Thursday, 3 March 2011

Isn’t good early education about the development of the whole child?

Emotional development and communication have been first among equals in the early years curriculum for many years. So I have not been too surprised to find that every time I am in a group discussing the future of Children’s Centres, or the EYFS, there is always a suggestion that these two areas should be prioritised.

It is easy to agree with that; but agreeing the practical steps to take is trickier. I start by being sceptical of attempts at the direct teaching of specific skills. We know, from many years of research, that children’s brains are magnificently fit for the purpose of learning language. Immersed in a sea of words and meanings, nearly all children will become communicators and listeners – the exception being the small proportion of children with a specific speech and language difficulty, who need specialist help.

But the problem is that not all children find themselves immersed in that sea: some are hardly even paddling at the shore.  In the 1990s, the researchers Todd Risley and Betty Hart found that by the age of three, some American children would already have heard over 33 million words said to them by their parents, whilst others would have heard only 10 million. Some would have heard over 500 thousand positive statements in response to their actions from their parents, whilst others would have heard fewer than 60 thousand.

Risley and Hart found that the best way to help parents is surprisingly simple: encourage untalkative parents to talk more. There is no need to coach them in any particular style of interaction, or teach any particular communication skills. Similarly, the Every Child a Talker (ECaT) programme does not promote the direct teaching of communication skills; instead it shows how communication-friendly environments and practitioners can make a real difference.

I would advocate the same approach to supporting children’s emotional development. In early childhood, the emotions develop through relationships and the experience of living in a community - a nursery or a classroom. Children are supported when they are respected, helped, treated with sensitivity when things get difficult, and are expected to make every effort to live those same values themselves. Trying to teach “emotional skills”, with sheets of smiley and sad faces, or discussions in a circle, does not work in my experience. Isn’t good early education about the development of the whole child, and not just the practice of skills? 

First published in Nursery World


For a brief introduction to Risley and Hart's work, see The Everyday Experience of American Babies: Discoveries and Implications

With great thanks to Judith Stevens of the National Strategies for keeping me regularly supplied with information and ideas about early communication. Many of us will miss Judith's friendly and knowledgeable support after March 31st, and recognise all that she has done to help improve the lives of many young children in England. 

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