Supporting EYFS children: One year on

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Schools are now planning for the school year 2021/22. What can we expect and how can we accommodate our youngest children? Emma Meadus describes the impact of a disrupted year and her school’s plans for support into the new one.

Summary

  • Some children may not be ready for full-time school and consideration should be given to their individual needs.
  • Where possible, additional members of staff or teaching assistants can help provide the extra reassurance and relationships that some children need.
  • Some children will need a more bespoke offer this coming year alongside the usual provision made.

Returning to school each September after the Summer break always has its challenges. Teachers sometimes find themselves feeling nervous and unsure about the new year. When I was in the classroom, even after 15 years of teaching, I felt like I’d forgotten everything, right up to the point the children crossed the threshold.

For the children, transition into the next year group can be a difficult time, especially at the big milestones like primary into secondary or pre-school/nursery into primary school. This year, during the pandemic, transition between early years settings and primary schools has been especially difficult.

We have not been able to visit children in their settings or have them into school for settling-in days. Although we have made best use of Zoom meetings, socially-distanced meet and greets with parents and their children, and provided all our new starters with a ‘transitional object’ (a teddy bear for each child from their teacher), the impact of Covid-19 on pupils has been tangible.

“Missing out on almost six months of pre-school experiences has left its mark on pupils’ social and emotional development”

Full-time or part-time?

Missing out on almost six months of pre-school experiences has left its mark on pupils’ social and emotional development. Six months is a long time in a four-year old’s life and the pandemic came at a time when young children should be making rapid gains in their development. We have seen, as is the case nationally, more delays in:

  • speech and language development
  • communication skills
  • attention and concentration spans
  • social and emotional development.

It is this last factor that has had the greatest impact on full-time attendance for our youngest learners.

In my school, our current practice is to work with parents in the Summer term to determine whether pupils should start part-time or full-time. In all cases, prior to the pandemic, any part-time pupils were successfully moved to full-time within a few weeks. However, for the first time ever, we now find ourselves in a position where a few children are still on part-time timetables.

All children are unique of course, and the presenting factors for them not attending full-time are different, but the underlying reason for all is that they are not yet ready to deal with a full day of school. They are tired and overwhelmed by the demands of the full school day.

Attachment issues

Nationally, attachment issues have also been exacerbated by lockdown and in different ways. Many schools have seen children of all ages having trouble separating from parents as they have been their sole carers for many months. Without the usual pre-school experiences and transition into school, the prospect of being left by their parents with virtual strangers in a strange place is understandably too much for some children.

Conversely, some pupils’ experiences across the nation of loving and caring relationships have been diminished by their isolation in the home. For pupils with attachment issues, the relationships they had with their early years settings staff was their main source of nurture and care. Such pupils can display signs of poor mental health, manifesting in bad behaviour in school.

Finding the right balance

It’s a conundrum many headteachers have faced this term. On the one hand, we have children who are not able to access a full day’s school and should they be made to if it is causing them distress?

On the other hand, how will they be ready if they are not getting the school experiences they need to develop?

There are also pressures on school leaders regarding catch-up. The government has stated that it expects schools to have completed their catch-up work by the Summer term 2021. In other words, to be back on track with the curriculum and pupil progress levels by then. To do this, children need to be in school as much as possible. Following the third lockdown, this is even less likely to happen.

My EYFS team, SENDCO and myself are in a constant dialogue about how to proceed. We have reached out for support externally and have consulted with the local authority attendance, education and family services teams for advice. Reassuringly, we are not alone and most schools are experiencing the same challenges. But what to do about it?

“What it boils down to, we decided, is that we want all our pupils to have happy and successful school experiences”

School-ready?

Children in Reception are entitled to full-time education the term after their fifth birthday. Good practice when a child is on a part-time timetable is to have an integration plan; a timeline for increasing the time the child is in school to get to full-time education as quickly as possible. The problem is that the term after the fifth birthday line in the sand is an arbitrary point in time and some children are still not ready for full-time school education by then.

However, with parents’ permission, part-time education can continue after the child has turned five. This practice is not encouraged though and there certainly isn’t a wealth of advice on government websites about how to accommodate this need or a suggested attendance code for the register! I think though, that a worldwide pandemic is a case for extraordinary measures.

Staffing levels

What it boils down to, we decided, is that we want all our pupils to have happy and successful school experiences – those on both full-time and part-time timetables. To achieve this, I needed to put more teaching assistants into our Reception class so it is more like nursery or pre-school levels of adult support.

The children need someone close by to guide them through their day and  provide reassurance and support. Some children need longer than others to build trusting relationships and form strong bonds with the adults around them. The adults now work in key worker roles, similar to nursery provision. This is not meant to be a long-term measure and the aim is for the children to build their confidence and independence so that such high levels of support are not needed long term.

The curriculum

In terms of provision alteration, we’re now taking a very flexible approach. Our EYFS philosophy is something we’ve worked on for years to get to a point where we’re confident and proud of our blend of child-initiated learning and adult-led teaching. Our curriculum is challenging and the indoor/outdoor provision is excellent. Many children are thriving in this stimulating environment and did from the start.

For some children though, it’s not been working as they’re overwhelmed by the scope and array of choices available to them. In response, we’ve created bespoke timetables, provision and curricula to support the children’s needs. For example, while the majority of the class may be having a phonics session first thing in the morning with the teacher, an assistant may take a few children for some alternative, focused, adult-led work like den building together.

This approach is starting to work as the children’s primary needs are met first – to feel secure and happy in school. Any teacher-led sessions missed are repeated later for the children or worked into their child-initiated play by our skillful adults.

Little by little, these successful periods in school are allowing us to build up their time in school, working towards full-time at a pace that is sustainable but meets the needs of the child.

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About Author

Emma Meadus

Emma Meadus is headteacher of Coppice Valley Primary School and a member of the Red Kite Learning Trust.

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