Providing something for everyone is a tough challenge, but Birth to 5 Matters aims to do just that as ‘guidance by the sector, for the sector’. It is designed to support everyone implementing the EYFS, from new members of staff with limited experience and background knowledge of child development to their very experienced and highly qualified colleagues. In order to meet such diverse needs, Birth to 5 Matters(Bto5M) includes a range of formats and various levels of information to form a valuable, flexible resource.
So where do you start? Though Bto5M has grown out of previous EYFS guidance, it contains a lot more material than the last Development Matters and engaging with it all could seem like a big project.
And how can you use Bto5M in day-to-day practice? If you follow current advice and move away from using Development Matters statements as a ticklist, how can you use Bto5M to help you to understand children’s development and plan to support their progress, day to day and moment to moment?
Where do you start?
Young children’s experiences lay the foundations for the rest of their lives, and the privilege of working in the early years centres on the chance to offer children the best opportunities and most supportive relationships to enable them to flourish. The introductory sections of Bto5M outline features of the optimal environments, relationships and interactions that will support all children. Settings can consider how they lay this groundwork so they can have confidence that most children will thrive.
The Statutory EYFS states that four guiding principles should shape practice in early years settings. Bto5M is firmly based on those principles to support your reflection on how they underpin your practice. As well as focussing on central issues such as play, care, and leadership, the beginning sections of Bto5M provide information and guidance organised under the EYFS principles of A Unique Child – including child development, self-regulation, characteristics of effective learning, inclusive practice and equalities – as well as Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments, and Learning and Development.
This wide view of principled practice serves as a resource for practitioners at any level to consider the most important foundations of providing the best for children. For a quick overview, you could simply read through the ‘Key points’ identified in each section. To engage more deeply in any area you could read the full text, and then perhaps go on to explore the extra resources available on the website for more in-depth background, tools, case studies and research.
Just as each child is unique, so is each practitioner and each setting. How you refer to these sections of Bto5M will depend on what is most valuable for your individual professional development, as well as priorities for developing the ethos and practice of your setting.
These sections deal with areas which are fundamental to excellent practice, but they are not likely to be referred to on a daily basis in your ongoing work with children. If you take the time to become familiar with what is available, however, you may now and then find it helpful to look up particular sections and the linked extra resources in response to situations that arise for individual children or families.
Supporting children without ticklists
Beyond the background provision for all children, the detail of understanding, supporting and extending every child’s thinking and learning is the marker of excellent early years practice. The Statutory EYFS makes clear that practitioners have responsibility to ‘consider the individual needs, interests, and development of each child in their care, and must use this information to plan a challenging and enjoyable experience for each child in all areas of learning and development.’ It also describes ‘knowing children’s level of achievement and interests, and then shaping teaching and learning experiences for each child reflecting that knowledge.’
This is why the cycle of observation-assessment-planning is at the heart of early years practice. We need to be curious and attentive to notice what each child does and communicates (observation), think about what it might tell us about how the child is thinking, feeling and learning (assessment), and then think what we could do next to support them (planning).
In many settings, this thoughtful cycle had been reduced to a fairly mechanical matter of looking for examples of children’s actions to match particular items from Development Matters, ticking them off, and automatically settling on the next statement in the list as a ‘next step’ to guide planning. It gave the reassuring illusion that we knew where children were in their learning, and where they were going. But it was a false picture because it narrowed our view to one prescribed learning pathway, rather than helping us to see and respond to the infinite variety of ways children are thinking, following their own motivations, and making sense of the world around them.
The government and Ofsted are both clear in their messages that ticklist assessment and the associated heavy workload of recording evidence are not desirable. But this doesn’t mean that real observation-assessment-planning is to be thrown out the window – instead, it’s an invitation to up our game.
Understanding development with Bto5M
It’s important to be very clear that reducing paperwork and stopping checking hundreds of statements against each child does not mean letting go of observation, nor of being aware of each child’s learning and development. If we reduce attention to what each child is showing us and just assume that most children will be making good progress within our enabling environments, we risk not making the most of learning moments for each child. So we can’t stop observing, assessing and planning for all the children, but need to pay attention to each child in a different way.
The grids in Bto5M look similar to those in Development Matters (2012) but can be used to support you to understand and respond to each child on their own learning pathway, rather than along a pre-set route.
The guidance says the Unique Child trajectories ‘illustrate samples of what children may do along that journey. While these present some examples, children will do countless things that do not appear in the grids but are equally valuable for their learning. And as each child winds their individual path through the different areas, they will not necessarily show signs of each of the descriptors, nor in the same order presented.’ So it is up to practitioners to notice and reflect on what a child is doing, not to look simply for what we expect.
Similarly, the grids contain ideas for adults but invite you to think for yourself about your children as you plan how to respond: ‘Examples of what adults might do or provide should be seen as suggestions or prompts for thinking, suggesting “next steps” adults might take to support children’s development and learning. Adults should use their creative and critical thinking to develop their own ideas, decide what to try, and evaluate its effectiveness.’
Using Bto5M in everyday practice
The guidance can be seen as a flexible friend, to be called on to meet your needs when you would like some support. Some very experienced practitioners with a deep understanding of child development may not often refer to the trajectories, while others may find it useful to dip in much more frequently or even use it as a professional development resource for background reading.
The main purpose of the grids is to support meeting children’s needs effectively, so the columns for the adult – what you might do in your interactions or what you might provide in terms of experiences and resourcing – are a critical part of the picture. It is of little use to understand children’s development unless we go on to respond sensitively and closely with what will support them best. So instead of thinking of ‘next steps’ as targets for children, it might be more helpful to think of the next steps adults will take to support and extend development and learning.
In a sense, you will be constantly observing the children you work with, and the more you tune in and get to know the children the more information you will pick up. Most of the time you will be assessing and responding in the moment, interacting in ways that depend on the messages you are picking up from the children – what they are interested in, how they feel, what they are attempting, how they are responding to challenges, what they are thinking about. At these times you are not likely to refer to any guidance document.
At other times, you may notice a pattern for a particular child, something new that you hadn’t noticed before, or perhaps a similar development for more than one child. In these cases you might decide that a little more reflection about your response would be useful. You might choose to make a record of these occasions, to support your thinking or to share with parents, the child or colleagues.