they are vital sources of information and social interaction, at a distance. Some settings also organise social events (e.g. a Valentines teatime or a breakfast drop-in) which encourage parents in to the setting and provide an opportunity for them to meet parents with children of a similar age. Be mindful of work schedules – and try to include a snack of some kind as food sharing is both a good hook for attendance and a positive social activity!
  4. We can foster a ‘no question too silly or too small’ approach to supporting parents – some settings have a question box or dedicated email, others include this in parents’ evenings, others have an open-door policy for their office and some post FAQs in their entrance area for parents to see. Find a method that works for you, doesn’t take up an inordinate amount of time and is accessible enough that even the most shy or anxious parent is confident to use it. I used to find that many parents liked having a direct email to the head/manager, some saved their questions for parents’ evenings (when they were already talking about their child’s learning), whereas some liked to wait until the very end of collection time then hover outside the office – waiting for a moment to talk!

These are my initial thoughts and reflections. Please pop any of your suggestions, ideas or things you already do in the comments!

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