Collaborative support for children and caregivers is vital…

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The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the challenges facing young children across South Africa: poverty, poor school and living conditions, violence, abuse and neglect.

They and their carers – parents, guardians, grandparents, older siblings – also have to deal with an uncoordinated, fragmented and inadequate supply of services.

But like a new study by a multidisciplinary group Researchers and practitioners show that the integration of health, education and psychosocial services at home, at school and in the community can make a real positive difference. This is crucial if we are to make up for lost ground due to the pandemic and in the current situation marked by rising food and energy prices, still high unemployment and social and political strife.

The study emerges from a community of practice (CoP) that aims to strengthen social systems with the aim of improving child well-being outcomes. It addresses issues of hunger, material deprivation, parental engagement in learning, psychosocial well-being, caregiver mental health and child health.

It also aims to improve learning outcomes in mathematics and language skills. A large body of research globally and nationally has found that positive, positive early experiences in these crucial areas lead to better outcomes later in life.

The CoP brings together teachers, nurses, social workers and school psychologists who conducted multilevel developmental assessments of 162 children in grades R in 2020 and 140 children in 2021. The assessments were conducted in five public schools of disadvantaged and poor communities in the city. from Johannesburg; all the children who participated were recipients of the Child Support Grant (CSG). An innovative digital tool has been developed for these assessments.

The same children were assessed one year later when they were in grades 1 and 2, respectively. Here is what the researchers found:

  • During the two years of evaluation, there were improvements in the main indicators of well-being and a stabilization of the situation of the participating families;
  • The biggest stressors were economic in nature, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Loss of a job (16%), lack of money to buy food (13%) and inability to look for work (12%) were the top three stressors affecting families with young children in the study. This was evident in the wave 1 child risk profiles when 57% of children were at high risk of material deprivation. Although economic risk decreased by 7% at Wave 2, half of the children continued to live in families with severe income constraints. This was reflected in high carer debt ratios 18 months into the first lockdown as savings and other resources were spent;
  • CSG supplements and the subsequent extension of access to the Distress Social Assistance Grant have made it possible to alleviate families’ economic difficulties; and
  • There was also a substantial improvement in access to social and material support from Wave 1 to Wave 2. In Wave 2, 64% of participants said that their extended family, social networks, and in some cases , social services, provided vital support.

The researchers also reported that the coping skills of children and their caregivers “improved as they adapted to changing circumstances during the pandemic.” The children also reported a 10% reduction in vulnerability to psychosocial risk from wave 1 to wave 2. The children told the researchers that they had become increasingly dependent on their peers – and this, they said, helped them become more resilient.

Among other things, the study authors expressed concern about food insecurity, worrying rates of depression among caregivers, and the fact that 27% of participating children had incomplete vaccinations at the end of wave 2.

Overall, the results offer indications for multisectoral interventions at the family and community levels and for social protection policies such as social subsidies, food aid, health, education and social interventions to improve outcomes. well-being outcomes of children from disadvantaged communities using school-family and community as a nexus for social interventions. Children and their guardians need ongoing support.

The CoP study illustrates the importance of a transdisciplinary approach to understanding and developing solutions to multiple risks to their well-being. It also draws attention to the important role of monitoring how well they do in the early years. These data can be used both to guide corrective interventions and to find evidence-based early preventive and promotional interventions.

In 2023, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is expected to take over responsibility for early learning from the Department of Social Development. The study authors pointed out that the DBE could learn from existing initiatives to ensure better outcomes for early childhood learners.

“There are many innovations at school and community levels by non-governmental organizations and corporate social investment initiatives that could provide practical and actionable solutions from which to learn. The CoP model is one such innovation.

“Practice-based research such as the CoP could provide insight into what might be feasible in a particular community setting; the potential for resource sharing between governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the value of partnership in service delivery and in harnessing knowledge and tested interventions across sectors and disciplines.

“The study findings also show that a community-based approach to practice focused on child well-being outcomes is a laudable endeavour, which is already planned in educational policies in South Africa.” DM

Professor Leila Patel is the DSI/NRF Chair in Welfare and Social Development at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Professor Elizabeth Henning is the DSI/NRF Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning, Language, Mathematics and Science in Primary School, UJ. Professor Jace Pillay is the DSI/NRF Chair in Educational Psychology, UJ.

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