Why empowering parents and children is a society-wide effort

6 July 2020
Celebrating 80 years of social work teaching at Sydney

The pandemic has presented difficulties for parents and social workers alike, says Parenting Research Centre director of policy and practice, Annette Michaux. But the profession is built to thrive in challenging times like these.

From sleep to screentime, through to mental health and child protection, the Parenting Research Centre has an impressively wide mission to improve the lives of every Australian child and parent.

As the university marks 80 years of social work teaching in 2020, Illuminate spoke to alumna Annette Michaux (BSW, ’94), the centre’s director of policy and practice, about leading its evidence-based approach to policy, research, and public engagement.

“We're all about supporting children to thrive by supporting parents in their parenting,” said Michaux. “And we do that in a variety of ways, such as directly supporting parents through the Raising Children Network, an Australian parenting portal, where you can get advice directly about things like bedwetting through to adolescent behaviour.”

The website is well-known among Australian parents, as a place to turn for sound advice on everything from pregnancy, to preschool, to coronavirus and families. The pandemic has been a challenging time for kids, parents, and schools alike — an environment reflected in large spikes of traffic through to the Raising Children website throughout Australia’s ‘lockdown’ period.

The reason why we focus strongly on supporting parents is because they are the most critical people in the lives of children, and if you support parents, children are going to thrive. We're all about child outcomes, but we do that through supporting the most important people in children's lives.

This, Michaux explains, is where social work expertise really pays dividends. Take the pandemic as just one example. “The COVID experience has really brought to bear that parents need supportive workplaces. They need our education system to work. They need a basic income in order to be able to do this incredibly important job,” she said.

Pandemic parenting

It’s perhaps counterintuitive, but the pressures of the pandemic have opened doors for many parents to seek greater support beyond the family unit. Michaux hopes this continues.

“One of the things we're really wanting to do is normalise help-seeking. Because what we know is if you get help early for a problem, then it's much more likely that it's going to be resolved rather than waiting. But there's still quite a lot of stigma around coming forward,” said Michaux.

“That’s one of the opportunities with COVID, it's a bit of a leveller. People have really been opening up and talking about the need for mental health support, the need for parenting support, and things like the JobKeeper and JobSeeker allowances,” she said.

This is why the Parenting Research Centre wants to advocate consistently and thoroughly to ensure everyone gets the supports they need.  “Everybody should be getting access to good healthcare and great schools, but we know not everybody is getting that help,” said Michaux.

“So, we need to make sure our approaches are incredibly inclusive, so we made to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children of refugees, and children whose parents have disabilities, or children with disabilities, have the opportunities everybody else has.”

Helping schoolkids catch up

But many existing inequalities have been widened by the upheaval of the pandemic. For example, a recent analysis by the Grattan Institute suggest many disadvantaged students — who were falling behind classmates before the crisis — have slipped further back. “Even if remote learning was working well, disadvantaged students are likely to have learnt at about 50 per cent of their regular rate, losing about a month of learning over a two-month lockdown,” the report notes.

“We know from the Grattan Institute that some kids might've been left behind in that period. Some kids have actually found this great and have enjoyed and benefited from time at home, but others have really missed out because their parents have had to work,” said Michaux. The centre held webinars in collaboration with Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright, director of the university’s Research Centre for Children and Families, to understand any practice implications and how it can collaborate across education, health, community services and the non-government sector to better support children and families.

A resilient profession

The move to webinars is an example of how the pandemic may transform the social work profession itself. Where GPs have turned to telehealth, some social workers have adopted telepractice – enabling social workers to conduct home visits remotely. For Michaux, the profession is well-placed to adapt to both new ways of working and the new challenges.

I read recently that the social work profession was made for a disaster like this pandemic because we are so flexible, and we’re able to understand different levels of social shifts that affect children and families, but we also understand the communities and systems around them. And I think that's one of the reasons why a lot of social workers end up being in quite senior roles.

University days

Michaux’s career in social work leadership has been long and distinguished, taking in periods as general manager at The Benevolent Society, CEO of the NSW Child Protection Council, along with leadership roles at the NSW Commission for Children and Young People. At the start of her career, Michaux was a social worker in child welfare and community development in the UK and Australia.

What does she recall of her studies at university in the mid-nineties? “I think I was absolutely passionate about social work and passionate about learning from other people,” said Michaux, who completed a Bachelor of Social Work before obtaining a Masters of Education at the University of Technology, Sydney.  

“Social work and education are all about constantly challenging yourself and learning. Sydney University and UTS were fantastic environments for learning from teachers and lecturers, but crucially the other students. It's much more diverse now than it was in the nineties, so the opportunities for learning through that diversity are probably much greater now than they were back then.”

She recalls the attitude of teachers as ‘collaborative and collegiate’. “It felt like we were working on things together even back then, on the projects we talked about and the placements we had. Particularly social work. So, social work academics are often practitioners, so they're very connected to the field. So that was really great.”

Michaux was already working in the field when she did her social work degree. “I found that process of learning the theory really important because I already had a lot of practice experience. I think that was of incredible value.” Michaux maintains strong connections to a number of staff in the School of Education and Social work, such as Dr Susan Heward-Belle and Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright.

Michaux will speak at a Sydney School of Education and Social Work webinar on Wednesday 5 August.

The Responsiveness & adaptation in uncertain times: Sharing creative practice webinar will examine the pandemic’s impact on social work practice and will be followed by a discussion with social workers. The webinar is being hosted as the University of Sydney marks 80 years of social work teaching in 2020.