Every day there is discouraging negative news about the plight of children around the world. Stories of child labor, violence against children and the ongoing struggles of millions for access to a good education are everywhere.
However, as we’ve pointed out in previous research, there are some green shoots – and possible solutions. Our new research, featured in both a journal article and a book chapter, aimed to evaluate the results of a family support program run by social workers from the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, in collaboration with the Center for Social Development in Africa was carried out under the University of Johannesburg. The evaluation took place nine months after the end of the program.
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Our findings confirm that children and adults benefit when communities, researchers, and policy makers work together to empower and support families.
The project in question is called Sihleng’imizi (which means that we look after families in isiZulu). It is designed to complement and expand the positive benefits of the South African child benefit grant and empower disadvantaged families to improve the wellbeing of children.
The program addresses key knowledge and information gaps and skills in parenting. It covers areas such as managing difficult child behavior, managing stress, making the best use of resources and services, strengthening family and social support systems, and learning about nutrition and money management. It was designed by the author and researcher from the Center for Social Development in Africa.
The first study was carried out in 2017. It included a pre-test at the beginning of the program and a post-test at the end. This was aimed at beneficiaries of child benefit between the ages of 6 and 8 and their families. The results were published in early 2019.
The follow-up evaluation was completed and published in July 2020 and had three main objectives. The first step was to assess whether the participants in Sihleng’imizi retained what they had learned and were able to implement these findings nine months after the end of the intervention. Second, to compare these results with a control group that was not exposed to Sihleng’imizi. Finally, consider the policy implications of combining cash transfers – such as the child benefit allowance – with family support programs.
We found that the intervention had improved relationships between child carers and family members, strengthened social support networks and carer engagement in the school, and improved parental and financial opportunities. The results suggest that interventions like Sihleng’imizi in combination with cash transfers have great positive potential.
This is because, while South Africa’s expansive welfare system improves material wellbeing and has many other positive benefits for children and families, it is incapable of meeting the other multidimensional needs of children and their families on its own.
The 60 families who participated in both the initial study and the follow-up study came from the poorest wards in the city of Johannesburg, which was an implementation partner.
In the assessment, changes were assessed according to five dimensions: relationships between children and carers, involvement of carers in a child’s education, social and community solidarity, financial and nutritional skills, and symptoms of depression in carers.
In all five dimensions, the participants were largely able to remember and apply what they had learned nine months earlier while attending the Sihleng’imizi program. This is an important indicator of the program’s success.
Nine months later, we found that the nurses were still implementing many of the skills and positive approaches to nursing, supporting, and using alternative forms of discipline that they had learned through the program, such as: B. positive communication. They talked to and listened to children, set about solving problems with children, and made time for children.
They also valued praise, love, and encouragement. Some stopped using corporal punishment entirely, while others reduced their use. In his place, the caregivers used the “calming corner”, a technique that parents can use to help children relieve tension and angry feelings. It was useful for helping both carers and children settle down and remember.
Nurses reported that their children enjoyed going to school and were actively involved in their schoolwork. Some had seen improvements in their schoolwork, and almost all of the children’s behavior in school had also improved.
The development and use of support networks was a key element of the Sihleng’imizi program. Since the end of the program, the evaluation showed that the carers had contact with other participants in a WhatsApp group, through telephone calls or by meeting at school to pick up children.
Nurses said their involvement in Sihleng’imizi expanded their networks and strengthened relationships with other participants. The “buddy system” that emerged from the program helped the participants to communicate with one another and to support one another, especially when it came to parents.
There have been notable changes in nurses’ attitudes and ways of dealing with money. Since attending Sihleng’imizi, participants said they had learned the value of budgeting and could apply this practice in their lives. They could also save now, even though they had only limited sources of income.
Others tried to save money by joining a stokvel (a type of informal credit union where members put a fixed amount of money into a shared pool weekly, bi-weekly or monthly). Many said they were becoming more aware of the negative effects of borrowing, especially from lenders.
Part of Sihleng’imizi focused on nutrition education, and that too seemed sustainable almost a year later. Participants said they now realize the importance of having breakfast. They had also begun to pay more attention to the nutritional value of food than to the time or convenience involved in preparing a meal. They also gave the impression of having a good understanding of what makes a balanced meal for children. The control group also reported changes even though they did not have access to the program. Because of this, the nutritional results are treated carefully.
One problem area was depression among the caregivers. During the follow-up visit, there was a slight increase in depressive symptoms. This may have to do with ongoing parenting pressures in vulnerable circumstances, and suggests an ongoing challenge that requires further intervention.
While Sihleng’imizi has had many positive results, we acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that have come with it will have undermined many of those gains. Other research has shown that many families have faced income poverty and food insecurity as a result of the pandemic and stalemate.
Overall, the results of the follow-up investigation show that social welfare policy should be supplemented by such child and family welfare services. This would meet the broader care needs of families receiving child benefit.
A comprehensive preventive family and community-based intervention such as Sihleng’imizi could be expanded in urban areas using the existing infrastructure for social services and development. However, it is not clear what dynamics play a role in rural contexts and further research is needed to test the effectiveness of the program in rural areas.
Leila Patel, Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.