Genuinely inclusive assessment must be an essential goal for the early years, writes Stephen Kilgour…
To understand the notion of genuinely inclusive assessment we first need to address what this means. Historically the word inclusion has very much been linked to SEND, but it can mean many different things.
A leader may have asked themselves: ‘How can we ensure that we are ‘including’ our children with learning differences or disabilities?’. In some circumstances, a nursery or school may feel they are being ‘inclusive’ as soon as they agree to a place for the child in question.
Others may consider inclusion to be reducing the amount of time that a child is excluded from the rest of their group. It’s commonplace, particularly as children move through the phases of education, for children with support needs to spend less and less time with their typically developing, same-age peers.
Despite these all being aspects of inclusion, they fall short of genuine inclusion. This needs to be non-judgemental and consider the whole child.
The benefit we have in the EYFS is the flexibility to respond to a child’s interests in a play-rich environment. This is not something many primary heads are brave enough to advocate once a child passes five-years-old.
That isn’t to say children under five aren’t excluded from learning opportunities. How many times have we encountered children with additional support needs attending nursery on a ‘phased’ basis?
It might be that initially they only attend for an hour or two a day. In these circumstances, the amount of ‘lost’ learning time compared to their peers can quickly add up. It’s no wonder ‘gaps’ widen.
Obviously, there are reasons for such practices – and it’s often a lack of training/understanding or money.
So, what does all this have to do with assessment? We’re constantly making informal assessments, both in our daily lives and at work. When we’re working with children, we’re continually assessing what we’re observing.
When we meet a child for the first time, particularly when they’re very young, we seek to discover as much as we can about them. We assess their learning level and adapt our approaches accordingly.
If we are working with a child with learning differences, it’s important to consider that their learning pathways may not be linear. It’s vital that our expectations are flexible and responsive.
The initial days and weeks that we spend with a child are so crucial for establishing high-quality relationships with them and their families. The more trust that is gained, the more impact we can have on learning.
Experienced staff members generally won’t find it challenging to get to know a new child. They’ll quickly learn what they like to play with and how they prefer to interact.
However, where a child has additional support needs, we can sometimes put up barriers through our own anxieties. This prolongs the settling-in period.
When we carry out inclusive assessment, we must consider the whole child. We should avoid making judgements that are skewed by our own biases.
How does your setting ensure that Black or Brown children feel genuinely included? What about children who are learning English as a new language? Or those that have only recently arrived in the country? Do we consider the diversity in the way that families are made up?
Even if these circumstances are not prevalent in your place of work, do you provide representation in your provision to ensure that your children learn about and celebrate differences in sensitive and appropriate ways? When you make assessments about learning, and also about your environment, are you considering these details?
It’s crucial we make every effort to understand the intricacies of a child’s lived experience to support them effectively and assess their needs inclusively.
Often children’s additional support needs intersect with other disadvantages created by society. For example, you might work with a Black child with learning differences whose family are also learning English.
We need to understand all this information to be able to set fair goals for the child. For instance, your expectations about spoken English being the ultimate aim for a child may not be reasonable.
Last year, Tapestry worked with the EYFS inclusion team in Doncaster to produce a Reflection Toolkit to support the settings in its area.
It was keen to improve its initial assessment processes for children with learning differences and make them more inclusive.
Importantly, it wanted to move away from tick box assessment systems that presumed linear progress along typically developing pathways.
The overarching theme of the resource is one of making adaptations to our provision. This is rather than trying to shape a child so that they can ‘fit in’.
Another key aim for the resource was to reduce the amount of time that young children found themselves excluded from a setting until funding was in place.
The toolkit breaks down various aspects that impact a child’s ability to purposefully engage in learning. This includes sections on basic needs and wellbeing, and less common considerations linked to sensory sensitivities or inclusive practice associated with a child’s cultural background.
The latter point asks us to reflect on whether we are truly promoting and valuing diversity. It’s influenced heavily by the brilliant work of Liz Pemberton.
Often, simple adjustments to our environment or organisation can mean that a child can be included where previously they weren’t.
For example, one of the changes the EYFS inclusion team in Doncaster has made is to embrace celebratory language in their assessments and reporting. This is rather than deficit-based statements. It also encourages nurseries and schools to do the same when making support requests.
This means that instead of saying, “Sandeep is non-verbal and unable to read”, educators use a strengths-based alternative. For example, they’ll say:
“Sandeep accesses his communication device independently and loves to turn the pages of a book as an adult reads a story.”
This is a significant move. It challenges educators and other professionals to truly consider children as unique individuals with no pre-conceived judgements about their interests or the way that they learn.
All children are complex beings, with layers upon layers of varying life experiences. The complexity only increases for a child with learning differences or a disability.
It’s our job as educators to attempt to peel back these layers in an effort to truly understand what makes them tick, and conversely what makes them feel unsafe or unhappy.
The reforms to the EYFS have created so much flexibility in the way that we plan and assess our under-fives. But, unfortunately, in the aftermath, many of our children with learning differences or disabilities are not being afforded the same child-centred approaches.
This needs to change, and it doesn’t need a rocket scientist to unearth a complicated new assessment tool. We just need to start with the child.