A Unique Child

Wellbeing in the Early Years

  • Wellbeing in the Early Years

Wellbeing is an oft-used term, but what does it mean, what is its significance to children’s development, and how should it inform early years practice? Julia Manning-Morton explores the issues…

When colleagues from the Early Childhood Forum at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and from Early Childhood Studies at London Metropolitan University (LMU) got together in 2009 to discuss our ideas about wellbeing, the term was being used a lot. It was central to Every Child Matters and the focus of research by Unicef in 2007 and so was also common in discussions in the early childhood field. Sadly, it seems that in the context of the the current economic recession, looking after the wellbeing of all our youngest citizens is seen as a luxury the UK is no longer willing to afford. I would suggest, however, that perhaps it is in such difficult times that we need to be even more focused on the wellbeing of children and on the wellbeing of parents and practitioners too.

What is wellbeing?

Participants in the LMU/NCB ‘Talking about Well-being’ project identified that exploring our ideas about wellbeing is important because if, as professionals, our aim is to promote children’s wellbeing, we need to be clear what it is we are promoting and why.

The ideas that derived from the project discussions are that wellbeing is not about just being okay, coping or surviving; it is about thriving, blossoming and flourishing. Overall, we suggest that wellbeing is dynamic and mutable, rather than a state to be achieved like yet another learning goal. The idea that it could change according to circumstances, that it could be damaged and restored, and that this continued throughout life, was inherent to all the discussions.

In this perspective, wellbeing needs pre-disposing factors to be in place for us to be able to experience it. These factors are both internal and external: factors that are internal can be enhanced or impaired by external social factors but also, how we interpret and engage with those external factors will be influenced by our inner capacity for wellbeing.

Parents and practitioners suggest different images that represented these aspects of wellbeing:

● An ‘inner glow’. This represents the internal, subjective aspects of wellbeing usually associated with emotional wellbeing and the positive sense of self gained from secure early relationships.

● A set of Russian Dolls. This represents the external, social factors that impact on wellbeing, with the child as the smallest doll in the middle whose wellbeing is affected by the wellbeing of the adults caring for them, whose wellbeing is affected in turn by their financial and social circumstances, which is affected by local and national economic and social circumstances and policy.

What do children say?

Children were engaged in the project through their key persons involving them in research activities using Alison Clark and Peter Moss’s ‘Mosaic Approach’. They consistently identified outside spaces as their preferred environments and put a lot of emphasis on the quality of their relationships; mothers and friendships were identified as key determinants of their wellbeing. Their views might be summarised by “I feel happy when I’m playing something I like, outside, with friends who are nice to me”; and from the observations of the youngest children, with mummy nearby (and also with nice food – chicken seems popular!).

Two other key issues arose indirectly from the consultations with the children: the importance of the here and now, and of being listened to. Their focus on their current situation, environment or activity as influencing their wellbeing revealed the importance for them of being in the present; it is what is happening now that is relevant for young children’s wellbeing not just their future outcomes. Similarly, the process of the research process impacted positively on the children’s wellbeing as practitioners identified that the one-to-one conversations, the focused observations and adopting ‘a ‘listening approach’ (see Lucy Williams’ Listening as a way of life) had been invaluable in increasing their understanding of their children’s wellbeing. This was echoed by the children, who explicitly and obviously enjoyed the conversations and being listened to; as one child asked, “When can we have chitter-chatter?”

Supporting children’s wellbeing

All this information from children, parents and practitioners suggests that we think young children’s potential to experience wellbeing is enhanced when the following are in place:

● Their emotions are accepted and understood in close, consistent relationships.

● Their experiences are congruent with their idea of who they are and their unique interests are valued.

● Their friendships are nurtured and valued from birth; enhancing their sense of group belonging.

● They have free access to interesting and challenging play materials and spaces indoors and outdoors, in the setting and in the community.

● They have many opportunities for free- flow imaginative play outdoors.

● Their families, whatever form they take, are supported and valued.

● Their professional carers are valued and supported for all their skills knowledge and attributes.

● They have a strong sense of belonging to their setting and local community, where they are listened to, acknowledged and affirmed and their contribution is sought and valued.

● They are taken into account in society as a whole, so national and local policies ensure that all children’s needs can be met by their families and communities.

Making connections

Another image that was used a lot in the project was that of a web: this represents the interconnectedness of all aspects of wellbeing and a holistic perspective, which means that the wellbeing of the whole child must be attended to by thinking about all aspects of their wellbeing. Thus, in contrast to a curriculum that divides children’s experiences up into areas of learning, a holistic approach would suggest a ‘Connections’ curriculum that focuses on connections:

● between people in the setting;

● between each individual child and the group;

● with places and things;

● between thinking, feeling, playing and learning.

The Happiness Counts project (final report downloadable here) suggests that European countries that perform better than the UK on child wellbeing indicators have a pedagogical approach that focuses on working “with the whole child: body, mind, feelings, spirit and creativity”. It is this approach that we suggest should be adopted in order to promote the wellbeing of babies and young children in the UK.

Evidence of wellbeing

Part of the process of the project was thinking about how we might know that a child is in a state of wellbeing or not. From this the following indicators were identified:

Appearance such as:

● Looking healthy and well cared for.

● Facial expressions such as smiling, bright, sparkling eyes.

● Body language such as eye contact, relaxed open body stance.

● Body movement such as running, jumping, dancing, clapping hands, being ‘bouncy’, moving about happily with purposeful movements.

● Vibrancy.

Behaviours such as:

● Being curious, wanting to explore.

● Happily interacting with adults, peers and the environment.

● Being enthusiastic about people, play and food.

● The confident expression of thoughts and feelings.

● Successfully regulating emotions.

● Showing friendliness, empathy and caring.

● Showing pride in achievements and recovery from mistakes and disappointments.

● Showing trust and affection.

● Having a sense of belonging.

● An eagerness to try new things and join in.

● Persistence, engagement and involvement.

● Able to take risks.

Problems arise when assessing a child’s level of wellbeing because there are different variables and personal and professional values that will influence a practitioner’s view, so practitioners need to ask themselves:

● How do my values affect my interpretation of what I see?

● How does my interpretation differ to my colleagues’ and to parents’?

● How do these indicators differ for different children? (E.g. age or a particularly disability or learning need must be taken into account.)

Julia Manning-Morton is an early years consultant specialising in the personal, social and emotional wellbeing of children, and the development of the 0–3s. This article is based upon her book Exploring Well-being in the Early Years.