“Big change starts small”: changing the conversation on the early years

Thursday 10 December 2020
Toddler sat at coffee table reading childrens books

On 27 November, the Princess of Wales launched her much-anticipated research findings on the early years.

On ITV News and Channel 5 News, we praised the Princess for starting a society-wide conversation on the vital importance of the earliest years. Our frontline experience supports her message: the early years hold the keys for health and happiness throughout children’s lives.

The Princess’ research identified a need for more advice and support for parents during the early years, especially for parents’ own mental health and wellbeing. Action for Children’s digital service Parent Talk provides information, advice and support for parents, on issues ranging from emotional wellbeing to children’s behaviour and learning. This has been particularly important during the pandemic, as face-to-face support for parents has drastically reduced during lockdowns. March-September 2020 saw a 430% increase in use of Parent Talk compared to the previous year.

Importantly, Parent Talk also offers a one-to-one chat function, for parents to chat live with our expert Parenting Coaches. Our coaches can provide reassurance and advice, and also signpost families on to other relevant support. Parental wellbeing was one of the most featured topics for live chats from March-September 2020.

The Princess’ report also recommended "encouraging society as a whole to support children’s development in the early years". Our children’s centres in Devon are involved in a programme to spread community awareness on the importance of baby brain development, young children’s emotional wellbeing, and self-care for parents. This involves training up Community Champions to share evidence-based knowledge, strategies, and develop a common language around what children need. These ‘trusted messengers’ see parents in their day-to-day lives, in their communities, where peer-led sharing can make a difference. The aim is for young children’s emotional wellbeing to become "everybody’s business". As the Princess’ report says, "it is important that parents feel that society as a whole supports them in bringing up their child".

Worryingly, the research found that parental loneliness has increased during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, Action for Children’s early years services quickly pivoted to digital delivery to continue supporting families. Our practitioners across the country also did doorstep visits, to deliver resources and check in on families.

It also found that people in the most deprived areas feel there is less community support than elsewhere. Action for Children’s children’s centres and family hubs play a vital role in local communities across the country. Programmes delivered at children’s centres can help parents to access and build support networks in their local areas. Services such as Chat and Play can help tackle parental loneliness in particular.

However, our Closed Doors report found that between 2014/15 and 2017/18, the number of children using children’s centres across England fell by 18%. Worryingly, usage fell the most in the most deprived areas. We have called for funding for children’s centres to be able to maintain their wide-ranging services and universal offers, to ensure that all families are able to access community support when they need to.

In her keynote speech, the Duchess emphasised that early years work is "not for the quick win - it’s for the big win". Action for Children is committed to championing the early years, and effective support for parents, for years to come. The Princess’ report is the spark for a powerful new conversation. We can’t wait to watch it grow.