Only now are we starting to see evidence of the impact of the pandemic on our youngest children, says Sue Cowley – and here’s how we can intervene…
Since the start of the pandemic, a key concern for educators and policy makers has been about the potential for gaps in children’s learning. The full impact of disruptions is now becoming clear, with a noticeable increase in children with language delays or difficulties in self-regulation.
The DfE funded a package to aid ‘education recovery’, including interventions such as ‘NELI’ (Nuffield Early Language Intervention). However, any return to ‘normality’ is being hampered by historically low attendance levels, and outbreaks of illnesses such as Scarlet Fever.
Although early years settings fully reopened from July 2020, with no further closures, attendance was low throughout the pandemic. In Autumn 2021 there was only around 76% of the usual daily levels of attendance in settings, which has inevitably had a negative impact on outcomes.
Because of changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) in 2021, it is difficult to compare like with like when looking at differences in outcomes pre and post pandemic. However, the latest EYFS profile shows a significant drop in the number of children achieving a ‘good level of development’.
In the most recent data, 49.1 per cent of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieved a good level of development, compared to 68.8 per cent of children who were not eligible for FSM. Only 55 per cent of summer born children reached the expected level compared to 71 per cent of their autumn born peers.
It is useful to remember that a baby born in March 2020, at the start of the first lockdown, has only just turned three years old. Similarly, a child who was a toddler at the time is now in Nursery or Reception. This means we are just starting to see how the pandemic has affected the newest cohorts of children.
Speech and language skills have been particularly affected, probably linked to a decrease in social interactions and potentially to the use of face masks. Another issue is a drop in children’s levels of resilience, with some struggling with challenges and finding it difficult to mix with peers. So what can we do to improve things?
The strategies that work best to support language development are features of high-quality practice. Ensure that children can see the movements of your mouth when you speak and sit any children with language delays or hearing impairments close to the front.
Speak more slowly than feels natural, using plenty of tone, exaggerating facial expressions, and adding gestures. Remember that children need time to process language and ascertain meaning, so use lots of repetition.
Put an emphasis on key words, drawing them out vocally and checking for understanding. Pre-teach the meanings of key words before children encounter them in texts.
Support the development of metacognition (thinking about thinking) by saying your thoughts aloud, to illustrate your patterns of thinking. Narrate your thinking as you explore ideas with children, using open-ended starters such as ‘I’m wondering whether …’ or ‘I’m thinking about how we might …’.
Aim to sound puzzled or curious and ensure that your facial expressions match what you are saying.
‘Serve and return’ conversations are interactions where carers and children take turns to communicate. These engagements are one of the best ways to support language development, so use them when supporting children in continuous provision.
Utilise sustained shared thinking, helping the child to build on what is being said by elaborating on a point, clarifying a meaning, or suggesting what they could try next.
Communicate information about the vital role of serve and return conversations in early brain development to parents, too. There are some simple explanations, perfect for sharing, on the Harvard University website.
When talking with children, give them plenty of time to respond, especially if they struggle with processing. Listen in order to hear what the children are saying, rather than jumping in to hurry them on; research suggests we should give children up to 30 seconds between asking a question and expecting a response.
Focusing on children’s interests is perfect for the development of social communication, so ensure that you link any new vocabulary to meaningful contexts in the children’s daily lives.
For instance, you could base your role play area on an interest in superheroes, introducing linked vocabulary such as ‘disguise’, ‘villain’, ‘brave’ and ‘transform’ into the children’s play.
Support the development of complex social language by using decontextualised talk, referring to things that are not physically present in your setting. For instance, talking with children about what they might be doing in the future, what they have done in the past, or creating imaginary scenarios and provocations to get them expressing themselves.
Three key areas of language are reasoning, inference, and perspective-taking – skills that can be developed by using open-ended questions. When you read a story, ask children why they think things happen, to build reasoning skills, and what they imagine characters are feeling, to develop inference and perspective-taking.
Anecdotally, many teachers are currently talking about children being less able to cope when things go wrong or peers fall out. During lockdowns, children missed out on much of the usual peer group contact, for instance at soft play centres, parks and birthday parties, where they practise making friends and resolving conflicts.
In order to build resilience, take children outdoors in a range of weathers and into a range of environments, working as teams on challenging projects such as building dens or obstacle courses.
Use social times, such as snack and lunch times, to support children’s turn taking and agency. For instance, get children to take it in turns to collect cups and plates, or to choose snacks from a tray.
In a recent analysis of the effects of the pandemic by Ofsted, one key suggestion was to think about routines for drop off and pick up times. Ofsted noted that many settings had retained the ‘drop at the door’ approach used during the pandemic, but suggested that encouraging parents back into settings was vital for rebuilding relationships.
Other key techniques for working with families include gifting language-rich resources to build communication, for instance story books via Book Trust or Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Some settings now send tips by text for parents, as part of their home learning support, or recommend the use of home learning apps.
Interestingly, a recent study from Leeds Trinity University identified that for many parents, worries about ‘gaps’ were not at the forefront, and lockdowns felt more positive than might be expected.
Parents talked about valuing the chance to spend more time at home with children, alongside a slower pace of life.
Some reassessed their work and career priorities, putting more of a focus on family and relationships and looking at new careers or asking for flexible working patterns.
Some parents felt that their children benefited from the chance for one-on-one learning at home, with many valuing their child’s wellbeing above their educational attainment.
Considering what families value will be important for schools and settings as we figure out what to prioritise in the coming years.
Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer, who helps to run her local early years setting. Find out more at suecowley.co.uk. Watch a video training session on dealing with challenging behaviour, presented by Sue Cowley.
Sand and water table – Getting hands-on with maths