“Talking, listening and reading become such automatic processes that it’s easy to take them for granted, but all these skills must be learnt…these gifts must be passed from one generation to the next…each new word that a child learns helps to strengthen the architecture of the brain.” (Save The Children: 2016)
We have a responsibility – a moral imperative – to support children to develop to their full potential, and sometimes this involves early years providers doing something different. Whether we call this ‘intervention’, which is a term that can be uncomfortable for some, or simply giving support, the point is that we enhance the opportunities available for children.
It’s helpful to think of language, in particular, as being a gift to pass on from one generation to the next, something beautifully highlighted in Lighting up Young Brains by Save the Children, where the above quote is from. It is well worth a read!
I have felt this moral imperative keenly throughout my 30-year career in education. It has influenced the direction of my professional choices, taking me from class teacher to nursery manager to school special educational needs coordinator. From there I became a local authority inclusion lead and eventually spent my time travelling to different councils to support the early years social mobility agenda.
Through each role one thing has remained central: the power of communication and language experiences that children have and how they impact on those children’s lives.
Inclusion, too, has been at the heart of my work but I wanted to do more, to contribute to supporting early years practitioners to develop children’s language skills and pass the gift of the knowledge I have gained onto the next generation of SENCOs. I wanted this to be a gift, so I decided to volunteer.
In this three-part story, I will talk you through the story of that voluntary work, supporting a local provider to enhance children’s language skills in Taunton, Somerset.
This year I have had the privilege of working with a newly qualified SENCO, Bryony Guest, in a local childcare setting, Comeytrowe Under Fives Preschool.
I approached this particular setting to offer my time for two reasons; firstly, my daughters both attended the preschool when they were young, and secondly, I used to work collaboratively with the preschool when I was the EYFS Reception teacher at the neighbouring primary school.
I wanted to put something back into my own local community and knew that I had early years expertise to share. Whilst most of the staff I knew from my previous connections with the preschool had moved on, I was really pleased to find that several of the staff now were parents who used to volunteer in my Reception class and from that experience had retrained to take up a career in early years work. Now it was my turn to volunteer to support them.
The work focused on an informal mentoring process which enabled Bryony to grow her confidence as the SENCO by developing and delivering a language support programme for children.
The first step was to work with Bryony to explore her level of confidence in designing support programmes, the resources she had available, and her intentions for our time together. She explained that her greatest concern as a SENCO was the number of children who seemed to be behind in their language development, and who were due to start school in September 2020. She was concerned that their transition to school would be more difficult with delayed language skills and wanted to give them a ‘language boost’.
With this in mind, I encouraged her to look at the three aspects of learning within the Early Years Foundation Stage prime area ‘Communication and Language’ as our starting point. These were:
We chose listening and attention, understanding and speaking because they make up the fundamental early communication and interactions skills children need, skills that enable them to make friends and communicate their needs.
Many studies indicate that children who find communication and language difficult at an early age may go on to experience long-term negative impacts such as reduced reading levels in adulthood which may lead to poorer job prospects and mental health problems (EIF 2017:8), so targeting this area for development is crucial to support children who are finding communication difficult.
We began by identifying ten children for the programme. This was done by using Bryony’s knowledge of the children in the setting and how they interacted with staff and their peers.
The setting uses the early years ‘Development Matters’ age-related statements to assess children’s development, and all the children selected were showing that they were working below age-related expectations.
You can see in the table below an overview of how these children were working at different stages of development at the start of the twelve-week programme. All of the children were chronologically over 40 months of age, meaning a number of them were working at a level which was as much as two developmental age bands below their chronological age.
As you can see, whilst the children often seemed to understand what was required, they found listening and attending to others difficult, as well as speaking with others.
In addition, Bryony assessed each child using the Every Child A Talker Monitoring Tool as a starting point benchmark so she could then measure impact of the programme in more detail.
We began with separate group sessions with these children, for around 15 minutes in a quiet space. The children attended the group up to three times a week each, with no more than 6 children in a group at any one time and the programme covered a twelve-week period from January to March 2020, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Children who are behind their peers in reaching age-related milestones do not necessarily have special educational needs. Children learning English as a new language for instance, are likely to need much more time to learn the new language and understand it before they speak it confidently.
Yet, under the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, it is important to keep in mind where a child has a ‘significantly greater difficulty in learning than their peers, or a disability that prevents or hinders a child from making use of the facilities in the setting and requires special educational provision, the setting should make that provision’ (2014:15)
The children benefiting from the language programme varied from those diagnosed with developmental delay or speech and language delay, as well as those who were learning English as an additional language to that spoken at home, or extremely shy and quiet children. Six of the children had difficulties with speech and sound pronunciation.
So, with a mutual understanding that some additional support was needed to specifically help this group of children to further develop listening, attention, understanding and speaking skills, the next step was to plan the specific delivery method of the sessions. That meant getting parents involved, inviting them to have a conversation with Bryony about the programme and get their permission.
That’s where we’ll pick up next week, as we run through exactly what we planned for the 10 children, and how it all went…
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.