In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Evelina London NHS Children’s Hospital’s community speech and language therapy team virtually converted their in-person therapy to keep services going.

by Kate Burgess and Cathy Johnston, SLTs, Evelina London Children’s Hospital, Community speech and language therapy service

New ways of working

As the UK lockdown began in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, our community speech and language therapy team at Evelina London Children’s Hospital was immediately concerned about how this would affect our support to children, young people and families. As a profession focusing on communication and working face-to-face with our clients and colleagues, the barriers seemed obvious and overwhelming.

Chattertime groups have run for more than ten years as part of our departments’ extensive universal offer in community settings such as children’s centres and nurseries. They run daily across Lambeth and Southwark and consist of a play-based session to support parents’ understanding of speech, language and communication (SLC) development and demonstrate adult-child interaction strategies or activities that can be use at home. Run in conjunction with practitioners in the setting (ie children’s centre or nursery staff) Chattetrime groups also provide a training and development opportunity. They have proven to be an invaluable resource for colleagues and local families to access information on typical language development, advice on how to support communication at home and to make referrals to our service when required.

Lockdown posed a huge challenge to sharing this information and supporting the families accessing it. Our team discussed how – and if – we could possibly replicate Chattertime through the use of video calls. We wanted to ensure the ethos of Chattertime was maintained, and that it remained be a welcoming place for anyone to attend. The interactive element needed to be incorporated so people could ask us questions and the activities demonstrated needed to be easy to copy at home by using materials likely to be found around the home. We realised that a lot of our activities included food items (like using pasta for a shaker) which at the beginning of lockdown were harder to include! A visual timetable is a key element to the Chattertime and so we demonstrated how to create and use one at home, for example one week we created a timetable on the back of a used envelope.

Using Facebook live

Our team’s existing Facebook page, which already had a large number of followers, was the obvious place to run virtual Chattertime sessions. This meant that when we went ‘live’, people could write their comments and the therapist running the session could respond in real time. Facebook provided the added benefit of the ‘share’ and ‘like’ buttons – so our videos could easily be shared.

The format of the video sessions mirrored that of our typical sessions. We would start with information aimed at parents and carers, for example a tip of the week, how to contact us if further advice was required, and a brief explanation of the session in general. We’d then move onto a virtual ‘circle time’ outlined in a simple, home drawn visual timetable. This consisted of the ‘hello song’, a story with Makaton signs, some songs, an attention-grabbing activity and a goodbye song. The rationale was that once the hello song had started, the SLT would run through all the activities with minimal disruptions or ‘adult talk’ so that children could better attend. We agreed a loose script for each SLT to follow when running the sessions.

After a few practice videos on our personal Facebook accounts we were ready! On 7 April, the first Chattertime Live launched. We are particularly proud of how quickly following the lockdown announcement we were able to get the sessions running and have since run them twice a week.

Positive response

The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive and the links have been shared by individuals and other organisations including ICAN, the children’s communication charity, and NAPLIC. Each video gets lots of ‘likes’ and we have received specific comments providing positive feedback on how sessions have helped families. We have really enjoyed running Chattertime Live and the model has now been extended to access school-aged children with School Talk Live. We hope that these offer useful and fun support to children and families at home.