Using virtual reality technology to understand the needs of children

By Alison Alexander | 22 June 2020

2019 continued to see an upward trend in the numbers of children coming into care, rising by four per cent on the previous year.  With lockdown resulting in a significant dip in referrals, up to 75% in some areas, everyone is aware that this trend is set to continue and be further exacerbated post lockdown when schools, health and youth services fully re-open their doors and the invisible children once again become visible.

Where technology was being developed, adopted and embraced pre COVID-19, children’s services, and the wider local authority, have certainly turned to digital solutions – initially for online and virtual one to one and group meetings, but it has not stopped there.

It is exciting to see local authorities working collaboratively and embracing the advantages offered by new technology to enhance their services to reach all children.  We are seeing the emergence of a new, blended world where virtual and physical interactions are being combined to offer a more holistic service focussed on outcomes.   

One significant technology-based solution, in use since 2018 by nearly 50 local authorities, schools and independent providers, has been the introduction of the Cornerstone Virtual Reality (VR) programme and it’s clinically led content.  Designed to support rapid behaviour change through improved understanding of the impact of trauma, the tool is being used widely in the recruitment and assessment of prospective foster carers and adopters; training of carers and professionals to support placement stability; and across the wider children’s services provision such as education, early help and healthcare.  

The power behind this VR Programme lies in its ability to put the user into the shoes of a child, on the receiving end of an abusive, neglectful or hurtful situation from birth through to adolescence, allowing them to experience trauma and ask themselves: “how would I feel if that was me?”.

The VR programme is starting to be integrated into wider children’s services workforce development strategies.  Some interesting points to note: learners require 53% less time than classroom learning to understand concepts; learners consistently report a 90%+ rating on learning outcomes; and learners show three to four times more confidence to employ what they learned than with traditional e-learning methods (PwC, 2020).  As we have seen a recent shift to more virtual and remote support, rather than classroom based, this type of training can only be of benefit moving forward.

With recruitment within fostering and adoption a continuing challenge, the VR Programme aids the process by enabling early identification of knowledge and/or experience gaps that can be supported, as well as effectively preparing the applicants for the task ahead so they are ‘placement ready’ at the point of approval. 

VR is useful in these scenarios, creating ‘in-situ’ experiences that help prospective carers and adopters determine whether they are truly ready to meet the needs of a child. If they have had no previous experience of trauma, VR can provide a more immediate connection to the child than any case study or training ever would.

And for those fostering and adoptive parents experiencing gaps in their training and development, VR can be used to explore these situations in a fully immersive process. By using a strategy for transforming practice, the VR programme focuses on four key areas;

  • Understanding – do adults understand how their behaviours and responses affect children?
  • Empathy – do adults get an insight of a child’s perspective?
  • Behaviour – will adults think differently about their behaviours towards children?
  • Attitude -  will adults consider alternative ways to behave towards children?

If new technologies can strengthen the processes and responses for fostering and adoption services, local authorities can expect to see improved placement stability immediately, and in the long term. These benefits could change outcomes for children in curbing the potential for unplanned endings, 31% of which happened within 24 hours of placement in 2018-2019.  Data from Cornerstone’s VR programme lends itself to this argument: nine times out of ten the experiences change a viewer’s behaviour, empathy and emotional understanding.

VR has also proven useful throughout wider public networks, such as with teachers, educational professionals and social workers, ensuring a whole ‘team around the child’ approach. New technologies – therefore - can support vulnerable children in education as well as at home, reducing exclusions and supporting improved outcomes for all children. 100% of teachers agreed that they had gained an improved insight into a child’s perspective after experiencing the Cornerstone VR Programme. 

Whilst it will always be necessary for children’s services professionals to take a blended approach, where new technologies are used in conjunction with expertise, the findings from Cornerstone’s VR programme should not be taken for granted. 

If digital transformation can reinforce the adult networks surrounding children, then we absolutely should implement them. Furthermore, given the accelerated need for tech solutions post-COVID, and rising numbers of children coming into care, there is a fitting opportunity for technology to support service and change outcomes for children.

Alison Alexander is CEO and practice director of Cornerstone Partnership – part of the Antser Group

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