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Top tips for virtual direct work with children & families during COVID-19

Rebekah Pierre, BASW England Professional Officer shares virtual top tips

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers were no strangers to navigating through obstacles to reach vulnerable children; disguised compliance, stigma around social care involvement and contextual safeguarding were just some of the challenges to name but a few.

Coronavirus has presented new and unique challenges which we could not have conceived of just a couple of months ago, and there are real fears that the schism between social workers and families is widening.

Having recently joined BASW from front line child protection, I know first-hand just how daunting it can feel stepping into the unchartered waters of ‘virtual contact’ with children and families. Which, of course, is not even an option for socio-economically deprived families with no access to wifi, and calling credit, especially when putting food on the table is the main priority.

But for the first time in living memory, remote visits, where possible, balancing safe risk of children, families and staff, have become an essential aspect of practice; without this vital lifeline, many children would be left unseen and unheard.

Whilst there is no perfect formula, here are a few tips on how best to capture children’s voices, even at a distance:

  1. Have a plan, stan!

It sounds obvious, but planning visits has never been more essential.

The dynamics of digital/distance visits can throw you off – or at least, that was certainly my experience.

To minimise any feelings of awkwardness, try to think your session through in advance. Can you visualise the purpose of the session? What do you hope to gain?

A simple, three -part plan could involve:

  1. Rapport building game
  2. 1:1 conversation with child
  3. Agree actions with the child, young person, parents/carers and partnership colleagues in advance of safeguarding, child in need and children looked after review meetings 


2.  Rapport building games

Perhaps more than ever, it is important to keep direct work fun and engaging.

‘Screen grab’

No board game or fancy equipment needed

Take it in turns to choose a descriptive word – for example, green, fluffy, shiny, round. Then on the word ‘Go’, both yourself and the child must race to find an object of that description and bring it back to the screen first.

This game can be adapted depending on the presenting issues. For example, you could ask the child to bring back as many shoes sizes as they can find, which may highlight if an additional person is residing in the house.


3.  Try to speak to the child alone

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is highly likely that caregivers, if willing and able, could listen to the conversation despite efforts to curate a protected space. It is therefore important to be mindful of this possibility, and perhaps offer the child to respond using non-verbal prompts (see Tip 5), although even this has some limitations.

 Ultimately, you are the expert in your own cases, and are best placed to judge how best to approach this potentially thorny area. It is important not to sacrifice parental trust and engagement.

However, some basic tips to facilitate speaking to the child alone include the following:

  • Try to de-personalise the request. Explain to families that all children, regardless of circumstances, should be seen alone.
  • Keep parents on your side by inviting them to return at the end for a quick family engagement activity.
  • As a fun, rapport-building activity, try to ask children with access to video to do a ‘360’ virtual tour to show you their surroundings. Try to undertake this in the manner of a game, rather than a monitoring exercise.


4.  Use conversation prompts

To keep your conversation in focus, think about what visual prompts you could use to stimulate discussion. These can range from ‘Emoji faces’ to scenes from a child’s favourite cartoon to represent different events.

Non-verbal activities can support existing resource tools, which serve as a light-hearted way to explore deeper emotions and elicit wishes and feelings.

No expense is needed here – you can easily draw your own (no artistic talent necessary).

5.  Use scaling tools

It’s impossible to place wellbeing on a linear scale, but it may be helpful to use 1-10 scaling questions where possible

If you are undertaking a phone call and are concerned a parent may be listening in, you can ask a child to repeat a code word x number of times rather than give a straight number.

6.  Learning styles

  • Try to ascertain the child’s learning styles. Are they predominantly visual, auditory or kinetic learners?
  • Factor in whether SEN or trauma has an impact on learning and communication styles. Where possible, consult with teachers, speech and language therapists or mental health professionals who could provide some insight around this.
  • Adapt games and direct work to the child’s interests where possible. If they are keen on anime, a certain musical band or a type of sport, this can help to increase interest and engagement.


7.  Try to leave something behind

Isolation is being keenly felt by members of the public of all ages at such a challenging time.

Leaving behind a memo, such as an activity co-created between yourself and the family can be a touching reminder that you’re there for them.

Plus, this could help to facilitate precious bonding time within families who may not ordinarily take part in creative activities together.

Examples which need only basic-equipment include:

  • A paper aeroplane. You could ask the child/family to write down their goals for the year, for example, and decorate it (before throwing it as far as they can!). For those who are unable to write, encourage drawing or simply talking through any goals before throwing the plane.
  • A sock puppet. You could ask a child to draw a happy face on one, and sad face on the other, using this as a conversation point for ‘what’s going well’/’what are your worries’. In fact – this need have no age limit. Adults of all ages have a creative spark within them, and encouraging people to be a bit vulnerable and silly can really open up doors.
  • Message in a bottle. Work with families to write or draw to one another, perhaps reflecting on happy memories or stating what they wish could change. Try to moderate this activity if possible, so that any messages are delivered constructively.


For those without any equipment at all, you can always leave behind ‘memories’ and play classics such as:

  • Charades
  • I spy
  • Two truths one lie
  • Finish my sentence story-telling. All you need is a healthy dose of imagination. Start with ‘Once upon a time’, and add sentences alternatively to create to an elaborate tale. The contents of this story may be used at the end as a reflective point of reference for wishes and feelings.


8.  Check out which video conferencing tools are safe in advance.

It is likely that your employer has already issued guidance around the preferred method of digital communication - in the first instance, refer directly to this.

To keep yourself informed around the risks associated with video calling software, and social media in general, the NSPCC has partnered with O2 to produce safeguarding guidance:

Given that children are always one step ahead when it comes to the digital world, it is more important than ever to close the gap, so that we can protect them both IRL (that’s ‘in real life’ according to the cool kids), and online.

9.  Offer caregivers a 1:1 space too

The points raised in tip #3 all apply here – it may not be possible to speak to the caregiver alone due to safeguarding reasons, if the children are too young, or have complex needs. It is also important to bear in mind that children are highly adept at magic, in that they can hear through walls if needed.

However, if safe and appropriate to do so, offering caregivers a safe space to talk could be enormously beneficial. We all need time to just unload, process the world around us, and ask for another perspective. This is especially important in cases whereby caregivers are isolated or have limited support connections.

10.  Think carefully about your own surroundings

Boundaries have been blurred during lockdown, as for the first time ever, service users have been invited into our own four walls. Which, in some ways, can give us some insight into just how intrusive it may feel for families when we ourselves cross their threshold.

I certainly felt a flurry of embarrassment the first time my camera was switched on. Not only because it is quite frankly weird to see yourself speaking (do I REALLY knit my brows that much!?) but also because I worried my surroundings would be scrutinised.

My carpet could have done with a quick hoovering. I had to move my silly photographs out of eyeline. I guess it is only natural to want to present a carefully-curated version of ourselves.

Whilst you can still bring your personality to the visit (perhaps selecting an item in advance for a mutual show-and-tell activity), not everyone needs to see your ACDC posters, extensive shoe collection, or hung up washing.

If you are using a platform where you can blur or jazz up your background, that is certainly recommended to try to maintain boundaries where possible.

If not, try to present in a neutral space if possible. This may not be possible if you have orange fluorescent walls. But it may be wise to remove any identifying background features ahead of time. Share a space that you feel comfortable with, remembering that this image could speak volumes without you even saying a word.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list. Speak to colleagues, reach out to your supervisor, and try to gauge ideas from children directly themselves. And don’t forget to tag BASW_UK in any photographs!