Empowering parents during COVID-19: Remote support for children with severe and profound intellectual disability in Cape Town

Empowering parents during COVID-19: Remote support for children with severe and profound intellectual disability in Cape Town

Picture of a South African parent with their daughter

Taryn du Toit is an Occupational Therapist and the Innovation and Training Department Manager at Cape Mental Health. Cape Mental Health provides mental health services to a wide range of population groups in the Western Cape province of South Africa. In this post, Taryn describes how the Special Education and Care Centres (SECCs) are working with parents to continue remote programmes for children with severe and profound intellectual disability​.

Key messages: Innovations:
Provide a clear mandate to staff to deliver virtual services and encourage innovative thinking and practice Empowering parents to take part in children’s learning through daily home activities shared via WhatsApp messages, videos and images
During lockdown, ongoing structured day programmes are critical for children with severe and profound intellectual disability Inviting input, support and guidance from the provincial professional teams with the Department of Education via parent WhatsApp groups
Support, advice, guidance and motivation for parents and guardians ensures successful implementation Weekly virtual staff meetings and daily reflection sessions to plan activities, give feedback and problem solve

Cape Mental Health operates in under-resourced and densely populated communities within the Western Cape with high unemployment rates and low-income households. Physical distancing is not possible to achieve within these communities and there will be disastrous consequences should the COVID-19 virus spread. The need for mental health services at this time is critical and we are responding to this need, employing all our resources to do so.

With education in disarray during country-wide school closures and ‘digital education’ not being readily available to learners and youth from disadvantaged communities, this group will be particularly hard hit and vulnerable when out of school. Interrupted and ineffective education and increasing drop-out rates will have long-term and negative implications for their future wellbeing and independence, with limited opportunities for them to ‘catch up’, access education and enjoy lifelong well-being.

Support for children with severe and profound intellectual disability is particularly needed as they are not able to attend facilities for face-to-face activities. Our remote interventions have proved to be very successful, with many of our service users kept thoroughly engaged and in contact with us during this trying time of lockdown. Our mental health workers use various methods of engagement to accommodate service-users according to their particular needs and resources, including phone calls, text messages, voice notes and videos, Skype or Zoom where possible, social media and home visits (only if necessary and following public health guidelines).


                                                  Water play home activity.

Our pre-planned programmatic activities have seen an incredible uptake from parents and guardians as we move programmes into the homes of our beneficiaries. These programmes are now being implemented at home with the help of parents through scheduled activities and lessons. This is communicated to parents and service users through WhatsApp messages, videos and images. The morning ring activity, for example, takes place first thing in the day. It is an energising and social activity that increases the child’s awareness of their environment, themselves and the people around them. It includes familiar songs, aspects of numeracy, body image, environmental awareness and social interaction with a lot of repetition. Now parents get to do this activity and others with their children at home and receive remote support from our staff when needed.  

Parents are giving overwhelming positive feedback and are very appreciative of the programmes, guidance and support. They share videos of their children doing the activities and ask for advice. Staff then have access to professionals to advise them if any specific guidance is required. From the beginning of the lockdown period which commenced March 24 until April 24, 2020 (one month into lockdown), Special Education and Care Centres have made contact with 154 parents of the 184 learners enrolled at their centres. Staff have also checked in with some of the parents with whom we do not have virtual contact to see if they are using the home programme, which was sent to all parents prior the lockdown, and provide any support as required. 

“We start our day with the morning ring and from there our child’s day is planned. With the daily activities we do ensure that our child’s mind stays active and it is so easy for them to forget what their teachers teach them. And by practicing these activities at home we can see if it really helps our children or not and with that we can see what works for our kids. The teacher and parents can work together to ensure they come up with the best possible routine for their child.” - WhatsApp message from parent

We have also sought ongoing input, support, advice and guidance from the professional teams working at the Provincial Western Cape Department of Education who have been included on our parent WhatsApp groups. These teams include occupational therapists, speech therapists, physiotherapists, special needs educators and educational psychologists. They have been very supportive so far.​

“Education is important and you are doing amazing things, but besides education the parents know they can rely on you in all aspects of life, not just education, if they need help with anything, whether it be rebooking health appointments or trying to sort out food packages! This is massive and definitely deserves so much credit!” - WhatsApp message from Department of Education team member

During this time, it is important to have very clear leadership and guidance on what is required from staff. Plans and innovative activities should be recorded to share with other service providers as needed.​

Mental health should be a high priority during the crisis, and we are breaking new ground in providing innovative, remote and relevant mental health services in response to the pandemic. Even though there are challenges and barriers, the COVID-19 crisis offers us the opportunity to think creatively about service delivery during crisis times and turn challenges into opportunities.

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Key Resources:

  • #HealthyAtHope - Healthy parenting during COVID-19 (WHO) [Link]
  • "My Hero is You" Storybook for children 6-11 years-old affected by COVID-19. Available in many languages (WHO) [Link]
  • COVID-19 response: Considerations for Children and Adults with Disabilities (UNICEF) [Link]
  • Considerations of increased risk (Pan African Network of Persons with Psychosocial Disabilities) [Link]
  • Mental Health and Psychosocial Support for Staff, Volunteers and Communities in an Outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (IFRC) [Link]
  • Basic psychological support for staff health doctors and nurses (ICRC) [Link]

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