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What works when early intervention goes virtual?


2 Apr 2020

Ben Lewing, EIF assistant director for policy & practice, reflects on why learning about what works matters now more than ever and issues a call for local partners to work with EIF on evaluating virtual interventions or delivery methods.

As EIF chief executive Jo Casebourne described in her recent blog, life in virus lockdown has stripped us of some of our most powerful, evidence-based early intervention tools, so many of which are built around face-to-face relationships. In a world of social distancing and homeworking, connecting via a screen has become the primary way to interact, and this fundamentally changes the way public services can manage relationships. There is much to learn about what works in this context – and EIF can help, but more on this later.

To get around the lack of face-to-face contact, schools and family support services are experimenting with ways of engaging with families. For some, this simply means a regular phone call, but there is also a range of more sophisticated virtual interactions that are designed to help children and their families. This includes types of counselling, therapy or other support for parents that have been specifically designed to work digitally. Although some of these have been evaluated (see, for example, these programmes on the EIF Guidebook), in general we know less about the effectiveness of digital early interventions, which tend to have much weaker evidence of working or no evidence at all.

This new world also includes virtual delivery of services that families would previously have received face-to-face. It is particularly important to consider the logic for delivering these interventions in this way, and question whether the likelihood of reaching the target group of children and families, and having a positive impact, is likely to be diminished by the change in delivery method. There are a whole host of questions here. What does this mean for interventions which depend on building a therapeutic relationship? What about households where the only connected devices are mum’s phone and the kids’ PlayStation? How will online group peer support discussions work if it turns out that the real benefit lies in the private conversations that happen in the margins? Getting it right is important – already we are hearing anecdotal feedback of parents feeling overwhelmed by the “intimidating stuff pouring in through their phones, aimed at yummy mummies”.

We are taking a first step over the next few weeks in pulling together a rapid review of evidence for digital delivery of early intervention. But there is also much to learn from the digital creativity and experimentation which is happening across public services right now. In the midst of the upheaval created by short-term delivery challenges, there is a real risk that we will miss the crucial messages about what really made the difference, and the lessons about what didn’t work.

This is where EIF can help. Local areas have consistently told us that they find formal evaluations challenging; they worry about the skills needed, how much it will cost, what the scope should be, and whether the learning will be available quickly enough to inform delivery. We have already produced information and tools focusing on evaluation, including guides on the 10 steps for evaluation success and Evaluating early help. While none of these products were developed specifically to look at digital and remote delivery, many of the principles still apply.

Over the next few months, we are keen to work with local areas that are experimenting with digital and remote delivery. We invite you to get in touch if you are looking for short-term, practical support on evaluating these types of services. This could include quick and hands-on support to confirm an intervention’s theory of change, review data to better understand population demand, identify valid and reliable measurement tools, and more. Right now, we’re in listening mode, and we will design our support around your needs.

Email EIF to let us know how we can help

About the author

Ben Lewing

Ben is assistant director, policy & practice, at EIF.