Unpicking Ofsted Reports, part 6: meeting children’s needs 2

Pennie Akehurst asks Fiona Holiday, a certified therapeutic play practitioner, what must be in place to meet the needs of children and get the best out of them

Meeting the needs of children is the subject that receives the most recommendations and actions each term, as we acknowledged in last month’s article. There, we focused on how this translates to supporting staff to feel safe and thus be more creative in their approaches. But these recommendations are often spread over a wide range of areas such as teaching and learning, assessment and planning, the quality of the learning environment, behaviour management and the knowledge of staff.

The other common issues that consistently raised their head in relation to meeting the needs of children were a need to:

extend children’s opportunities to develop their independence, to gain further skills to support their future learning

improve the organisation of daily routines, to make the most of opportunities to help keep children engaged in their play and learning

ensure children’s behaviour is managed appropriately and that they are supported to understand what is expected of them.

Pennie: So how do we achieve an environment where children have secure relationships?

Fiona: Our starting point is for children to feel that they are important as an individual to the people there. Connection helps us all feel safer.

If children do not feel safe then they will struggle to play, to be curious about the world around them, to take risks or to engage socially with their peers and adults. Young children are developing their ability to regulate themselves – to manage and express their feelings, to develop their ability to pay attention and process ideas and how to monitor themselves so that they can get along with others. They are dependent on the adults around to help them to accept their feelings, to work out what to name them and be helped to cope when they are overwhelmed.

Understanding the body’s response to stress and what we need to help us find calm is key to helping children with their self-regulation. Often a child’s behaviour is communicating their stress and ability to cope with what is going on. It is more helpful to talk about helping children to manage their behaviour than it is to describe behaviour management strategies. If our starting point is helping a child to learn, we empower them.

Pennie: We talk about vulnerable groups all the time, but surely not answering those questions for children makes all children vulnerable?

Fiona: Absolutely. Much of my work is centred around adverse childhood experiences that are traumatic events, which can cause high levels of stress in children. Many children experience stresses in their lives that challenge their ability to cope. If the adults around them are not curious about what is happening with them then we miss opportunities to offer support that could make a lifetime’s worth of difference.

Pennie: So what can we do?

Fiona: It’s all about fostering a connection. If we can tune into a child and sense where they are, we will be able to support their journey. Sometimes that is hard if we are in a hurry or stressed ourselves – it can be easier to tell a child to stop crying than to be alongside them and acknowledge their sadness and help them move through it. But if we shut down their feelings, the hidden message is that they do not matter.

Similarly, we deny children the opportunity to learn to resolve conflicts when we take away an item they are arguing over instead of staying with it and supporting them to work it out. We are, in effect, telling them that this is an insurmountable problem that leaves both of them without.

The key is finding ourselves in a place where we can respond rather than react. A reaction is often instinctive and led by our stress or unconscious beliefs. When we take a breath and consider our response, we can choose which one would best meet the child’s need in that moment. And meeting their needs is where we started.

Pennie: What are the implications for professional development?

Fiona: There are two strands to this. The first is a strong focus on staff personal development. We all have beliefs and ideas that influence our thinking and practice, and the more aware we are of these the better. If we believe that showing anger is wrong then we will struggle with allowing children to express anger. We also need to look after our own well-being so that we are in a place to co-regulate effectively.

Secondly, understanding how children develop and grow is vital. When we understand the need for secure relationships from birth, the way this underpins all other growth and development, including brain development, then we see how we can be part of that. We also need to know what happens when there is trauma and adversity in life and the potential impact on development, so we can provide a supportive environment.

Pennie Akehurst is managing director of Early Years Fundamentals, www.eyfundamentals.org

Next month’s focus is on the quality of teaching and learning

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