Eight things to consider for online family time

With the Government’s clear instruction that we must stay home, alternative ways are having to be found for children to keep in touch with their birth families and other people that are important to them. The maintaining of children’s special relationships has never been more important. For many foster carers, fostering service staff and birth families this means trying new video calling programmes, like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype, as well as keeping in touch with telephone calls and messages.

For some children and young people virtual family time might be upsetting, and phone calls and messages might be more manageable. But, where appropriate, video calling is a fantastic way to feel close to friends and family when we can’t visit them. 

To help foster carers navigate this new challenge and enable children and their families to continue to enjoy time together when they cannot meet face to face, we’ve put together this list of things to consider.


1. Setting up your space 

It’s worth giving some thought to where you’re going to host online contact. For some children or families, it might be unsettling for family time to be happening within the foster home. It might help to set up in the same place every time, facing the same way, with the same background each time. Before you start the call, check what’s visible in the background, including pictures on the walls and in mirrors. 

 2. The relative’s setting 

Family members are likely to be calling from home, for some children and young people they will therefore be seeing their home for the first time for a while. This might be very emotionally challenging, or they may be reminded of difficult experiences at home. You may want to consider how you prepare them for this or it may be necessary to avoid video contact altogether. 

3. Limiting distractions 

To ensure everyone gets as much as possible from the call, try to minimise distractions. Ask the rest of the household not to interrupt, make sure other children are occupied and turn off any screens you’re not using. 

4. Activities and conversations 

Depending on the age of the child or young person you might need to plan some activities or conversation topics for the call. If family time usually happens in a contact centre or in the community there is usually plenty to keep families occupied – sitting in front of a screen is very different, and attention spans, especially of younger children, will be very short. 

There are loads of blogs online with ideas for activities to do on video calls with children, such as show and tell, reading a story or games like 20 questions. 

5. Timings 

Moving online might mean making changes to the length of time or frequency of family time. For example, one two-hour family time session a week may turn into four half-hour slots online. This may be particularly important for small children who can find it hard to focus on a video call for long.  

When moving online, start with a short call to help children get used to seeing their family virtually. Before making this change to online family time, of course, make sure to get agreement from the child’s family members and social worker. 

6. Your involvement 

Family time usually takes place without the foster carer present. Depending on the age, safeguarding situation and technological competency of the child or young person you might need to be in the room while virtual family time is taking place.  

Think about how you can be there without being intrusive – perhaps by setting up and making sure everything is working, then sitting somewhere off screen.

7. Keeping your privacy 

In some situations, foster carers might not want to, or be permitted to, share their personal details or contact information. There are some steps you can take to protect your privacy:  

  • Set up an email address exclusively for your fostering, for instance on Gmail, then you can send invites out for online meetings with this address.  
  • If practical, use a separate phone and phone number for your fostering, your fostering service may be able to support you set this up. 
  • If using your own phone number, you may want to dial 141 before the number, which will make your call anonymous. 
  • If necessary, ask your social worker to schedule video calls on a programme such as Zoom on your behalf. They can then send the invitation to each participant separately and avoid personal details being exchanged.


8. Other ways to keep in touch 

Video calling won’t work for everyone, for instance those without smart phones or with limited access to the internet, but there are lots of other ways for children to keep in touch with family members. 

For those fostering babies or with ad hoc access to the internet, sending videos and photos on a messaging service can be effective, particularly if you can catch a baby smiling or giggling. 

Writing handwritten letters and cards can be a nice activity for children and they can receive things back from relatives via their social worker. There are also lots of apps you can use to send photobooks and photo postcards, directly from your phone, such as Freeprints or Touchnote.

If you’ve got ideas or experiences you’d like to share, please email campaigns@fostering.net. You can also share them with other foster carers on our online community

Our coronavirus support pages have lots of other resources.

Visit the useful resources list


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