‘Getting Early Interventions Right’

This article, which first appeared in Teach Early Years magazine (6.6 edition 2016)

The old Bananarama song with the line “It ain’t what you do its the way that you do it, that’s what gets results” is a good starting point when thinking about interventions in early education. As practitioners we should reflect on what we are doing, and the way we are doing it in order to make an impact.

When there is a gap to close progress won’t happen on its own, certain approaches are required. Education is not “one size fits all” and its important to have as much helpful information as possible. The importance of effective early interventions has never been more pressing. A recent study published by Save The Children revealed that almost 130,000 children in England are falling behind with language abilities before they even reach school, this equates to an average of six children in every reception class struggle with their early language skills, and gives a stark warning that failure to develop adequate language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up to their peers.

Building children’s essential communication social and emotional capabilities means children are more likely to achieve success throughout their life. It means fewer disruptive toddlers, fewer unmanageable school children, fewer young people engaging in crime and antisocial behaviour. The benefits of effective early intervention can prevent future wider social issues, as well as the physical and mental health problems for individuals.

Understanding the Evidence

The Education Endowment Foundation Early Years Tool Kit assesses the effectiveness and cost of different learning strategies, by reviewing the outcomes of educational studies and research. The free online resource aims to provide information and guidance for early years professionals on how to use their resources to improve the learning of disadvantaged children.Many early years professionals are finding the resource acts as valuable signpost and helps support decisions about how best to help children’s development. The evidence it contains is intended as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, professional judgement, and provides no guaranteed solutions or quick fixes. The effectiveness of any intervention comes down its implementation in terms of planning, resources, staffing, review and evaluation. The effectiveness of every intervention comes down to the implementation in terms of planning, resources, staffing, review and evaluation.

In my work with “chatta” I support practitioners through training, and help schools and settings make connections between evidence and putting strategies into practice to achieve a real and sustained impact.

Training for Practitioners

Training is essential for all childcare professionals. In terms of support through interventions and in helping children to be resilient and prepare them for what’s to come in life. Continuous opportunities for training can provide a combination of approaches, ideas and techniques that will help practitioners to understand more about the needs of the children they are working with, and to help develop the skills required to make the most powerful and positive impact. The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit highlights specific approaches and provides a valuable insight into their effectiveness and cost.

Successful Interventions

The following interventions, featured in the EEF toolkit, are highlighted for their effectiveness.

Communication and language approaches

Communication and language approaches offer high impact for low cost and emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction. They are based on the idea that children’s language development benefits from approaches that ]support talking, verbal expression, modelling language and reasoning. Communication and language approaches used in the early years include reading aloud and discussing books with young children, aiming to extend children’s spoken vocabulary by introducing them to new words in context.

Approaches usually involve an early years professional, nursery teacher or teaching assistant, who has been trained in the approach they are using, working with a small group of children or individually to develop spoken language skills. Margaret works daily with a boy, Elliot, in her nursery. She models language linked to the activities Elliot has been doing and focuses on ensuring there are daily opportunities for 1:1 conversations and reflection. She has been following a programme developed by Speech and Language Therapists to help Elliot with some delays in his progress in talking.

Digital technology

Introducing new technology can be expensive and does not automatically lead to improved educational outcomes. Early years professionals need support and time to learn to use new technology effectively. This involves more than just learning how to use the technology; it should include support to understand how it can be used to improve learning. Evidence suggests that technology should be used to supplement, rather than replace, other teaching activities and interactions. Introducing new technology on its own is unlikely to have an impact; it must be accompanied by a change in learning approach to improve learning. As with any tool, the impact comes from how it is used and what it is used for.

Carla manages a nursery and has been using digital technology to support an intervention group. “We use a tablet to photograph what the children have been doing. It acts as an immediate photo album to help with memories and reflection. Since our staff had chatta training they are now capturing and recording language linked to photos too.”

Parental engagement

The relationships every early years setting and childcare provider has with parents and carers are absolutely crucial. Parents are the most important people in their children’s early lives. Children learn about the world and their place in it through their conversations, play activities, and routines with parents and families. By working together parents and practitioners can enhance children’s learning and development. It is an ongoing process that involves sharing information and skills and building relationships based on mutual respect and trust. Parental engagement in early years education is consistently associated with children’s future academic success.

Sarah, an EYFS leader runs parent workshops which are increasingly well attended. She shows the parents activities and encourages them to join in. “Parents weren’t sure at first as we encouraged them to really get involved in some of the play-based activities. The workshops have really helped our relationships with parents and we really feel we are working in partnership.”

Social and emotional learning strategies

Social and emotional learning strategies seek to improve learning and wider child development by improving children’s social and emotional skills. They can be contrasted with approaches that focus explicitly on the academic dimensions of learning. Social and emotional learning strategies might seek to improve the ways in which children interact with their peers, parents or other adults.

Eva is a nursery nurse in a primary school. She runs a nurture group every day and covers activities which model sharing, turn-taking, coping with disappointment and managing anger. “The children are learning how to react in different situations. In our group we model reactions and often use puppets and toys, which the children really enjoy.”

Ten Tips to help get interventions right in your setting:

  • Build strong relationships with parents/carers
  • Continue to support staff through training
  • Plan and review interventions
  • Value the support and guidance of professionals and experts
  • Take time to explore the EEF Early Years Toolkit
  • Interventions do not need to take place separately to everyday activities
  • Strong understanding of birth to 5 development is crucial
  • Practitioners model spoken language continually and this high quality language is invaluable
  • Digital technology can be a powerful resource when used well, avoid leaving children unsupervised with “educational apps”
  • Plan to use Early Years Pupil Premium to make the greatest impact