When it comes to children with “special educational needs” (SEN) and disabilities, we tend to see a focus on observing for concerns only, leading to valuable threads of learning being lost. This is often because we are taught that early intervention is key, and the sooner we spot those “red flags”, the sooner we can prevent a delay or SEN. However, what may initially appear to be a delay could be a gateway to a developmental difference, including autism, dyslexia, or a developmental language profile, such as being non-speaking. Our initial concerns for some children may lead to adaptations in our practice that support neurotypical progress, but for other children, we may require a more permanent change in approach and mindset. For those children who receive a diagnosis, we need to develop neurodiversity-affirming observation, assessment and planning. In part 2/4, I will outline ways to expand our practice to be more inclusive.
We must pay greater observational attention to children who are neurodivergent or disabled
(Cowan & Flewitt, 2020)
In 2019, the Froebel Trust commissioned a project on digital documentation in the early years (read the full research here). The researchers wanted to understand which children received the most observational attention. The findings of this study were valuable but concerning. As you can see from the list figure (1), many children whose development does not necessarily fit into neurotypical standards:
a) receive less observational attention
b) have crucial threads of learning missed
This study provided recommendations to improve observational attention, including the use of video, but below outlines a few more things we can do to really tune in to children’s play, learning and development:
Side note: where possible, always involve children in these methods to have autonomy and ownership over how they are observed.
Most settings, including childminders, have access to digital technology and are likely already using platforms that allow photos and videos. Across a busy day, there are lots of things that we can miss. If you would like to be more in-tune with a child or group of children, video observations can be vital. Short videos that can be watched back allow us to headspace and time to really focus on what is happening in a child’s play. This is a practice I have used a lot in recent years and it’s amazing how many things I pick up the more I watch. This type of observation can also be great for shared discussions with parents, the child or colleagues. I always suggest “bitesize” observations as longer videos can be difficult to watch back. Over time, these bite-size videos can build up a much clearer picture of learning. If you choose this option, it is important to ensure that consent and the right to say no is used with young children. Simple visuals can be used, and children can indicate if they want the observation to stop.
Voice Recorded Narratives
I struggle at times to write about what I am observing. While it might have looked a little strange, I relied heavily on a Dictaphone for observations back in my setting. I found that narrating what I observed with the Dictaphone led to more detailed descriptions of children at play. Listening back also sparked lots of other thoughts and reflections, and even better, I could capture children vocalisations and “voice”.
What to do:
Draw out a basic bird eye view of the space. Observe the child movements across the day and map it out. At the end of the day or session, use this to inform your thinking about the child’s play interests and behaviours.
Part of an educator’s role is to figure out children’s play interests and motivations. It can often be the case that it takes longer to figure out what neurodivergent and disabled children’s play because it can often be pathologised as a symptom of their neurotype or condition. When I was a practitioner, we would always use play mapping to determine which areas of provision a child was drawn to, and we would map out any repetitions or fascinations. Looking at your play map at the end of the day can reveal many things that may have otherwise been defined as fleeting behaviours.
Joint observations, including family contributions
This can feel like a basic recommendation, but I continually suggested it as an Area SENCO. Short joint observations expand our understanding of children into a network of perspectives. Sometimes, we can spend so much time interpreting or making sense of what we see when we actually need a fresh pair of eyes and ears.
Another important way of gathering insight into children’s play and learning is to speak with parents about capturing learning at home. Everyone uses technology nowadays, and often parents have photos, videos and snapshots that focus on their child’s interests and fascinations. Watching back together also gives us an opportunity as educators to affirm the child’s identity. It is important to remember that when a child has “SEN”, parents are often subject to many discussions based on problems or concerns (more to come on this in part 4).
Developing confidence with moving away from ages and stages.
The Celebratory Framework of strengths, interests, differences and needs (Murphy, 2021)
During a conversation with SEND specialist Sarah Doyle, she explained that ages and stages can be ableist for many reasons. As a parent to an autistic child, she often felt that her child’s developmental differences were infantilised. For example, her key person once explained that although Robin was chronologically three years of age, he was only performing in the stage band 8-20 months. Therefore, his next steps would focus on cultivating milestones within this area. Admittedly, this is something I did as an Area SENCO. Still, Sarah pushed back to clarify that neurodivergent children often do not fit into the narrowness of the EYFS framework. So, by focusing on normative milestones, her child was being taught to mimic neurotypical behaviours. Only when they discussed her child beyond these milestones could more meaningful discussions be had…and next steps became more child centred. One of the most important changes we can make in our language is to stop asking “how is this child delayed?” but instead “how does this child do it differently?”. We can then use a framework to support rather than fix the child. I am often asked what to do if we are not relying so much on tracking and staging of development. My answer is to focus on being able to describe the child via their strengths, interests, differences and needs. Being able to do this, allows us an insight into a child’s holistic development, and the emphasis from any professional, or specialist should be to focus on helping a child to thrive by supporting their areas of need, rather than trying to align their tick boxes so that they appear to be meeting age-related expectations. You can download the full celebratory framework from eyfs4me.com, and use the Penn Green Celebratory Approach to continue to develop this
practice (You can access that here).
Moving away from compliance-based IEP’s
We have all been in that situation of writing SMART targets for individual educational plans, but there has been increasing awareness that many of these targets can be problematic as they:
a) focus on very specific skills that do not necessarily relate to the child’s interests or everyday experiences
b) focus on compliance and mimicking neurotypical skills
For example, I have seen many targets suggest that children must provide eye contact for sixty seconds or remain seated and still during circle time for up to two minutes. These targets put pressure on educators and children and fail to recognise that some children’s learning and expression of skills are different. When agreeing on targets or goals for children, they must be aligned to their unique development profiles. Expecting autistic children to maintain eye contact often goes against their individual communication preferences. Similarly, children’s movement, fidgeting or stimming are often indicators of engagement, rather than a lack of attention. To move away from targets that focus on typical milestones, we can be guided by the SHARE framework. This is outlined below, but you can also download the full guide on www.eyfs4me.com.
While SMART can come in handy for some things, I have developed a neurodiversity affirming approach called SHARE. This approach prescribes to the following ideas:
Targets should be suited to the child’s individual learning needs and preferences. Often, we can choose something that is about specific skill development without thinking about how suitable it is to the context. For example, I was once asked to take a child off each day to thread three beads as evidence that they were developing their fine motor skills. The child did not see the point in this, and what’s more, she had other interests where I could have cultivated fine motor such as cutting and sticking.
When planning for children, it is important that we consider the whole child, and not just the areas of need, or the areas of difficulty. For example, if a child has speech and language differences or delays, we must consider how this interconnect sand impacts on their other experiences. Targets should be transferable to other play and everyday experiences, otherwise they become isolated and do not necessarily offer “hooks” for learning.
Targets can often be quite structured and rigid, but it is important to be adaptable and flexible when planning for children who are neurodivergent or disabled. Important things to consider:
is it developmentally responsive, if not, adapt?
is the child showing signs of interest or engagement, if so continue?
does the child show sign of resistance, if so, adapt?
Have your interpretations changed of what the child needs changed, if so, adapt
Anything we plan needs to hold meaning and purpose for the child, otherwise we are doing to them, rather than with them. Targets in the most part should be planned for across a child’s play experiences and routines. We should avoid taking children away from their play spaces so that we can build evidence of measurable targets, especially when the measure is a neurotypical outcome.
We should find ways to ensure that the child’s “voice” is included in any targets, for example, using visuals so that they can indicate what they would like to learn or do, or by talking to them about their goals or hopes. We will also gather this information through discussions with parents.
If, for example, you are carrying out a language game such as “What is in the Box” where a child names the items, include something personal or of interest. Or give ownership in some way to the child, for example, their picture on the box or letting the children decorate the box. Where possible do this in-class and include buddies.
Engaging & Enjoyable
Often strategies and interventions can feel very much like they are done ‘to’ the child rather than ‘with’ them. Being taken away from a safe space to look at flashcards can feel quite boring, and many children will only be engaging with the tasks to an end. It sounds harsh, but it is a practice that continues to be adopted for children with SEND and the long-term impact is worrying. As advocates of a child, we should seek to support high levels of involvement and engagement, and the child should experience enjoyment from their experiences. Reflect on whether you would enjoy threading three beads twice a day, every day for six weeks? We might be able to tick a box to say “achieved” but will it have cultivated high levels of engagement? Probably not. Think of the things that spark joy, pleasure, and wellbeing. While it is the last part of the acronym, it is actually the most fundamental goal for any child!