The last year has been an exceptionally challenging one as we all attempt in our own way to cope with the extraordinary impact of the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. The ripple effect of this has been massive with virtually every single person impacted in some way, even if they did not contract the virus themselves. In my 30+ years working in the early years sector, I have never known such unprecedented times. Issues such as the long-term closures of schools, interruptions to routine health services, isolation from family and friendship networks, and disruptions to everyday living have rarely been seen since the outbreak of the second world war over 80 years ago.
But, true to form, the early years workforce, headteachers and school staff have soldiered on. Leaders have worked relentlessly to adapt their settings to ensure high quality provision remains in place for the children of key workers and vulnerable families. Despite public safety concerns, early years professionals and school staff have prioritised the care of children over their own anxieties about their personal health and well-being. Never has highly effective leadership been so important to navigate our way through these turbulent times.
The effectiveness of a setting relies heavily on the influence of leadership and those responsible for making key decisions. Schools and early years providers have had to make significant changes to their provisions over the last year. Some of these may only be temporary, but others may remain. So, in these unpredictable times, how will leaders make the right decisions about what needs to change? In this article, I use the term ‘teachers’ to cover all forms of practitioner working with children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, whether they are based at home, or in a school or setting.
Review and reflection have never been more important. What is working well? Why is this? What impact is it having on both children and staff? Some of the changes which have been made to the organisation of a setting may never have been considered necessary prior to Covid. For example, how children are grouped into ‘bubbles’. It is so unusual for year groups not to routinely mix together within the school timetable and is a structure which would not normally be planned for. But how is it working? Are there any positives to this? Or do the negatives outweigh these?
Leaders have the ongoing demanding task of monitoring their provision and deciphering where change is needed. Scrupulous monitoring, review and evaluation contribute towards working out what is working well. Key to this, is ensuring children’s care, learning and development needs are consistently met. There is great coverage in the media about teachers needing to ensure children ‘catch up’ in their learning. Yes, there is some truth in this, but let us remember that not all children will have had negative experiences and fallen far behind in their learning during the pandemic. Let us not put even more pressure on our children who have experienced such a disruptive year.
Overall, parents have played a key part in helping to ensure children continue to learn and make progress during lockdown. Obviously, home schooling will not have been able to cover all aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage in full, but, for some children, significant learning has taken place. We must not lose sight of this. So, now teachers must carefully assess what each child can still do and what they need to learn next. We must not be drawn into the media’s hype about ‘gaps’ and the need to accelerate children’s learning. Remember the saying, ‘We cannot run until we can walk…’ This applies to children’s learning too. Trying to plan a term’s worth of ‘missed learning’ into a fortnight will not work. We must focus our efforts on planning for children’s individual learning needs and styles, as we always do. Once this is established, the curriculum can be delivered accordingly.
What we must consider, however, is the life experiences children have had during lockdown. In assessing their individual needs, we must fully understand their emotional well-being. We all recognise that for children to learn effectively, they must feel safe and secure. Returning to settings and school following a long period of absence is going to be unsettling. Every family will have had different experiences and Covid may have directly affected them, or those close to them. Social isolation will have been challenging for many parents without the support of close friends and family. Some families may have been directly affected with unemployment, poverty, long term sickness, domestic violence and other aspects of crisis. The impact of these factors on children will be great but may not be directly obvious. Teachers need to work with parents and carers, within the constraints of social distancing, to identify every child’s unique learning and development needs. These may be very different now, from those identified prior to March 2020.
Leaders need to have a clear overview of what the information gained through assessment is reflecting. What is the priority learning need of each cohort of children? How do these differ from the curriculum that would normally be planned for at this time of the year? How will teaching need to be adapted to take account of this? Once these changes are made, how will teachers know children are making progress? These aspects link directly to Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework – the ‘intention’, the ‘implementation’ and the ‘impact’ of the curriculum.
During the summer term, settings are routinely preparing children for the transition from early years settings into Reception, or the move to Year 1. So, assessment needs to be especially rigorous to assess how ready children are for this next phase of their learning. Focus is highly likely to be needed in supporting children’s social and emotional skills; their language and communication; and their abilities to solve problems and work things out for themselves. Previous long-term plans need to be thoroughly reviewed. Teachers need to focus on where children are at now. This is highly likely to be variable amongst all the children, and teaching will need to be even more precisely focused than ever before.
There may be some training needs for teachers. For example, we know lockdown arrangements have had an adverse impact on some children’s emotional needs. Schools and settings are now being encouraged to train staff in mental health awareness. This is an aspect I fully support. We need to recognise that children may have silently witnessed, or directly experienced, trauma within the home. They may have not always felt safe at home and with settings being closed, have not been able to reach out to adults they trust to help them. This means some children may return to settings with significant emotional trauma. Other children may find the separation from their parents and carers particularly challenging having been at home with them for such an extended period. Conversely, some parents may find it hard to separate from their children and feel anxious about them returning to settings and be worried about their health and welfare.
The complexities involved in reopening settings and welcoming all children back following lockdown are significant. Leaders need to work closely with their staff to continually review their provision. Teachers need to be fully involved in this. They need to be actively responding to what assessment information is showing. Is there a need for greater emphasis on the promotion of children’s language skills? Which aspects of children’s learning are they making less progress in than others? Why is this? Have younger children returned to settings and ‘forgotten’ how to play and explore? They may not have had such rich, stimulating learning experiences provided for them at home. Their perseverance, determination and curiosity may not have been fostered as well, as well-meaning parents and carers may have inadvertently inhibited children’s opportunities to do things by themselves, or with their own desired outcome.
When reflecting on your provision, re-visit the characteristics of effective learning. As we know, these are the traits children need to learn effectively. Encourage teachers to observe children carefully. How well are children deeply engaged in their play and exploration? How long can they concentrate for without being distracted? How much patience do children have to achieve their own goal?
Observation, assessment, and evaluation are crucial here. Teachers need to be continually monitoring the weekly changes in children as they return to settings and settle back into routines they were familiar with prior to lockdown. Some children may not be able to achieve as much as they could before. But what other skills do they now have? Are these contributing towards the progress they make, or could they be hindering their learning in some way?
Never has a holistic approach to reflection been so important. These are challenging times and I do not underestimate the time involved for teachers to accurately identify the learning stage of every child in their setting. We need to focus on what information from today’s assessment is showing, rather than getting distracted with what a child needs to do by September. Yes, this is the long-term goal, but a child is not going to make rapid progress and be fast-tracked through to Reception or Year 1 without time being spent on re-visiting the fundamental foundations for learning. As teachers, we need to celebrate every child’s unique qualities. We need to acknowledge and respect their individual characters and praise them for being who they are. After such a disruptive period of time, we need to foster children’s confidence and emotional well-being. Put aside, for now, what children cannot do and celebrate what they can do.
Through careful tracking and monitoring, leaders can make sure that the unique learning styles, interests and preferences of every child are accurately planned for. Identified training for teachers must focus on the here and now. What are the priorities? Is more emphasis needed on supporting one aspect of learning? How can teachers adapt their practice to include greater support for this through play and continuous provision? How will the impact on any training be measured? What success criteria will be seen when this is successful?
Effective reflection and evaluation means monitoring takes place at every level. Teachers, and those working directly with children, continually review the learning and progress they see. They systematically evaluate the impact of provision and plan for the next stage. This process needs to continue with relevant oversight from leaders to ensure relevant changes are made when needed and new ways of working are fully embraced and embedded across a setting. Changes might not bring about instant improvement. Adaptations and modifications may need to be made before it feels ‘right’. Remember these are unprecedented times. Children who have not remained in schools and settings during lockdown have suffered significant absence from their typical learning routines. It will take time for some children to settle back in and pick up where they were previously.
An analogy which often comes into my mind when thinking about children returning to schools and settings is a little like a field full of new spring lambs; all eager to explore and do their own thing. We are experts in early years. We know how children learn through play and exploration. We must not be put off by the challenges ahead. Teachers are the ‘shepherds’ which will gently guide the children and place them back on track so they are ready and fully prepared for the next stage in learning. The task is not always a simple one, but it’s one we can achieve if we plan for it carefully.