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Individuality Matters: The Curse of Development Checklists


Child development is a process every child goes through; I know this and you know this. The process involves learning and mastering skills like sitting, walking, talking, skipping and tying shoelaces. Literature often states that children develop skills in the following main areas of development; cognitive, social and emotional, speech and language, fine motor, and gross motor. The skills that children learn are called developmental milestones. These are a set of functional skills or age specific tasks that a child acquires within a specific time frame. For instance, one developmental milestone is learning to walk. Milestones are said to develop in a sequential manner. This means that a child will need to develop some skills before he or she can develop new skills. Each milestone that a child acquires builds on the last milestone developed. For example, it is said that children must first learn to crawl and to pull up to a standing position before they are able to walk. However, my mother told me that I did not crawl at all, and actually stood up and took my first steps. Does this mean something was wrong with me for not first crawling? What needs to be understood is that most children do pass a set of predictable milestones along the way; however each child develops differently and that an individual child may develop more quickly in one area than in another. The use of milestones in the form of development checklists do not take on the individuality of each child. They are generic and imply that all children go through the sequential process. This article aims to introduce the concept of individuality of each child with a focus on stepping away from the curse of the checklist.


Historically, development of children was ignored as children were not viewed as complex individuals capable of making decisions. The study of development in children did not begin until the early 20th century and its main focus was studying abnormalities in children. Here the emphasis was on what was wrong with children, something which still subconsciously underpins the use of development checklists today as we focus on what children ‘need’ and ‘can’t do’. Today health professionals use uniform child developmental checklists to determine whether children are reaching developmental milestones in the way they speak, behave, move, learn, and play.  These are used to determine whether a child is functioning at the appropriate developmental level for the child’s age.  They are not used to diagnose a child’s problem, if there is one, but rather as a screening tool to determine if further testing is warranted. Don’t get me wrong, I am not shunning development checklists; after all it is always good to know that children are progressing roughly in line with what is expected for their age. It is useful to know what developments we can expect to see – and when.  Checklists are used in many early years settings and do have some usefulness. Usually presented in tabular form, checklists are generally easy to interpret and therefore accessible to all. It is when they are used religiously as a way to measure children that the danger occurs. If a child does not fit a certain statement, does this mean something is wrong? And what do you do when a child does not tick the box?


One such document that the curse of the checklist has hit is the much appreciated Development Matters. It is a non-statutory guidance which supports all those working in early years settings to implement the requirements of the statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Development Matters demonstrates how the four themes of the EYFS framework, and the principles that inform them, work together to support the development of babies, toddlers and young children within the context of the EYFS framework. The document also illustrates how the characteristics of effective learning may be supported and extended by adults, as well as how they underpin the ‘prime’ and ‘specific’ areas of learning and development. All those working to support the early learning of young children use Development Matters as part of daily observation, assessment and planning. It is also used at points during the EYFS as a guide to making best-fit summative judgements, with parents and colleagues across agencies, in relation to whether a child is showing typical development, may be at risk of delay, or is ahead for their age(Early Education, 2012). The document contains age/stage bands which overlap because these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development. The creators of the document, the British Association of Early Education, stress that when using Development Matters it is important to remember that babies, toddlers and young children develop at their own rates and in their own ways.  The development statements and their order are not necessary steps for every child and should not be used as checklists. Yet many settings today have adapted the document in some form of ticklist or checklist to measure children’s learning and development against. Why are settings using this document as a checklist to fit individual children into? How does this then support a child being individual? How does it nurture the child? Have we been caught by the dreaded curse of checklists?


Unique individuality

Something checklists de-skill us from doing is recognising and nurturing the unique individuality of each and every child. Every child is regarded as unique in the early years. The EYFS endorses uniqueness as one of its principles that children’s learning and development is based on. Although the EYFS states that a unique child means ‘every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’, (DfE, 2012) we tend not to step back and concentrate on the term ‘unique’ in itself, and what this may mean to our practice. Being unique means being the only one of its kind; each child to be one of their kind. Another way to look at this is what I call ‘individuality’. Most early years literature contains the phrase that ‘every child is an individual’ therefore giving rise to the term individuality. Individuality, to me, is the possession of characteristics that help to set an individual apart from others, and thereby makes them unique. It is vital for practitioners to have knowledge of child development as an underpinning base for their work. However, it should not be carved in stone and used religiously to observe and measure children against. Rather, it should form a base for you to build the individuality of each child on.


As every child is unique, your role is to nurture their individuality without relying on checklists or ticklists. These should be used as guides only; here the difference between a checklist and guideline should be understood. A checklist is a list of items required, things to be done, which then gives the impression that each box needs to be ticked in order for it to be complete. A guideline on the other hand is advice or information, which means it can be considered as part of your practice but is not set in stone. Instead, it is important to think about, plan for, and interact with each child to determine their individuality. Practitioners need to focus more on processes rather than outcomes for individual children. There should be a consideration of children’s learning styles, social interactions and personalities. For example some children are quite, others noisy. Some like to spend time by themselves; others are the life of the party. Some are shy; others outgoing. Some are active; others quite. Some enter into new situations easily; others like to stand back and watch. There is also individuality in cultural and language backgrounds, life experiences, temperament, interests, skills and talents, which checklists cannot capture. How do you get to know the individuality of the children in your care without the use of checklists?


As practitioners we know that each child grows in his or her own way and in his or her own time. The following are diary snippets of two children and how differently they develop. No checklist was used to determine their individuality; these were parent’s accounts of their children, followed by reflective questions for you to engage in critical thinking about the use of checklists in your settings and the nurturing of individuality.




Three days - from the minute he was born, Abdul has been quiet and easy-going. After he was delivered, he lay quietly in his cot, even when he was washed for the first time. He fusses sometimes, but he doesn’t cry much. When he isn’t sleeping, Abdul moves his arms slowly and looks around.


Six months - Abdul has been sleeping through the night and eating at regular times since he was just a few weeks old. He still does not move around a lot. Even though his older brother was sitting by his age, Abdul goes limp when his parents try to sit him up. He loves to play with simple objects like blocks and cups, and he welcomes new experiences. He accepted solid foods and his first bath with smiling and cooing.


Two years – Abdul did not start walking until just 6 months ago, but he did start talking at 10 months. He knows many words for his age, and spends hours looking at books and talking to himself. Since he does not always reach for new things, his parents offer him lots of stimulating toys and activities. Abdul always accepts these happily. Because he is so regular in his habits, Abdul’s parents were able to start toilet training him at 20 months.


Five years - Abdul has just started Reception. He loved it from the first day. His early interest in words has continued to grow, and he started to read last year. Abdul’s teacher encourages this interest, but makes sure he has lots of chances to exercise and play with other children.




Three days - even before birth, Elif was very active. She kept her mother awake at night before she was born “bicycling in her stomach.” When she was delivered, she came out crying and kicking. She still cries a great deal. When she isn’t crying or sleeping she’s in perpetual motion—kicking, squirming, and throwing her arms about.


Six months - Elif has been sleeping through the night for just a few months. She’s still a whirling dervish. She can sit up by herself, loves to be stood up, and spends hours doing push-ups. Elif isn’t agreeable about everything, though. She cried loudly at her first bath and always spits out food the first time it’s given to her. She’ll usually try it if it’s offered again though.


Two years - Elif has been walking for over a year now. She keeps her parents busy trying to keep her out of trouble. Elif still is determined to do things her own way and has temper tantrums if she can’t. Her parents try to remain calm but firm. Elif dislikes change and refuses to sit still long enough to use the toilet. Her parents know that sooner or later she will decide she is ready.


Five years - Elif cried and put up a fuss on the first day of school, but by the end of the week she was starting to enjoy herself. It is a bit hard for her to sit still and concentrate on one thing. Everyone likes Elif, though—the other children try to imitate her skill on the playground, but most of them can’t keep up with her.


Questions and reflections for you to engage with

  1. How are checklists being used in your setting at present? What are the strengths and weaknesses of its use? Is there an alternative?
  2. Choose a child in your setting that you know least well. Why is this? Develop a plan to get to know that child better, without using any form of checklist. Think about how you will use your new knowledge to nurture the individuality of this child.
  3. Identify three examples of ways in which your setting takes into account the individuality of children.
  4. How many individual conversations have you had this week with each child? How can you improve on this?


Final thought

We are each a unique experiment. In our physical, mental, and emotional makeup, we are each different from everyone else in the world. We have our own way of walking, talking, running, writing, and throwing a ball. We vary in our ability to use language, add and subtract, spell and memorize. No one else sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels pain in exactly our way. We differ in our energy level, sleep pattern, body temperature, heartbeat, interests, and talents. In virtually every area of human growth, each of us is truly an individual. (Oregon State University, 1989)


Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/AllPublications/Page1/DFE-00023-2012

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

Ruksana Mohammed
Ruksana has developed and leads the current Early Years ITT provision at the University of East London. Prior to this, Ruksana led on the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) and lectured on the BA Hons and Masters in Early Childhood studies. Ruksana is an experienced early years practitioner and manager, and has over 15 years of experience and expertise of working in the field of early years, including the setting up of early years environments and developing practitioners. Her experience and work include developing management and staff practice in working with children, creation and delivery of early years curriculum for children, staff management, building links with parents and working closely with external agencies such as OfSTED, Sure Start, local authorities, schools and FE colleges.
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