Learning and Development

Observations – using a strengths-based approach

  • Observations – using a strengths-based approach

Observations of children with SEND can often focus on concerns, but we must be led by a strengths-based approach, says Kerry Payne…

1 | Use a celebratory framework

When we carry out observations of children with SEND, it’s important that we use a celebratory framework – meaning that we capture a holistic profile of their development.

We should begin with the child’s interests because we know these offer a springboard for learning, followed by their strengths and learning differences. We can use this knowledge of the child to plan for their areas of need and scaffold their learning and development.

This framework encourages us to think more positively about SEND and repositions the child from problem to learner.

When talking about children’s development, use the celebratory framework to guide your discussions. Visit eyfs4me.com to download an example of a celebratory framework. 

2 | My way to a good day

Practitioners are often told to describe the child on their “worst day”. This is sometimes necessary to ensure that specialists and services agree to put support in place, but many practitioners feel uncomfortable with this deficit approach.

In discussion with a group of SENCos, we reframed this idea into thinking about what the child needs to have a good day. This approach helps practitioners to think about the difficulties a child might encounter and what’s required to support their learning.

Visit eyfs4me.com to download an example of My Way to a Good Day. 

3 | Challenge stereotypes

When we support children with SEND, we can sometimes fall into the habit of stereotyping their behaviour based on the common traits associated with different developmental conditions.

The risk of this is that we simply assume their behaviours are symptoms rather than signs of learning, and we might not explore possibilities as much.

For example, if we observed a neurotypical child lining things up, we would likely identify this as a play schema and plan for it. But if we observed this same behaviour in an autistic child, we may put it down to their autism and not see it as learning.

Play and learning may look different in SEND learners but is of no less value. Still apply the same principles of tuning-in when observing a child with SEND.

4 | Fresh eyes

When we support a child with SEND, we may struggle to understand the personal meanings of their play, learning, and development, and feel unsure of how best to support and scaffold their learning.

Conducting joint observations with a trusted colleague, SENCO, or the child’s parent can be an invaluable process for developing a network of perspectives that may differ from your own.

Joint observations often draw parallels and highlight different perspectives as we each observe through our own frame of reference and experience.

Build a habit of conducting short joint observations, taking time to engage in curious conversations and sense-making reflections.

5 | Video observation

In the busy chaos of nursery life, there are times when we miss the many traces of learning that are going on for children.

Video observations are a useful way to find those traces of learning. These videos can be short and sweet or slightly longer, and having the time and space to watch back and reflect can help you spot things that may not have been clear in the moment.

They are also a good opportunity to share with children to see their learning in action.

Build in short video observations so that the task doesn’t become overwhelming and watch back with the child or a colleague to discuss what is happening.

6 | Small steps don’t hold less value

It is not uncommon for settings to break down development into smaller steps for children with SEND.

This is a great way to ensure that we can offer the appropriate scaffolding for a child’s development, but we must be mindful that we don’t see these steps as less important or less valuable than the normative “milestones”. They hold as much significance for the individual child, and it’s crucial to celebrate these in the way we would any other milestone. 

Be clear that small steps don’t hold less value; rather, they allow you to deconstruct development to make it more meaningful for children with SEND.

7 | Parent power

It’s important to recognise and value that children’s learning varies in different contexts such as the home or setting.

There are likely many things the child does at home that do not show up in the nursery and vice versa. Taking time to connect with parents about the child’s experiences outside of the setting is crucial and will help you to build a holistic picture of their development.

Parents have personal expertise about the child, and when we show that we value their perspectives, we can gain further insights about the child and provide more positive learning experiences.

Be mindful of judging families whose experiences differ from your own. Be curious to learn and make it clear to parents that your interests are not about judgements, but about bridging the funds of knowledge a child brings to a setting.

8 | Child’s voice

Children will work hard to communicate with us, but this may not always be in neurotypical ways for children with SEND. For example, you may have a non-speaking child, but this doesn’t mean they’re not constantly sharing forms of communication.

Introduce a Personal Play Dictionary where you can build up knowledge about the child’s interests and fascinations. Noting down things that might not yet make sense to you will help you to build a picture of potential threads of learning.

Use visual prompts to gather feedback from children about the things they like and dislike, and choice boards to indicate their most favoured ways to play.

Kerry is based in London and works as an independent consultant and trainer. Find out more at eyfs4me.com