Are your children lucky?

The Minding The Gap conference held in Brighton recently appropriately had a keynote presentation that tackled the issue of closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers

“Our job in the early years is not to level the playing field, it is to get the children on the pitch,” said keynoter Penny Tassoni to an audience that was around two-thirds independent childminders.

Tassoni, a leading author in childcare and early-years education, delivered a presentation entitled Reducing educational disadvantage in the early years and told them that they are “all making a difference” and are “the unsung heroes” who are in many ways closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

“Actually [closing that gap] is a bigger task than it may seem at first glance,” she continued. “It can be depressing to look at the stats that keep coming out. The Frank Field report, for example, suggests that by the age of 26 months you can predict a child’s long-term future. Whether you have free school meals or the postcode you born/live in can also provide an average over the long term. These can seem crude and cruel measurements of course, but I guess we have to start somewhere.”

What is beyond all reasonable doubt, she said, is that the development of children in the early-years sector is crucial. “Five is already too late,” she said, “and that’s why you make all the difference.”

Tassoni spoke about the elements of life that differentiate “lucky” and less lucky children. Lucky children, she explained, may be educationally advantaged in their early years and may feel more confident and secure when they reach school age. “A child who starts school confident of their entitlement and ready for learning is going to fly,” she said, but stressed that this may not necessarily translate into emotional advantage.”

She quoted Abigail McKnight of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, who said in 2015: “Families with greater means at their disposal, financial and otherwise, are assisting their children to accumulate skills, particularly those which are valued in the labour market. We observe this through improvements in cognitive skills (maths especially) by age 10 and a greater likelihood of gaining a degree.”

Never underestimate “resource” Tassoni told the audience, defining resource in this context not just as money, but also the wherewithal, desire and time parents have to play a full part in their child’s upbringing and the opportunities this gives children of different backgrounds to develop.

Closing the gap

The best way for early-years practitioners to attempt to reduce the gap is to focus on what the “lucky” children get that their less advantaged counterparts do not, she said.

Tassoni underlined five key things that she believes lucky children have.

1. Strong, positive relationships - “Lucky” children get a sense that they are valued and their interactions with adults are largely positive.

Parents that are worn down by life can lack the emotional energy to give their children the attention they need and little learning can take place without positivity.

Ensure that every child in your setting has a strong connection to an adult. The child should feel [towards that adult] as if they are a family member.

2. Opportunities to talk and think, to speculate and ask stupid questions – Sometimes as a parent, you just want to tell them to shut up! But overally across the social strata, some children are far more likely to have language difficulties than others, and it is those who lack interaction in their lives.

3. Varied experiences – Even if they are being dragged to places where they don’t want to go and they moan about it, we are doing it because we want to widen their knowledge. Going to an art gallery might not immediately feel useful to you, but it gives them a sense of entitlement – ‘this space is somewhere where I am accepted’. Of course, everyone is fully entitled to do these things – but they need to know that. Going to the library, the farm, feeding the ducks, splashing in a puddle, visiting a museum, a live concert – all of these things are developing cognitive skills and stimulating the imagination, allowing them to share the moment, develop their vocabulary and different ways of thinking.

When they come to early-years settings, they are already on life’s journey, your job in your setting is to build on their experience to date and give them new experiences. Some children will never have cracked an egg or posted a letter. I advocate long-term planning for disadvantaged children – build a picture of them and create a safety net for them based around what they were already getting and what they have never had.

“Some advantaged children [are getting so much] that they just come to our settings for a break!”

4/5. Opportunities to share books and rich play opportunities – This is one of the most important things to focus on, said Tassoni. “How far can we influence the trajectory of children? One of the things that everyone can do is focus on language. By 22 months, you can predict outcomes at the age of 26 simply by assessing a child’s language development. Children need a lot of quiet – background noise such as TV or large groups can distract them and reduces their ‘self-talk or vocalisation. By ages 3-6 years - a child’s narrative skills are a powerful predictor of literacy skill at 8-12 years. And by 4 years – the difference in the number of words children from disadvantaged backgrounds hear is 19 million.

“The number of words a child knows at age 5 dictates their life chances at the age of 30. There is no ‘hot’ list of words, but studies have shown that the vocabularies of children from different backgrounds can differ by millions of words by the age of 4, and that becomes increasingly significant as their life progresses. “It’s the difference between a parent or carer who says ‘put that down’ and a parent or carer who says ‘You can’t have that now, it’s not for you’. They seem small points, but it all adds up,” she said.

What can you do?

Settings that fail to account for the differences in needs of their children in their general practice risk an Ofsted rating of Requires Improvement, which can have a disastrous effect on a setting – it drains moral and it has a negative impact on performance, said Tassori. She advised settings to concentrate on things that can improve performance.

1. Precise assessment – Many times, people do not know how big the gap is. Knowing where the children you look after are, particularly in terms of language development, is very important. Usually the “lucky” child will be ahead of language milestones, but only by testing all of our children will we know where they need support.

2. Place a high focus on language development and the activities that support it – most of the activities that should encourage language development actually take place at a time when the children rarely talk; in the circle at story time for example. Talking to other children is a very slow route to learn, so ask yourself ‘are the children with the highest language needs getting the most amount of adult time?’ A minimum amount of time to make a difference is 5 minutes of one-to-one interaction, to really make a difference it is 10 minutes. That can be a challenge, particularly in group settings. This is where independent childminders have a great advantage over large settings. They have a lower number of children to interact with one-on-one so they can spend a greater amount of time interacting with each of them.

3. Focus on books – “Lucky” children get to read a book with an adult 3-4 times a day on average. Often this is to keep them still or quiet, or to get them into bed, of course, but it all adds up to thousands of opportunities to enjoy books before they go to school. They get to go backwards instead of forwards, create storylines, talk a lot and read their favourite bits time and time again. Group experiences of reading a book are not the same as being cuddled up reading a book. Every book you read with them, enjoy with them, is a learning opportunity. But don’t tell them that’s your strategy! Do you plan the next books you are going to read with each child?

4. Vary their experiences – think about the things you could do in your setting that can widen the children’s horizons. Who do you know who can play the trumpet, cook, knit or sew? Bring them in and open the children’s eyes to new things.

5. Planned play – This is the only way to ensure that the children get a balanced diet of play. You tend to find that groups of boys or girls get used to playing in a certain way, and often these are activities with low language potential. But it’s the richness of their play that is important. The good news of course, is that they can still do what they have enjoyed doing before, but don’t be afraid to say ‘you’ve spent enough time doing that now, try something else’ and move them onto another activity. Challenge yourself and be creative and thoughtful.

Five ways that you can make even more of a difference. The rest is up to you.

Interview from the Summer 2017 issue

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