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Development Matters: A landscape of possibilities, not a roadmap

Development Matters:  A landscape of possibilities, not a roadmap


A fundamental principle of the EYFS is that each child is A Unique Child.  But do we really practice what we preach?  How often in practice are children viewed as if they are all the same, expected or even pushed into following the same progression at roughly the same ages?  


As one of the authors of Development Matters, I am concerned that the tool intended to support practitioners to understand and foster children’s development is too often misused.  When used as a tick list of descriptors of what children must achieve, it can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners. 


There is, I believe, strong validity in Development Matters as an overview of typical progression across all the areas of learning and development.  It has a pedigree of input from people with a wide range of professional expertise, and was road-tested by practitioners in all types of settings.   But a key word here is ‘typical’ – the descriptors are not ‘expected’ and certainly not ‘required’.    In fact, the reference group involved in writing Development Matters was so concerned about possible misuse that they insisted on the statement that you will find on the bottom of every page of the document: 


Children develop at their own rates, and in their own ways.  The development statements and their order should not be taken as necessary steps for individual children.  They should not be used as checklists. The age/stage bands overlap because these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development.


What’s wrong with a tick list?

The statements in Development Matters are common examples of how children might develop and give a general picture of progression, but they are by no means the whole story.  Children show millions of aspects of development, so in order to even approach listing the range of development observed in children at each age Development Matters would need to fill many volumes instead of being a brief guide.  


If we confine ourselves to looking just for the list of descriptors when we reflect on our observations of children, we are missing most of what children are showing us.  And so we miss knowing how best to support them in what they are really doing and learning. 


Just imagine a group of children who are crossing a meadow from one side to the other.  They will have completely individual experiences of the journey.  One will dash ahead for a bit and then stop to investigate a dip in the ground, observing on hands and knees the mini-beasts creeping about. Another will spread her arms and fly about in concentric circles.  Someone will want to gather all the red flowers on the way.  One will be reminded of previous experiences and want to talk about it, while others will be spreading out across the field, pretending to be something or somebody.  Maybe a child will be nervous and want to move forward only while holding hands with someone they trust.  Gradually they all make their way to the other side of the meadow. 


Now picture a set of stepping stones laid out across the meadow, in a straight line from one edge to the other, which is where the adult walks and keeps her focus.  She is quick to take note whenever a child happens to step on or near one of the stepping stones.   Often she calls the children away from their activities, asking them to come and step on one of the stones so she can note it down.  She encourages them to keep on the path, asking them to step on the very next step – even though some would rather run round or jump over a stone or two.  


What is the result?  The adult’s narrow focus means she is unaware of what the children are really doing or thinking about.  Children who are busy fully experiencing the meadow as they forge their individual paths miss out on sharing and interacting with the adult in ways which could have supported and enriched their learning.  If children are continually called by the adult to particular stones, their experience is narrowed and they have an impoverished experience of the meadow.  Their motivation will also take a dive, since they are discouraged from doing what they have internal drives to do. 


Learning is not predictable


Researchers are clear that learning is messy, like these children working their own ways across the meadow.  It doesn’t proceed in an orderly fashion in a straightforward and predictable sequence.  Instead, learning happens in fits and starts with rapid periods of development followed by plateaus, or even backward steps as the learner concentrates on another area.  Not all areas proceed at the same rate.  And although the general progress of development applies broadly across most children – they are gradually working their way from one side of the meadow to the other – the paths they take and the rates of progress are individual. 


Development Matters descriptors can be seen examples of the general flow of learning and development.  But there is no reason children should be expected to match the sequence exactly.  They may well miss out some statements, and still reach more advanced descriptors by another pathway.  There is also no justification for automatically identifying as a ‘next step’ the next descriptor in the list. 


Observing, assessing, planning


Along with being good partners to children within warm, responsive relationships and providing rich and enabling environments, the cycle of observation-assessment -planning is fundamental to effective early years practice.   Useful observation means noticing the detail of what children are actually doing – what they did, what they said or communicated in other ways, the context.  Then we assess, and often here is where the trouble begins.  If we equate assessment with simply trying to find a descriptor to match what we noticed so we can tick it off and move on, then we have missed the point.  


Assessment, as Development Matters points out, means ‘analysing observations and deciding what they tell us about children’.   This requires thoughtful awareness and goes far beyond assigning a descriptor from the list in an age/stage band.  Assessment should be based on a fascination with the uniqueness of each individual child, as we ask ourselves:  Who is this child? How do they feel? What are they interested in? What are they thinking about? What question in their mind are they trying to answer? How are they going about their learning?   A skilled professional whose assessment answers some of these questions will be able then to move onto the next step of planning how to be of greatest use in supporting the child’s learning and development.  They will be able to support the child where they really are on their journey, and not by trying to hoist them onto a predetermined track. 


Deciding, or making our best guess, about what we understand from observations is something that happens hundreds of times a day if we are really interested in children.  And most of the time our planning follows immediately.  Is there a role for me here to support this child in this moment? Should I say something, and if so what?  Should I offer a suggestion, a comment, or just an interested look and a smile?  Is it time to raise a challenge, or point out a problem?  Should I invite the child to tell me about what they are doing?  Could I offer vocabulary, describing what I see them doing? Would a bit of support or encouragement help the child to stick with a challenge they are facing? 


So planning is all about the next steps, whether for right now or tomorrow or beyond.  But whose next step is it – the child’s, or the adult’s?


Next steps 


Practitioners often feel under pressure to identify next steps for each child, whether the expectation comes from managers, from Ofsted, or even from a computer programme that automatically offers the next Development Matters descriptor whenever a judgement has been made.  It is important that we know each child so well that we can describe their current achievements, know what they are working on now, and put that in the context of our knowledge of the overall direction of development ahead.  So we know they are working their way across the meadow, but where they take their next step will be individual to them, and not necessarily on the path of stepping stones through the centre.   In addition, they will not necessarily be ready to move on at all, but may linger to consolidate rather than push on to the next. 


Identifying a next step from a predetermined list can result in very superficial and misguided planning.  We may have misinterpreted what was really central for the child. Consider, for example, a child who is throwing a ball repeatedly against a wall.  It would be easy to cite this as evidence of ‘Shows increasing control over an object in pushing, patting, throwing, catching or kicking it’, and the adult might think the appropriate next step would be to use the ball for targeting activities or kicking games.  But what if thinking more carefully about the situation leads the practitioner to realise that the child was joining in with two others, and perhaps the important learning to the child was about how to develop and maintain the play together.   In this case rather than thinking of ball games, it would be more useful for the adult to think of ways to give opportunity and support for the child to work and play with others. 


We need to be thinking for ourselves as we decide what is important in a situation, and in deciding what comes next.  It requires both judgement and creativity, and is not as simple as following a set of instructions.   While keeping in mind a child’s overall progress in all areas, the adult could be aware that most often a next step is about the adult role, not the child.  As Development Matters points out, learning and development is the result of what the child brings as the able learner, together with the relationships and environments which it is the adult’s role to provide.  So we need to ask ourselves:  As a next step in response to the assessment I have made, how do I need to interact with this child, and what opportunities or experiences could I provide?  Too often people concentrate just on the descriptors of children’s learning, without giving attention to the suggestions in Development Matters columns  of what adults could do and could provide to support across all areas and ages/stages.   These, too, are a few examples and not a formula for success; they are prompts for thinking to support professional reflection and planning.


Demonstrating progress


As well as assessing and planning in an ongoing, formative way, it is important to be able to show children’s progress over time – in other words, how far have they got in finding their own way across the meadow.  This is where it is useful to occasionally step back from the individual, detailed awareness of each child’s learning and make a summative judgement.  Data gathered from summative judgements perhaps two or three times per year can provide useful information.  Summative judgements tell you how a child is progressing in relation to typical learning and development, and can help you to consider whether your practice could benefit from greater emphasis in particular areas for individuals, groups of children, or the setting as a whole.   


The summative judgement, however, must be as true as we can make it, and basing it on whether or not a child has matched every statement in an age/stage band is not a valid approach.  There may well be statements missing, and statements demonstrated across two or three bands.  The best-fit approach answers the problem by acknowledging that although not every child will have moved along in the same way, there is a typical movement.  Identifying the band which most closely describes the child, based on what you know and have observed  whether or not it has been recorded,  will enable you to describe the child’s development in terms of whether or not it is typical for their age in the various areas of the EYFS.



Nancy Stewart
Nancy is a skilled teacher, consultant and trainer with nationally recognised expertise in early years development and learning, and quality improvement in teaching and provision. <br /><br />She has worked closely with Department for Education policy teams in implementing national programmes, and in drafting revisions to curriculum and assessment in the Early Years Foundation Stage review. She has taught and led teams working with children from birth to 8, and has significant experience of training early years practitioners and supporting action research. <br /><br />She has been central to developing national training materials on assessment and on pedagogy, particularly around the role of the adult in playful teaching and learning. In addition, early communication and language for thinking is a prime area of interest and expertise, along with children’s development as self-regulated learners.<br /><br />Nancy has written the number 1 selling book How children learn - The characteristics of effective early learning. Nancy wrote co-authored Development Matters with Helen Moylett. Also with Helen she wrote best sellers Understanding the revised EYFS and Emerging, expected and exceeding: understanding the revised EYFS Profile.
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