Teaching and learning

Using Leuven Scales in the Early Years

Stop using well-being and involvement as another observation checklist
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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, she writes regularly for Early Years Educator where she is also 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 the Early Years

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.” Simply, you could say that having a high level of well-being is similar to positive mental health.

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 in their learning environment.

“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. One is the lowest level, and five is 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 below are 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. They are not at ease and are primarily anxious or tense. Their contact with the environment is difficult and they might attack others.
  2. Low – The child shows elements of level one, but these are less pronounced.
  3. Moderate – A child is neither happy, nor unhappy. Moderate children are often indifferent and are rarely outspoken, positively or negatively. They’re rarely excited, and social interactions with other children is pretty basic. There aren't many moments of real satisfaction.
  4. High – A child shows elements of level five, but these are less pronounced.
  5. Extremely High – They feel like a ‘fish in water’. They express emotions that are mostly positive, and are clearly having fun, and laugh a lot. They enjoy being in their environment and interacting with peers, and their presence often positively affecting the group dynamic. They show signs of strong emotional regulation: any anger, unhappiness, or fear quickly subsides.

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, appear absent-minded and stare a lot. Activities that do occur are short-lived and purposeless. They usually lack dedication, get easily distracted, and don't pay much attention to their surroundings.
  2. Low – A child shows 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. They can pay attention, but they’re rarely fully absorbed and struggle to concentrate. They often act routinely and their activities can be short-lived as they’re easily distracted.
  4. High – A child shows elements of level five, but these are less pronounced.
  5. Extremely High – These children are typically highly engaged in their activities. These children make decisions quickly and without hesitation. They demonstrate focus, dedication, interest and commitment without easily getting distracted.

How to apply the Leuven Scales in the Early Years

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 each child's development. But, observing and evaluating children's well-being probably isn't as easy as observing their maths or language skills.

“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

When simply using a tick box on an observation, it is often meaningless because you’ll struggle to catch the children at the lower end of the scale – and that’s exactly who you’re trying to assess with Leuven Scales.

“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…

Leuven scales for individual assessment

This probably can go unsaid, but, it is important to observe each child alone, and during social interactions in order to make accurate and valuable assessments.

“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. Also, a child may have different behaviours when alone compared to when engaging in social interactions.

“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. Leuven Scales help identify signs of stress, which is why they’re particularly good for understanding how your children are settling in to new environments.

“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.”

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How to use your Leauven Scales for assessments

Once you’ve made the observations, you’re only just getting started. It is then time to reflect and really analyse the observations to assess the children.

“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 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 social skills, 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.”‍

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 their environment, 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 – A child can stand up for themselves and their needs and desires. Further, they will object to an unjust experience.
  • Vitality – The child is excited and energetic about life. You can often see this in their facial expressions and posture. Their eyes glisten, they’re never hunched over and they move quickly.
  • Relaxation and inner peace – They seem natural and move smoothly, keeping a normal speech tempo and seem relaxed. They show strong emotion regulation: 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, and are at peace with it. They are not afraid to share their thoughts.

Signs of involvement

  • Concentration – The child is focused on what's in front of them, and is not easily distracted.
  • Energy – The child puts a lot of effort and enthusiasm into an activity, physically or mentally.
  • Complexity and creativity – They are fully engaged, curious and imaginative. Every experience is new and exciting, and not just routine.
  • Facial expression and composure – These will show if a child is listening and watching intently. These signs show that the child is 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, and they do so 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.

Leuven Scales for Early Years staff

You'll be surprised at just how many uses the Leuven Scales 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 scales, you’ll realise that the theory applies to any age group. Your staff are just as important as the children. Their level of involvement and well-being impacts their ability to care for the children.

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

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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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