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Making Birth to 5 Matters work for you

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.


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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.

The Bto5M guidance can be useful at times like this, to help you focus your mind on the learning that you are seeing. You could identify which Characteristics of Effective Learning you see in action, and which Areas of Learning and Development are in evidence. Then you can look within the grids to find a general area that reflects what you have noticed in the child. There are no ages listed in the grids, so the age of the child is not relevant here. Just find the rough area of development that matches what the child is showing you. Then the most important part: Have a look at the prompts for adults that are alongside that broad area of development, and decide whether any of these point you in helpful directions to plan how you can support the child’s progress, as in the examples below.

Beyond this everyday attention to supporting children’s development and learning, you may at intervals – perhaps two or three times a year – find it useful to sum up children’s learning with best-fit judgements about which Ranges best describe their current development. This can be useful to see where children are making good progress, help to identify children who would benefit from additional support, and to identify any areas where the setting could improve practice.

For each child, who is constantly learning in the present moment, the important assessment and response is the sensitive, timely support from an adult who is fascinated to understand more about the child and to help them along their own pathway.


Case Study 1

Kim is the key person for Tommy, who has recently joined the nursery at 7 months, and she is keen to build a close, trusting relationship with him. She notices that at nappy changing time he sometimes seems tense, turns his head away and cries. To help her understand Tommy better (her assessment) and decide how to support him (her planning) Kim looks in PSED (Making Relationships) and finds in Range 1:

  • Distinguishes between people, recognising the look, sound and smell of their close carerimage.png
  • They will usually calm, smile or reduce crying when they hear their carers’/parent’s voice, or smell their clothing, for example
  • Holds up arms to be picked up and cuddled and is soothed by physical touch such as being held, cuddled and stroked
  • Begins to display attachment behaviours such as wanting to stay near their close carer and becoming upset when left with an unfamiliar person

She also notices that in CL (Speaking), Range 1 includes:

  • Lifts arms in anticipation of being picked up

She reflects that Tommy is communicating that he still sees her as an unfamiliar person and is expressing his feelings (her assessment). For guidance in how she might respond, Kim finds in the Positive Relationships and Enabling Environments a number of suggestions for building a trusting relationship, including the following: 

  • Offer warm, loving and consistent care in your interactions with babies and young children, making good eye contact and handling children gently and respectfully.
  • Respond sensitively and quickly to babies and young children’s needs, holding and comforting each child as they need.
  • Learn from parents regarding caring practices at home so you can establish predictable and familiar patterns within your own interactions allowing the child to feel safe with you.
  • Tune in to the meaning of babies and young children’s communications of crying, babbling, pointing or pulling and respond with interest, watching and understanding the cues they offer so they feel acknowledged and known by you.
  • Spend plenty of time with your key children playing interactive games, finger plays and singing familiar songs that engage you both in mirroring movement and sounds, follow the child’s lead.
  • Use care events to build a close relationship with babies and young children through respectful interactions and taking it slowly. Always explain what is going to happen and invite their participation.

Kim decides the next steps for her are to focus on spending relaxed time with Tommy, to build a rapport and trust. She will be sure to slow down and respond to Tommy’s signals, including picking him up only once she has established contact and invited interaction by holding out her own hands, and waited for his response. She will also discuss with parents Tommy’s nappy changing routines at home to make the process as familiar to him as possible.  


Case Study 2

The nursery has a bed for growing vegetables, and the children have enjoyed pulling up the potatoes that are ready for harvesting.  In the process, a few worms emerged and Sara and Elijah were fascinated to watch them moving. Both children picked them up and looked closely. ‘Have they got any eyes?’ Elijah asked. They remained engrossed in the worms for an extended time. The practitioner, Sam, would like to build on their interest and support their learning about the natural world. In UW (The World), Sam finds in Ranges 3, 4 and 5:

  • Is curious and interested to explore new and familiar experiences in nature: grass, mud, puddles, plants, animal life
  • Can talk about some of the things they have observed such as plants, animals, natural and found objects
  • Comments and asks questions about aspects of their familiar world such as the place where they live or the natural world

Suggestions for adult support include

  • Use conversation with children to extend their vocabulary to help them talk about their observations and to ask questions.
  • Make use of outdoor areas to give opportunities for investigations of the natural world.
  • Provide story and information books about places, such as a zoo or the beach, to remind children of visits to real places.
  • Provide opportunities to observe things closely through a variety of means, e.g. magnifiers and photographs, phone apps to listen to and recognise birds.

Sam decides to enhance conversation opportunities by taking pictures of the worms that can be shared and discussed. In discussion, the staff decide to leave the empty potato bed as a digging place with magnifying glasses on hand, with a challenge to see if the children can find what lives there. Information books will be brought into the nursery, and online images shared.

Beyond this, Sam wants to build on the children’s Characteristics of Effective Learning. She recognises that the children have shown:

Playing and Exploring

Finding out and exploringshutterstock_617802158 (3).jpg
Showing curiosity about objects, events and people
Using senses to explore the world around them

Active Learning

Being involved and concentrating
Showing a deep drive to know more about people and their world
Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time
Showing high levels of involvement, energy, fascination
Not easily distracted
Paying attention to details

Sam would like to support the children in the third Characteristic, Thinking Creatively and Critically, particularly in:

Making links (building theories)
Making links and noticing patterns in their experience

Working with ideas (critical thinking)
Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal

The guidance in Bto5M suggests:

  • Use the language of thinking and learning: think, know, remember, forget, idea, makes sense, plan, learn, find out, confused, figure out, trying to do.
  • Model being a thinker, showing that you don’t always know, are curious and sometimes puzzled, and can think and find out. I wonder?
  • Give children time to talk and think. Make time to actively listen to children’s ideas.
  • Encourage open-ended thinking, generating more alternative ideas or solutions, by not settling on the first suggestions: What else is possible?
  • Always respect children’s efforts and ideas, so they feel safe to take a risk with a new idea and feel comfortable with mistakes.
  • Sustained shared thinking helps children to explore ideas and make links. Follow children’s lead in conversation, and think about things together.
  • Encourage children to choose personally meaningful ways to represent and clarify their thinking through graphics.
  • Take an interest in what the children say about their marks and signs, talk to them about their meanings and value what they do and say.
  • Represent thinking visually, such as mind-maps to represent thinking together, finding out what children know and want to know.

Sam decides to support the children to be more aware of their own learning through conversation about what they know about worms, and what they would like to find out. They will be invited to draw what they already know, and then together they can talk about the drawings and how they learned these things. They will share ideas about how they could learn what they want to know, plan what to do next and illustrate these plans on a mind map.

Nancy Stewart
Nancy Stewart is a writer, consultant and trainer with nationally recognised expertise in early years development and learning. She has wide experience across early years sectors in schools, nurseries, local authority advisory service, and National Strategies where she was Senior Early Years Adviser. She has worked closely with Department for Education policy teams in implementing national programmes including Every Child a Talker, and in drafting revisions to curriculum and assessment in the 2012 EYFS review. Key areas of interest and expertise are early communication and language for thinking, along with children’s development as self-regulated learners and the central place of play and playful teaching and learning. Nancy co-authored Development Matters with Helen Moylett, and wrote How children learn - The characteristics of effective early learning, among other publications. She led development of the non-statutory guidance for the EYFS, Birth to Five Matters, as Project Lead for the Early Years Coalition. She is a Vice President of Early Education.

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