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Excellent early years for lucrative later years

by Lynsie Monro

Watching with eagle eyes as I build a tower of wooden blocks, my niece starts removing pieces from the middle. I try to keep it from falling but the structure eventually topples. I start again, laying a slightly wider base. This time my niece’s efforts to demolish are met with a meek wobble so she decides instead to help with the construction until it’s as tall as her.

Learning can be likened to a tower of blocks. When experienced on a narrow base of limited knowledge and inadequate adult support, progress is restricted. Gaps cause issues and some learners, particularly the more vulnerable, fight against the process. We spend time, energy and money on supportive ‘scaffolding’ desperately trying to curb the impact of a limiting foundation. More funding then goes into dealing with those for whom it is too little too late and who are left to stumble down the punishment road.

New challenges

Early years education is the bedrock for future learning and can have a substantial, long-term impact on later success. As our children and young people make their return to the classroom, having had varied experiences of home learning, teachers face the challenge of reducing gaps (both academic and behavioural) but where have those gaps come from – the ‘lockdown loss of learning’ or did they always exist?

To date, there is no evidence-based research to show what impact Covid-19 school closures have had on our children’s and young people’s learning or to suggest that shortening the summer holidays will enable learners to ‘catch up’. There is strong evidence, however, which tells us that the early years of a child’s life is a period of profound growth. In their first five to eight years, children progress at a considerably faster rate than at any other time. We are born ready to learn.

At the same time, during these early years, trauma can cause lasting changes on the rapidly growing brain, namely the areas that deal with stress. These changes may distort a child’s ability to self-regulate and cause them to develop a memory of fear. Consequently, when they experience overwhelming tension or are afraid, they lack the necessary skills to communicate these emotions in socially acceptable ways. The world sees the behaviour, not the need. Early assessment and intervention are key.

Widening gaps

We’ve long been aware that early childhood experiences are crucial for brain development and understand the potential during this period to support the progress of a child’s education, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With an extensive and solid foundation of basic knowledge and skills alongside the identification of any special educational needs, issues along the way which could worsen factors outside of our control – socio-economic status, adverse childhood experiences, world pandemics – which could cause those gaps to widen, are more easily managed.

I don’t believe we can pin the teaching and learning challenges schools will undergo come September solely on lockdown – there is no doubt that the experiences of our children and young people over the past few months will attribute to some of the barriers. The efforts schools have made to shift their practice to a virtual experience, staying connected and putting measures in place to make the transition back into the classroom as safe as possible, both physically and emotionally, are incredible.

However, we need a far more proactive approach to reducing gaps and meeting needs because as exclusion data, the prison populations and re-offending rates are telling us, these problems are as equally destructive to human life as a world pandemic. Undetected needs make for a shaky foundation, leaving our children and young people susceptible to academic and behavioural difficulties throughout their education careers. Schools channel their funding and resources into playing catch up at a much later date – SLT running Year 6 booster groups springs to mind – or feel the need to resort to much worse, exclusion.

Education needs adults committed to uncovering the factors hindering a child’s ability to learn right from the start and doing whatever it takes to give them a fighting chance of coming out the other side standing tall, ready to construct their own, successful future.

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