Teaching and learning

Using Leuven Scales in the Early Years

Stop using well-being and involvement as another observation checklist
Children balancing
April 7, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • The Leuven scales of well-being and involvement can make a huge difference to the lives of the children you look after. But not if they’re just another checklist item to tack onto your observations.
  • First pioneered by Ferre Laevers and his team at Leuven University in Belgium, the Leuven Scales help you to understand how focused and comfortable children are in the setting.
  • But have we been using them wrong the whole time? Sue Allingham explains.

To get the lowdown on Leuven Scales, we spoke with Dr Sue Allingham, who runs Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy. Sue has an MA and a doctorate in Early Childhood education, writes regularly for Early Years Educator where she’s the Consultant Editor. Not only that, but she has trained with Ferre Laevers himself on how to apply the Leuven Scales in the UK.

So, how should we use the Leuven Scales in the Early Years?

Observing well-being and involvement in children's play

According to Laevers, high levels of both well-being and involvement allow children to experience deep learning and development. A happy, involved child can experience the world at its fullest.

“If we’ve got well-being, we’ve got a lot,” says Laevers. “It indicates for us that everything that has to do with the personal social and emotional development of the child is going well.”

And yet, it’s not enough by itself. A child can be happily getting on with tasks, and never cause any problems, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being challenged and finding opportunities for focused learning.

“So many times people say ‘He’s really involved’ and actually he’s not, he’s just 'doing' it,” Sue explains. “Children are very biddable and so if you give them a task to do then they’ll do it for you and they’ll smile. But that doesn’t mean they’re involved in it.”

W‍hat are the Leuven scales?

The Leuven Scale of well-being

Both well-being and involvement are scored from one to five, with one being the lowest level and five being the highest.

“Well-being is the beautiful stage in which children can be when they feel OK. They feel at ease. They radiate. They are open to anything that comes in.”

- Ferre Laevers, How Does Well-Being and Involvement Contribute To The Quality of Learning

The big ideas

The scales you’ll find here are adapted from "A Process-Oriented Monitoring System" by Laevers et al. They are:

  1. Extremely low – The child is clearly having a difficult time and doesn’t feel happy in the setting. There are almost no instances of ‘true’ pleasure and they are primarily anxious or tense. Their contact with the environment is difficult and they might attack others. They are not at ease.
  2. Low – They show elements of level one, but these are less pronounced.
  3. Moderate – Here, they’re neither happy nor unhappy. Moderate children are often indifferent and are rarely outspoken, positively or negatively. They’re rarely enthusiastic, and contact with other children is pretty basic. There aren't many moments of real satisfaction.
  4. High – They show elements of level five, but these are less pronounced.
  5. Extremely High – They feel like a ‘fish in water’. They’re clearly having fun, and laugh a lot. They enjoy both what the environment has to offer and the company of others, often positively affecting the group dynamic. Any anger, unhappiness, or fear quickly subsides, and mostly they’re enjoying life to the full.

The Leuven Scale of involvement

The scale of involvement is less about a child’s happiness, but how focused and involved they are in what they’re doing.

“Involvement is about concentration. Being totally focused on something, wanting to get that contact with the reality around you. And from within there is a motivation to do that, a fascination – you want to continue to have that sense of contact with the reality and in your actions to take it in.”

- Ferre Laevers, How Does Well-Being and Involvement Contribute To The Quality of Learning

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  1. Extremely low – They often don’t engage in activities at all. They might wander about absent-mindedly and stare a lot. Activities that do occur are short-lived and purposeless. They’re easily distracted and they don’t seem to take anything in, often acting without any sort of dedication.
  2. Low– They show elements of level one, but these are less pronounced.
  3. Moderate – On first glance, the child can seem busy, but on closer inspection it’s clear they’re not really absorbed in what they’re doing. While they may pay attention, they’re rarely fully absorbed, concentrated or show intense mental activity. They often act routinely and their activities can be short-lived as they’re easily distracted.
  4. High – They show elements of level five, but these are less pronounced.
  5. Extremely High – These children are regularly absorbed and intensely engaged in their activities. There are strong signs of concentration, persistence, and energy. Choices come easily, and they’re absorbed straight away. Even very strong stimuli don’t distract them from the task at hand and they love to explore and operate right at the limit of their abilities.

So how do I use the Leuven Scales?

Observation and assessment are a key part of the Leuven Scales. Making them part of your reflective practice will give you a much deeper understanding of the children you care for. But it’s not a quick fix.

“It is a time-consuming thing,” Sue admits, “but this isn’t just another tick list or another thing to add to your to-do list. When used properly it can be a really powerful tool.”

More than an observation tickbox

An observation should, by its very definition, be a 'wow' moment. So using Leuven Scales as a tick box on an observation is often meaningless because you’ll never catch the children at the lower end of the scale – and that’s exactly who you’re trying to assess.

“You might want to say in an observation that a child was particularly involved,” explains Sue,” but you shouldn’t just tack a Leuven Scale assessment onto an observation. That’s not what they’re for.”

So how should we use Leuven Scales? For starters…

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Leuven scales for individual assessment

First and foremost, you should be making Leuven Scale assessments on children you’re concerned about.

“It’s a useful tool if you’ve got a concern about anything or anyone,” says Sue, “or if there’s a specific group of children that you’re involved in.”

A one-off observation is not enough, because children change over time. The way they feel one day may be completely different from the next.

“Things change,” says Sue. “Just because a child’s well-being or involvement is high one week, it doesn’t mean it will be the next. You shouldn’t be making a judgement until you’ve done a number of assessments.”

Settling in can be a particularly stressful time for children. Because the Leuven Scales help identify distress and reactions to new environments, they’re particularly good for understanding how your children are settling in.

“They’re always useful for children settling in,” agrees Sue. “It’s so easy to make so many sweeping judgements about new children without really seeing how they’re settled.”

Leuven Scales for Early Years staff

If you really embrace Leuven Scales, you'll be surprised at just how many uses they have.

“Ferre would advocate that it’s something you could do with the adults in your setting too,” says Sue. “It’s not just about the children.”

Once you truly understand the material, you’ll realise that the theory applies to any age group and your staff are just as important as the children. Their involvement and well-being really does matter in order to give children the best care they can.

“If your staff well-being and involvement is shot to pieces, then what hope do you have with the children?” asks Sue.‍

How to spot high well-being and involvement on the Leuven Scales

We've gone through why the scales are such a great tool to weave into your practice, but what does high well-being and involvement actually look like?

Signs of well-being

  • Openness and receptivity – The child is receptive to the environment around them and is open to new situations and external interest.
  • Flexibility – They can adapt easily, especially in new or different situations. They can quickly move on from problems and consider alternatives.
  • Self-confidence and self-esteem – They radiate confidence and can express themselves well. Can tackle new challenges and risk failure, not letting them affect their sense of self-worth.
  • Self-defence and assertiveness – They won’t be walked over and can stand up for themselves and their desires. Can ask for things they need and will object to an unjust experience.
  • Vitality – The child radiates zest for life. It can be seen in their facial expression and composure – the child’s eyes often glisten. They’re rarely hunched and tend to move quickly and energetically.
  • Relaxation and inner peace – They seem natural and move smoothly, keeping a normal speech tempo and seem relaxed. They don’t bottle up tensions and can relax quickly after an exciting game.
  • Enjoyment without restraints – They are showing genuine enjoyment, and seem generally happy. They understand rules and still express their happiness with smiling or humming quietly.
  • Being in touch with themselves – The child understands what they need and wish. They don’t hide their thoughts and work with them. They’re at peace with themselves.

Signs of involvement

  • Concentration – The child is focused on one small area and is difficult to distract.
  • Energy – The child puts a lot of effort and enthusiasm into an activity, physically or mentally.
  • Complexity and creativity – They are working at their full capacity and playing with care. It’s not routine.
  • Facial expression and composure – These will show if a child is listening and watching intently, completely absorbed in their activity.
  • Persistence – The child doesn’t give up easily and is willing to keep going even when they fail.
  • Precision – They work meticulously, showing a lot of care for what they’re doing.
  • Reaction time – They’re alert and ready to respond to new things related to what they’re doing. Take up new ideas quickly.
  • Verbal expression – They make comments about their enjoyment and enthusiasm and put into words what they’re discovering.
  • Satisfaction – They gain pleasure from their activity and show it in their body language and behaviour.

How to use your Leauven Scales assessments

Once you’ve made the assessments, you’re only just getting started. It’s time to make it a critical part of your reflective practice.

“From there, you have to start really looking beyond what you see and taking the ‘soft data’ stuff,” says Sue. “What do you know about the child? Do you know if they have breakfast, for example? From there, you use it to look at your own practice, and find out ways you can improve.”

Luckily, the Ferre Laevers-directed Research Centre for Experiential Education has produced a list of 10 action points to get you started.

  1. Rearrange the classroom in appealing corners or areas.
  2. Check the content of the areas and make them more challenging.
  3. Introduce new and unconventional materials and activities.
  4. Identify children’s interests and offer activities that meet these.
  5. Support activities by stimulating inputs.
  6. Widen the possibilities for free initiative and support them with sound agreements.
  7. Improve the quality of the relations amongst children and between children and practitioners.
  8. Introduce activities that help children to explore the world of behaviour, feelings and values.
  9. Identify children with emotional problems and work out sustaining interventions.
  10. Identify children with developmental needs and work out interventions that engender involvement.

But, mostly importantly - you should have a deep understanding of your children and their challenges.

You know your children best, as well as their competencies and interests. Children need to be faced with challenges and experiences that are not too easy, nor too hard, and that all starts with you and your understanding of your children.

As Ferre says “Involvement is only possible when there is a certain match between your capabilities and the environment around you.”

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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.

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