Measuring children’s wellbeing in practice: how to make it work?
For those who are involved in your organisation or services: do you know how they are really doing? Do you know what’s most important for them – and what they want to change? The Children’s Society – a national charity which works with disadvantaged young people and campaigns for improvements in children’s lives – decided that the best way to understand was to ask young people themselves.
Measuring the wellbeing of young people
Back in 2008, before wellbeing was measured nationally through the Office for National Statistics, The Children’s Society decided to take an important step: to measure the wellbeing of young people in England.
There were good reasons for this. An interest in wellbeing had begun to emerge, but this was dominated by a focus on adults. The Children’s Society wanted young people to be represented in the new agenda.
Initial studies showed that wellbeing questions could be used to give an intuitive and authentic voice for young people. Measuring the wellbeing of young people over time has provided insights into the changing trends and influences in children’s lives. For example, we know that children’s happiness with their life as a whole and relationships with friends is at its lowest point since 2009/10, driven by a trend of girls becoming increasingly unhappy with these domains over time. We also know that multiple experiences of disadvantage have an incremental relationship with wellbeing: the greater the number of disadvantages that children face, the lower their wellbeing. Findings are updated every year through the Good Childhood Report. You may have read some of the findings on our blog last week.
With this research programme underway – and a growing dataset on national well-being generated – The Children’s Society also set out to use well-being as an outcome measure for its services working directly with disadvantaged young people, including young people in trouble with the law, or who had run away from home.
Alongside recording whether service users were seeing improvements in different areas of their lives, such as engaging and achieving at school or reduced offending, they would begin to be asked about their wellbeing – life satisfaction, resilience, relationships and other things. Wellbeing presented a cross-cutting measure, which could provide an overarching view of the multiple and complex needs services were aiming to support – and how young people felt they were progressing overall.
Incorporating wellbeing as an outcome measure for service evaluation was complex. To make this as easy as possible, a number of practical steps were taken:
- Producing a guide and template;
- Including a minimal number of ‘core’ questions as well as some specific ones linked to the aims of each service;
- Avoiding having to ask demographic questions every time, through ‘linking’ databases;
- Making the questions accessible for those with challenges reading, or understanding English.
The new approach for measurement was ambitious, rolled out across the country and across services. Some of the usual challenges with impact measurement emerged. Staff who were asked to administer the questions struggled to see the benefit of them. Cross-referring databases and voice-activation lead to a number of IT challenges.
These challenges of motivations, systems and capabilities will be familiar challenges for anyone moving towards impact measurement, or indeed any change. These general challenges can’t be ignored. But what were our challenges with measuring wellbeing?
- Challenge: When are the questions appropriate? The Children’s Society works with some young people in very difficult circumstances or in crisis, for example, victims of human trafficking or abuse. Are questions on satisfaction or emotions those which will most support this child at this vulnerable time?
- Solution: Case workers use their professional judgement when such questions can be appropriate. The questionnaire are only used when a worker judges that this will not negatively affect the young person they are working with.
- Challenge: Time and resources. Those ‘on the ground’ have to allow time for a young person to fill in a questionnaire, but may be unclear about the benefits of gathering the information. This can be especially true for wellbeing questions, which may seem far removed from the day-to-day work with young people and partially due to the long timescales for providing findings. To add to this, time and resulting costs need to be justified, especially when contracts are often directly with commissioners and Local Authorities, for whom cost savings need to be achieved
- Solution: Show how the information can be useful. Information on wellbeing can show the additional impact services are making – i.e. what is happening to confidence, or feelings of security, even if there are no changes in outwardly visible outcomes such as truancy or employment, or criminality. Wellbeing information can provide a helpful overarching framework across services and can help to improve the impact for young people, through showing which aspects make the biggest difference. Over the coming years, The Children’s Society will be working in innovative ways with groups who experience multiple disadvantage in their lives, measuring wellbeing as they go and showing those on the ground how the information can directly feed in to improve services.
- Challenge: Bias. We are all likely to respond differently to ‘how we are doing’ if we have a good relationship with the person who is asking – who we know also has a stake in our response.
- Solution: Use an approach which empowers service users to give their responses independently. The Children’s Society aims to facilitate young people to answer wellbeing questions independently i.e. without the support of a worker and using a simple self-completion form. It also plans to develop an electronic questionnaire which a young person can fill in on a tablet or iPad and will be more user-friendly. This means a young people responds to questions in a ‘neutral’ space and does not feel obliged to say what they think their worker will want to hear.
- This also presents a further challenge: Support when needed. Even when we are assured of anonymity, the opportunity to express feelings can be used as a cry for help. Could there be information which the young person expresses, which, if shared, could alert a case worker of their need for extra support?
- Solution: Keep data private – but reassure workers they can ask a service user how answering the questions made them feel. And have a safety net in place. Although a Children’s Society worker does not see a young person’s answers to the wellbeing questions, they are encouraged to ask the young person how they feel after completing the questionnaire. This gives the young person the chance to talk about any difficult feelings which have arisen for them when reflecting on how they feel and what is going on in their lives.
And an additional safety net is in place in case they have revealed a serious problem in their responses which they don’t then talk to their worker about. Although the researchers who analyse data from the wellbeing questionnaires never know the identity of the young people completing them each response has a unique number which links back to personal information in a case recording database… so, if there is a disclosure in a young person’s answers, an appropriate response can be triggered.
As The Children’s Society develop their work, the evidence and good practice will continue to emerge. Watch this space.