Early Years practitioners must carefully tune in to the lockdown experience of each individual child, says Melanie Pilcher…
If we were to reflect on the last six-months it would be very difficult to make any generalisations about the early years sector.
Some settings remained open throughout the coronavirus lockdown period to provide care for vulnerable children and the children of essential workers.
Other settings closed their doors, not knowing when (or if) they would be able to reopen. Those that remained open were in many cases doing so for only a handful of children.
From June onwards, as restrictions were gradually lifted, more children were able to return to their early years setting and providers had to juggle staff availability against demand for places and the financial viability of offering a limited service.
By mid-July just 61 per cent of Ofsted registered early years providers were open, 31 per cent remained closed and the status of the rest was unknown.
Now, after months of restrictions and challenges that have tested early years providers to their limits, most children are expected to return to their schools and early years provision as we take another big step toward a more normal service.
Despite the uncertainty of recent months there are some things that we do know for sure. The children that many practitioners said goodbye to in March this year will not be the same children who have gradually returned to them after such a long absence.
Yes, they will have grown and they will have moved on in their learning and development. But most importantly they will each have had a unique experience of lock-down that may have a long-term, if not immediately obvious, impact.
This means that early years practitioners must carefully tune in to the lock-down experience of each individual child so that they can respond appropriately to their needs.
We also know that far too many vulnerable children who were entitled to a priority place during lock-down did not take it up.
This is concerning because these are the children who during normal attendance at their setting would have been monitored and any deterioration in their circumstances would have been followed-up.
In many cases other services involved with the child and family will have maintained contact, but there are also children for whom practitioners had low-level concerns, whose circumstances may have worsened during lock-down. These are the children who may have been on the edge of needing support.
Practitioners will need to be alert to any deterioration in their circumstances and should take appropriate action to secure further support immediately.
We must be particularly alert to these children as they return to the setting, as they are the ones whose needs may have changed, but nobody else has noticed yet.
Providers were encouraged to stay in touch with children and families during lock-down. Some set up WhatsApp groups, or made use of Skype, Zoom or other social media to maintain contact with groups of children and to facilitate contact between peer groups.
There are many inspiring examples of practitioners recording story-time sessions or sharing activity ideas with parents and carers.
Similarly, providers have used information technology to record videos of new arrangements for dropping off and collecting children as they prepare to return.
What has been less achievable is the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the child’s experiences at home and to have those important discussions with parents about their child’s progress.
The information that practitioners gain from parents forms a big part of on-going assessment and must now be the basis of re-settling every child as they return to the setting.
There is a delicate balance between maintaining the required level of social distancing in the setting, whilst not alienating parents at a time when close partnership working is essential to meet children’s needs.
It is important to remember that you are not just resettling children, you are resettling parents too. Make sure that the measures you have put in place to open safely are clearly communicated to everyone.
Parents will still have their own concerns about returning to your setting which they may have transferred to their child. It is important to acknowledge these concerns, no matter how trivial they may seem.
It is likely that practitioners will have had similar worries about returning to work, so creating an opportunity to ask questions or share experiences will instil confidence all round.
Building on what you already knew about a child and what you have since learned about their lock-down experience is essential. Practitioners should review the last observations and assessment they completed against the information they have gained from parents.
It should be possible to identify some areas where it seems a child has made progress, or where they appear to need further support. This information will help you to focus your planning for the child from the outset.
The transition back into your setting should not be an event – it is a process that will require a great deal of sensitivity and patience from everyone involved.
Do not assume that the child who settled quickly when they first started with you is going to cope as well this time round. The principles of settling in still hold firm.
Children need to re-establish an attachment with their key person so that they have a secure base from which to adjust to a new normal.
There will be many emotional ‘transactions’ to be carefully negotiated, these must first be recognised by the key person who then plans to meet the individual child’s needs.
Your aim is to make them feel settled, safe, and secure as quickly as possible.
The physical and emotional environment have an important role to play as you support the transition between home and your setting. For the children that have continued to attend, they must also be supported in their transition back to a busier, more structured environment.
Their circumstances either as vulnerable, or the child of a key worker brings its own unique set of challenges that must be recognised.
When you are thinking about your environment the aim should be to make it familiar, flexible, friendly, and focused on the needs of the child:
Early Years Alliance’s ‘Welcome Back Pack’ Resource Bundle
The ‘Welcome Back’ series contains three comprehensive resource packs designed to support nurseries, pre-schools and childminders to ensure their re-opened provision meets the needs of their children and families. The bundle is free to Alliance members and is available at the special price of £40 to non-members here.
Melanie Pilcher is the Early Years Alliance’s Quality and Standards Manager. She has written many publications, training packages and other resources for the Alliance, focusing on best practice and meeting the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Melanie also represents the work of the Alliance at public events, conferences and seminars in this country and abroad.
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