As a research and policy officer, I’m often found typing away at my desk surrounded by reports and statistics, however I’ve had a welcome change from the norm this week as I’ve been out and about talking to parents about their experience of a new ‘three year health review’ being piloted as part of the Early Intervention Transformation Programme, a government initiative aiming to improve outcomes for children and young people across Northern Ireland.
The new health reviews, carried out in a number of preschools across NI, have given parents an additional chance to meet with a health visitor to talk about their child’s social and emotional development and any particular concerns they may have. The innovative approach sees health visiting and preschool practitioners working together for the first time, combining their knowledge of child development and their direct experience of the children in their care to provide a more informed service for parents and children.
The review uses the social and emotional version of the widely used Ages and Stages questionnaire, a quick and simple questionnaire completed by parents in their own time and then used by the health visitor to guide the conversation with parents at the review meeting. Moving beyond physical development, the questionnaire asks parents to think about things like how their child responds to strangers or interacts with friends, their sleeping habits, or how they express their feelings.
We’ve been involved throughout the development of this pilot review, first gathering evidence on where gaps exist in the universal Child Health Programme, then considering how best to fill these gaps, so it is fantastic to see the pilot programme being rolled out and to hear first-hand from parents how it has already helped them to consider aspects of their child’s development that they’ve perhaps not thought about before.
For many, the review has provided welcome reassurance that their child is happy and healthy; for others it has provided an opportunity to ask questions or get a little extra support. The questionnaire also asks parents to write something that they ‘enjoy about their child’; a question which many have never had the opportunity to stop and think about and which has had a very positive response from parents.
As well as supporting individual children, the pilot review will give us a much needed wider picture of our young children’s social and emotional development across NI; this is a key part of the jigsaw as we continue to invest time and money to ensure that children are ready for school and able to make the most of the learning opportunities given to them.
You may have seen the draft Programme for Government (PfG) just released for consultation, which sets out the NI Executive ambitions for the future of Northern Ireland; this is an exciting time and we are delighted to see that the PfG focuses on outcomes, in particular aiming to ensure that ‘we give our children and young people the best start in life’.
Social and emotional development must sit alongside physical development as we work to demonstrate just how well we are doing towards achieving this outcome for our children, and this new bank of data will make a useful contribution, particularly if we are able to gather similar information right across Northern Ireland.
When developing services for children and families, we must make use of our wider knowledge on what they need and what will work best to meet these needs. We must also remember the individual children and families behind the statistics, and build on our universal services to ensure that investment can and does make a difference to each of their lives.