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Observing and evaluating children’s well-being

As adults working in early years we strive to build positive and affirming relationships with the children in our care. Building up these strong relationships enables us to have a deep level of understanding about the children we work with. By knowing them and understanding them well we can interpret the nuances in their personalities and thereby recognise their changing moods and emotions. The EYFS framework requires us to observe and consider the personal, social and emotional development of each child. 
Personal, social and emotional development involves helping children to develop a positive sense of themselves, and others; to form positive relationships and develop respect for others; to develop social skills and learn how to manage their feelings; to understanding appropriate behavior in groups; and to have confidence in their own abilities (DfE. 2017)

Development Matters 1.pngIn the Early Years Foundation Stage handbook (DfE. 2017) there are four overarching principles described that should shape early years practice. One of these requires us to recognise the ‘uniqueness’ of each child and requires us, as teachers, to help children develop to feel ‘resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’. To enable us to do that it is critical that we know and understand where every child ‘is’ on their individual developmental journey. The ‘key person’ as required within the Statutory Framework (DfE. 2017) has a crucial role in establishing a ‘settled relationship for the child’ and building a ‘relationship with the parents’. With these relationships in place, a shared understanding between the people who care for, and about, the child can be developed. This shared understanding enables us to recognise and respond to any changes in the child’s sense of well-being. 
The ‘Early years outcomes’ document (DfE. 2013) asks us to think about and notice how confident and settled children are with themselves, their peers and with familiar and unfamiliar adults. We are required to notice how children are soothed, comforted and supported in different stages of their development. The ‘Development Matters’ document gives examples and suggestions of ways in which children can be helped to be happy, confident and independent (Early Education. 2012). A child’s increasing sense of self and their developing sense of their place in the world is certainly something that can be observed, encouraged and nurtured – but is it something that can be measured? 
Some quantitative methods seek to measure children’s apparent well-being and involvement in activities. These measurements are taken as indicators of children’s learning states. The thinking behind this being that if children are happy, settled and engaged, their capacity for learning is optimised. This method raises the following question ‘Why are we measuring well-being as an indicator for something else when the well-being should be the ‘thing’ in itself’?

That Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) is included in the prime areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage signifies its importance. In the statutory framework document (DfE. 2017) the three key aspects of a child’s development are called ‘the prime areas’. These three areas are described as being ‘particularly crucial for igniting children’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, and for building their capacity to learn, form relationships and thrive’. The three prime areas exist co-dependently, triangulating a child’s life journey. Well-being therefore, under the description of PSED, does exist as a ‘thing in itself’ rather than a marker for something else. 
Having established that well-being is a ‘thing in itself’ we need to consider whether engagement and the capacity to learn is something to measure, or if it is something to observe and evaluate to inform plans. Engagement, as an attribute, is noted for observation with the PSED requirements (DfE. 2017). A child’s capacity and disposition for learning are detailed and examined explicitly in the three characteristics of effective learning descriptors in the statutory framework (DfE. 2017). Early years practitioners ‘must reflect on the different ways that children learn and reflect these in their practice’. So, like well-being, a child’s disposition for learning is something to be observed and considered over time. 
Moving on to consider well-being and engagement as states in their own right, rather than as markers for something else we should first consider what exactly is well-being and what does it look like? 
In answer to the question ‘What does well-being look like?’ Jane explains:
"Well-being can be seen in a child’s physical presentations, if practitioners know what to look for. A child who is like a coiled spring, tense shoulders, neck and quite a rigid body, possibly rushing about, or moving cautiously and hanging back is a child I’d be keeping an extra eye on. Likewise, a child who is very inactive or sleeps for extended periods would be on my ‘radar.’

A child whose well-being is fairly stable will enjoy a challenge, will be able to seek comfort if something is overwhelming, scary, frustrating, or they get hurt. They will be soothed when the adults are kind and will recover pretty quickly back to a state of relaxation and full on curiosity".

Wellbeing 1.jpgClearly, well-being is something to notice and to note. A child who does not demonstrate high levels of well-being should be of concern - not because they are not learning – but because they are troubled. Reducing a child’s well-being to a chart seems somewhat simplistic and rather ‘misses the point’ of our role in early years. If a child is seen to be troubled, stressed or unhappy, don’t give their emotions a score … give their emotions some validity by acting to reassure, comfort and affirm them.

The Leuven Involvement Scale (Laevers,1994) suggests that measurements of children’s well-being and involvement in an early years provision is a useful tool that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a learning environment. Used correctly and by skilled, trained practitioners this can be a valuable self-assessment tool in the same way as ECERs (ECERS, 2018) and SSTEW (Siraj, et al 2015) might be. However, over time, a somewhat reductionist view has evolved where the Leuven Involvement Scale is used, not to evaluate an environment, but to assess children.
This is troubling. In Leuven, we have a method that was researched and designed to help practitioners evaluate and develop their environment. The method uses the responses of children as indicators of the effectiveness of the environment for learning. However, it is clearly being used by practitioners who have not understood its key purpose and it is being used to ‘score’ children.

Discussing this with Jane we agreed that we are not sure how such a snapshot of how a child’s level of ‘involvement’ can capture its complexities. The Leuven Well-being and Involvement Scales, when used in isolation, without the background knowledge and understanding regarding evaluation of the learning environment, consist of two simple tables which are aimed at observing and categorising children’s well-being based upon outward signs of apparent distress and possible pleasure. Some advisory material provided by third parties describe the observation method as a procedure which is ‘simple and can be compared to ‘scanning’. (Plymouth, 2011). Other material easily available online doesn’t, in our view, draw sufficient attention to the intended use of the scale, i.e. for practitioners to evaluate their environment. The scale is being used to evaluate the children in their care. For example, websites offer display posters reminding practitioners of the well-being and engagement indicators. Reviews of the resources demonstrate the ways that practitioners are using them “I will use these with all EYFS staff as part of our training for Baseline at training day at start of Autumn term” and “The Leuven Scales are an excellent way to provide a baseline assessment pre-intervention and then post intervention to monitor its efficacy.” (Twinkl. 2018). On other sites, the resource for teachers is categorised under ‘Pedagogy and professional development / Child development’ (TES, 2013) thereby suggesting that the scales are about the child’s development; again, not about the quality of the environment as was the original intention for the scales. 

There is no doubt that observations of a child’s well-being and dispositions for learning are a useful tool. Jane agrees:

"I can see how regularly observing children’s emotional and physical ‘states’ may flag up the need for different kinds of input and create a different view of their needs. However, practitioners first need to know about attachment, trauma and the stress response in order to create a coherent picture of how emotionally and physically regulated or distressed a child is throughout the day. 

This then needs to be run through the lens of a robust history of their earliest months and years, their pre-birth and birth experiences. Otherwise the ‘scanning’ could be misleading and normalize behaviours which may be showing a high stress response which is misinterpreted because of this basic tool.

Children’s emotional, mental and physical wellness is at the heart of everything in EYFS. Learning, socialising and a basic enjoyment of life will be marred if a child experiences daily life as stressful and unpredictable. Too much stress for too long without the capacity to feel comforted by the adults around them will impact any child’s physical and mental health. Think of a car being driven at high speed in the wrong gear, day after day, after day!"

The role of the key person in enabling this to happen cannot be underestimated. Quite rightly, the key person is a requirement in the statutory framework (DfE. 2017). The continuity of their care and understanding is critical in providing their key child with the settled relationship they need to thrive.

If practitioners are using the scales incorrectly, i.e. not for the purpose that the author intended then we share concerns, Jane comments:
"My concerns about measuring well-being this way (using a quantitative scale) is it takes a practitioner down a narrow route without a road map for anything other than to get from A to B every day without allowances for ‘disruptions’ such as adverse road conditions, accidents, car troubles etc.  After all only a few people will repeatedly travel that route every day, therefore, many more individualized maps are needed!

For example the Leuven scales for assessing a child’s well-being using ‘mini scans’ throughout the day, concerns me as Level 3 states,

Level 3 Moderate 
The child has a neutral posture. Facial expression and posture show little or no emotion. There are no signs indicating sadness or pleasure, comfort or discomfort.

As someone who has worked with hundreds of highly anxious and also traumatised children and adults, such presentations would be a real cause for concern. I would need to make my observations in the context of the other things I might know about a child, and the period of time. Nonetheless it would be something I’d be noting and tracking for several days, if not weeks.

Why? Because one of the ways the body and brain cope with too much stress, unpredictability or threat, within their earliest caregiving relational experiences is by automatically shutting down. Young children can’t flee or fight so nature numbs them out for from the emotional and physical discomfort. So a child may well present as described in Level 3 as a sign of very real distress as opposed to ‘moderate level of well-being.’ A practitioner needs to have a greater knowledge and understanding of what was happening for the child at home, and what they’d previously experienced both physical and emotionally.

My immediate fear about practitioners using these scales in the wrong way is that they will not help them look beyond presenting behaviours and are a blunt instrument when it comes to assessing young children’s wellness. It is complex stuff which needs to be taught and revisited regularly as it is how we safeguard all aspects of children’s well-being and development and protect them from harm. 

My greatest concern is that using ticks to assess a child’s well-being does not invite and value a practitioner’s instinct that all is not well. Instincts are invaluable as the human race exists because our predecessors listened to them often enough.

Emotional and physical distress shows up in repetitive ailments, such as ongoing constipation, digestive issues and asthma. In behaviours, such as big over and under reactions to daily life events, like not getting the purple cup at lunchtime and a myriad of others ways which form a picture. Meanwhile a practitioner’s gut instinct must be listened to whilst further information is directly observed and compassionately gathered. 

In conclusion, there are some useful tools available to teachers which when used correctly, and for their intended purpose can prove extremely beneficial in improving outcomes for children. All of these tools require staff to have appropriate training and develop a professional understanding of what is required to enable them to make informed observations and decisions that positively affect the lives of children in our care. Without this deep understanding of what is to be achieved and the associated responsibilities some tools can hinder, rather than help, children. Measuring well-being is not something to be undertaken lightly; such a limited scope, by untrained staff, might reduce such a significant area to a simple ticklist.


Co-author, Jane Evans http://www.thejaneevans.com/

Department for Education. (2017). Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. DfE

Department for Education. (2013). Early years outcomes. A non-statutory guide for practitioners and inspectors to help inform understanding of child development through the early years. DfE

Early Education. (2012). Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Early Education

Laevers F. (1994) The Leuven Involvement Scale for Young Children. Manual and video. Leuven, Belgium: Centre for Experiential Education; 1994. Experiential Education Series, No 1.

Laevers, F (2011) Experiential Education: Making Care and Education More Effective Through Well-Being and Involvement. Child-encyclopedia website. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/child-care-early-childhood-education-and-care/according-experts/experiential-education-making-care (accessed 11/01/2018)

ECERS website. http://www.ecersuk.org/3.html (accessed 11/01/2018)

Plymouth City Council. (2011). OBSERVING LEARNING, PLAYING AND INTERACTING IN THE EYFS. Leuven well being and involvement scales. http://web.plymouth.gov.uk/documents-ldtoolkitleuven.pdf (accessed 11/01/2018)

Iram Siraj, Denise Kingston, Edward Melhuish. (2015). Assessing Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care. Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale for 2-5-year-olds provision. Trentham Books.

Twinkl website. https://www.twinkl.co.uk/resource/t-c-6863-the-leuven-scales-for-well-being-and-involvement-display-posters (accessed 11/01/2018)

TES website. https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/well-being-and-involvement-leuven-scale-6340990 (accessed 11/01/2018)

Rebecca's family hail from Liverpool but she was born and bred in the south of England. She gained a PGCE from Cambridge and an MA in Education researching school improvement. Rebecca taught in the primary sector for several years before setting up her own nursery, gaining EYPS and later working in nurseries and other early years settings helping identify areas for improvement

Jane Evans
Jane began working in early years care and education 22 years ago as a supervisor in a pre-school, she loved it! She also worked in a pre-school for children with complex physical, learning and emotional needs and was a childminder. The children taught her so much and encouraged to study their development and needs so she could better support and care for them.Jane now regularly delivers training to Early Years settings and speaks at conferences focusing the impact of childhood trauma and anxiety on early development.

Edited by Rebecca

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