One question that has prevailed through the many incarnations of lockdown in Victoria is how to effectively check in with young people at home and keep them engaged. It’s important to ensure young people’s wellbeing and assure them of your presence, but this can be a difficult task in a virtual space.

City of Greater Dandenong (CGD) Youth Services facilitated many programs prior to the pandemic. Lockdowns have shifted their focus to reorienting programs online and embedding a model of routine check-ins with young people to maintain connection and offer ongoing support. Team leader Aishling Fagan and Youth Development Officer Kylie Wilmot share how they do it.

1. Clarity for staff

In times of crisis we can sometimes tend to skip or deprioritise this step. But keeping young people engaged is just as much about giving staff a really clear purpose about what their work looks like virtually as it is about providing clarity for young people. This doesn’t exclusively have to come internally or from management, either.

CGD staff start with asking young people already engaged with their Youth Services what they want from regular youth worker contact. Within these established relationships, young people are supported to clearly express what they want. This provides important guidance to structure their check-ins.

2. Managing the load

CGD’s youth workers agree that they need to be checking in with all young people connected to the Youth Services. The team have developed a tiered approach, to balance both the needs of young people and the load on youth workers.

Some young people are in two or more youth programs, so staff collectively consider which youth worker has the most established rapport with them. They are the ‘lead youth worker’ that keeps in touch, but they know exactly who they could delegate to if/when necessary.

Tier 1: Most critical

Using existing intel, staff consider who is really likely to have some of their challenges compounded, and start with weekly contact. They use a matrix to decide if these young people are impacted by factors such as:

  • Financial insecurity
  • Mental health concerns
  • Existing health conditions
  • If they have family members overseas
  • Living situation - including family relationships, housing stability, or if they are living independently, for example
  • Past traumas

Tier 2: Intermediate

Young people in this category are those who are experiencing challenges but have some supports already in place, such as access to family, solid friendships, or access to other programs or services outside of CGD. These young people are contacted fortnightly.

Tier 3: Basic check-in

Young people are considered in this category when youth workers understand that this young person has access to solid, rounded support. They are contacted every three weeks.

This tiered structure has helped staff to effectively sift through a big load. But they also understand that as the pandemic shifts, young people may move into different tiers, requiring contact to scale up and down.

3. Your role and what to say

An important part of check-ins being effective in times of uncertainty is young people having a reliable sense of what they’re for. Accordingly, CGD staff are clear on the purpose of their check-ins during lockdowns:

  • To maintain routine in the absence of regular youth programs
  • Someone independent to connect with that is concerned about their welfare
  • Providing reassurance
  • Facilitating referrals for any issues presenting outside of CGD’s remit
  • Providing a reputable source of factual information

Check-ins via phone or video call can also present unique challenges to understanding how someone is really faring. CGD youth workers have found asking specific questions about indicators of wellbeing useful in overcoming this. Some questions could include:

  • “What are your sleep patterns?”
  • “What is your school routine like?”
  • “What’s your screen time like?”
  • “Offline, are you doing sedentary tasks or physical tasks?”
  • “Are you in contact with your friends/classmates/cousins/peers?”
  • “What are you reading or watching?”
  • “What are you hearing from friends?”

4. Keeping check-ins safe

Pre-COVID, youth workers who work in or with local governments have sometimes reflected that it can be a slow system. For many the pandemic accelerated the process of offering youth services online, and CGD was no different. The Youth Services were able to quickly demonstrate the necessity of moving supports and engagement online and develop effective safety measures.

CGD started with adapting their face-to-face policies for their online engagement policy. For example, they have a two-worker policy for online programs, where two workers engage at any one time with a young person, just like in an in-person environment. On video calls people are asked to have their camera on and people are always required to pre-register for events, so everyone’s identities can be verified.

They looked at what was already available elsewhere that they could leverage. For example, City of Yarra, a local council with similarities to City of Greater Dandenong, published their online safety policy. CGD have used this to inform their own policy rather than starting from scratch.

Youth workers are required to keep notes on the internal client database of their check-ins. They record the frequency, the content, and a follow-up action for each call (sometimes the action could be as simple as, ‘I’ll call you again next week’). The check-ins are always action-oriented, and these actions are decided with the young person, so that both they and the youth worker are accountable for something.

5. Alternatives to individual check-ins

They check-in mode is scalable and can be picked up and put down as needed. At times there may be fluctuations in staff capacity, or a young person may become unresponsive to check-ins. For these reasons, it’s important to have other options to buttress the check-ins, that also serve similar purposes.

CGD has identified social media as the best way to do this, with a very intentional approach:

  • Regular content with a schedule, to fulfil needs for reliability and routine.
  • Providing information that is factual and simple.
  • Capturing low cost to free online engagement material, to keep young people amused when they have exhausted their own options or have a lower threshold for engagement.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Council’s approach to social media use was limited, without a central coordination point. But with the onset of COVID-19, a dedicated social media working group was appointed within Youth Services staff. With robust safety measures in place and the demonstrable need presented by the pandemic, CGD Youth Services were able to advocate for improved communication using social media to engage young people. They have developed a communications program based on five pillars:

  1. Inform: about lockdowns and pandemic updates
  2. Support: in response to the needs young people might have
  3. Entertain: provide light relief and fun!
  4. Profile: celebrate young people’s stories, for example by getting young people to write or film what they were doing
  5. Engage: sharing what CGD were still doing and what was locally still available

The pandemic continues to make it difficult for youth services to plan programs with any certainty of how they’ll be executed. However, a commitment to staying connected and checking in can be one of the most reliable, flexible and effective offerings youth workers can provide in this time.

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your feedback.