The scene is a bustling nursery classroom in east London. Children are calling out my name. I’m helping Fatima, who is just out of nappies. She’s sobbing in the toilet with her wet and soiled clothes tangled around her legs.
Whilst I am soothing Fatima, I am also thinking that I need to understand how she is feeling. I need to tune in and respond sensitively. How must she feel, not even used to being away from home, struggling in the toilets as other children come and go?
I can help Fatima and use it as an opportunity to interact, relate and talk with her. I talk about what I am doing. I try to describe and label her emotions, to help put words to her feelings.
With words, she can begin to work through them. We share smiles that become giggles, sing her favourite song, and talk about how tricky tights are.
I have to make a conscious, concerted effort to slow down the pace, to pause and not rush, to talk, to help, and to engage in high quality interactions.
The impact of the pandemic on the early years
In the Autumn term, nursery school life began to feel much more typical – dare I say ‘normal’?
Gone are the bubbles and extensive cleaning regimes. We have brought back the soft furnishings that were swiftly packed away in March 2020 and recreated our inviting and cosy book corners. We have had trips and face to face sessions with parents. We have restarted ‘stay and play’ and parenting programmes in our Children’s Centre.
However, the fact remains that the youngest children in our society have lived much of their lives under lockdowns. Many children’s communication and language skills are delayed as a result.
From my personal experience, I’ve noticed 3 and 4‑year-olds finding it a real challenge to play together, to share, wait for their turn, and to manage their emotions. Settling in has taken much longer. Many children have needed extra sensitive, personalised support – and so have their families.
So, in the midst of this challenging period, what does ‘high-quality’ early years provision look like?
To quote Iram Siraj and colleagues: “There is an increasing recognition that the relationship a child has with a teacher or caregiver that is both sensitive and stimulating is the central and most critical component of early care and education.”
Relationships matter. The way that I interact with young children as their nursery teacher helps them to develop their self-regulation – especially being able to manage strong feelings and keep going when things get difficult.
The EEF Early Years Toolkit summarises robust evidence that emphasises the positive impact of self-regulation strategies on later learning in school.
This focus on relationships is at the heart of the EEF’s Preparing for Literacy guidance report, which recommends that the development of children’s communication and language should be our priority in the early years, through supportive relationships and high-quality interactions. For Fatima, this feels like the right priority.
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Nurturing, responsive interactions with adults are vital for healthy brain development. These ‘serve and return’ interactions, often characterised as a game of tennis or ping-pong, lay the foundations for the development of social skills, emotional regulation and communication.
Listening to children and having conversations with them is important for language development because it enables children to practise language and to receive feedback from adults.
The pressure created by the pandemic has reduced all teachers’ ‘bandwidth’. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child refers to the ‘buffering protection’ of supportive interactions between adults and children during stressful times. In the context of COVID-19, this is important.
We need to care for the adults who are caring for and educating young children. If we are struggling, the quality of the supportive interactions that enable children to develop foundational skills will be adversely impacted.
As the new school term moves quickly ahead, and we brace ourselves for further weeks of anxiety and uncertainty, let’s focus our attention on what matters. Let’s focus on the power of loving, sensitive and stimulating interactions which help children to become more confident and independent, and more powerful communicators.
Listening and talking with Fatima, generating lots of high-quality interactions, as she is helped to change and more, may seem nigh on inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but their impacts are positive, cumulative, and they can be long-lasting.
What happens early, can matter for a lifetime.
Guidance for teachers
Best evidence on impact of COVID-19 on pupil attainment