The Famly Sessions
Nancy Stewart

Find out what matters most for learning, development and assessment.

At the Childcare Expo in London we were proud to host the very first of our Famly Sessions. A free event series designed to bring together people from across the early years sector as we believe that quality CPD should be freely available to everyone!

Nancy Stewart a key advisor on the EYFS review in 2012 who also led the rationale for the Characteristics of Effective Learning, and then went on to co-write the updated Development Matters spoke about the importance of counting what really counts when it comes to learning, development and assessment in the early years.

Watch the full presentation or read the transcript below and let us know what you think!

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Full Transcript

Hello! Really wonderful to have heard really practical and ‘real life’ advice about how a very lively setting is using assessment and what it’s for, making it work. We’ve had a great introduction to thinking about what it’s all about. I wanted to call this session “Keeping our eye on what really counts” because I know how busy you are, and there are so many things all of the time that can distract you.

“All the things that you’re juggling…”

You might not have grown up with the same books that I did. What I grew up with and then also shared with my children was Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat.”

Well this is a really anarchic story about this outrageous cat that comes to the house when the parents are out all day and he wreaks havoc in the house and there was a bit in it that says this, “Look at me, look at me, look at me now, it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how. I can hold up the cup and the milk and the cake, I’ll get all of the books.”

Of course, it all gets totally out of hand and collapses down, but when I looked at that I thought, oh yeah, that’s really like you isn’t it? All the things that you’re juggling! It’s a huge job being an early years practitioner and this is the sort of thing that I’m always talking to people who don’t understand how skilled your work is, don’t understand the range of things that you’re juggling with every day.

Because of that, sometimes you’re pulled this way and that, what’s the latest kind of crisis or what do I need to get grips with, we can lose sight of why we’re really doing this job if we’re not careful.

“What is it that really matters?”

You might know about the EPPE research which is one of the English examples of research that shows that what happens with children when they’re three or four years old has an effect all the way through to when they start the study which was the end of Key Stage Three. They found it makes a difference in so many aspects, their attainment, their approach to learning, their self-regulation.

There are also other studies in other parts of the world that have followed people well into adulthood that show what happened when they were three.

What was the quality of the setting? What did they experience, and you can map it so I think it really gives credit to the work that you do to know that what you do can make a difference for children their whole lives. That’s exciting isn’t it? Also a bit scary maybe!

I think it’s important to sometimes try to find our way through and see the wood for the trees, and sometimes we can’t see the trees that count because we’re surrounded. Sometimes it’s good to stop and say well what is it that really matters?

If these children are going to move on from working with me and go onward in their life and something that I’m supporting them with is gonna matter forever for them, what is it? I want you to just have a word with somebody next to you we’re just gonna have one minute for this because these are things you really know, what you believe in and say okay when they leave me, what are the two or three things that I really want to make sure they go forward with? OK one minute!

“Let’s take a quick poll…”

Let’s take a quick poll about what some of these things were. I heard a few words that I really liked!

If something that you said you would say fits in the EYFS in the area of PSED out your hands up. Yeah, lot’s of you. Anyone talk about communication and language expressing themselves? Anyone say anything about physical development? Healthy, active, using their bodies. Anyone say anything that would be the characteristics of effective learning? OK, anyone say anything to do with literacy, maths? What about the other areas, understanding the world? Expressive arts and design?

OK, so I would say the majority there are PSED, the next most, probably characteristics of effective learning, and then we moved on to communication.

Well, when I ask people this a lot some of the things that they often say are these because what I’m asking you about is – What are your values? What do you want for children?

This was one I did with a group when we flip-charted it, and I would say all of them really are in the characteristics of effective learning. That’s probably because we’d been talking about that.

“Measuring what truly matters”

When it comes down to saying what really matters, we need to keep it in our mind or else we can be distorting our assessments and spending more time on the things that maybe aren’t what matter the most.

Chris Pascal and Tony Bertram said this a few years ago, “We need to ensure that what we’re measuring truly matters, not just things that are easily measured.”

It’s a trap to fall into isn’t it? Some things are hard to capture. Well, the research does show us that the things that matter most are some core areas for young children. The characteristics of effective learning. Why are they so important? Well because they are the way that the child is reaching out into the world, seeking experience thinking about their experience, having to push to get out there and learn and do.

The EYFS tells us in a little short paragraph which is actually really powerful, it says as we plan, so that means when we’re setting up our environment thinking about opportunities, all of that.

“You can’t do the learning for any of your children”

As we organise what we’re offering to children and guiding them, the way that we interact we “must”, and that’s the legal requirement word, we must keep these in mind all the time and reflect them in the way that we work with children. Because they are fundamental.

What it’s talking about is the child being the active agent of their own learning. We often say to people you can’t do learning for any of your children, they have to be the ones who do it. You can be alongside and support and stimulate. But the learning power resides in the child and we’ve got to keep that strong and and keep that building.

So these are some of the ideas, the growth mindset: and self regulation which more and more, we’re realising makes that lifetime difference. How much you’re in charge of your own activities and your own learning.

“PSED I would say is first and foremost..”

OK, then we have the prime areas. So, a lot of you said the things in PSED you felt were some of the most important things you want to go forward. The other two areas as well.

PSED I would say is first and foremost because it’s a basic need for children to feel safe, to feel cared for, to belong. If they don’t have that, then whatever else you’re offering them might as well just go out the window, because they’ve got in their brain to not have those stress hormones firing off that stop them thinking, stop them learning.

First of all it comes that feeling of being attached and safe and then physical development, prime because children learn through their bodies, using their senses doing things, exploring the world around them. As their physical capacities develop, they can engage in more and more ways.

Finally, communication and language, I could say a lot about that, it’s a really important area that I do a lot of work in but no time this morning. I hope you know how critical it is for all future learning.

Why are these called prime? Because when we are born our brains are looking for those, they’re looking for the experiences that wire up that brain really quickly. These are part of child development.

We have a sensitive period in early childhood where a few experiences will help us to build those capacities so all children wherever you live all through history have cared about other people and their feelings.

Learning about the PSED part and their bodies, and using them, and they’re learning to communicate and what we know is if we don’t get that right as a foundation early on, it’s much harder to deal with later. So if you don’t have a really good attachment relationship then that has knock-on effects and it’s harder in your later life.

If you don’t develop early movement patterns you end up with difficulties, dyslexia for instance is linked to lack of early movement patterns and so on. Communication and language, it’s much harder to learn a language later in your life. So we need to get them right and children are wide open for those. In a way that they won’t be later.

“The specific areas…are part of our human culture”

The specific areas, on the other hand, our brain is not looking for them, they’re not part of human nature, they’re part of our human culture that we have invented and that we share with children and they are not time sensitive.

So if we don’t get the prime areas right, those children are going to struggle but actually it doesn’t matter if you don’t learn to read until you’re seven. Why start at four? It doesn’t matter, other parts of the world they don’t start as early as we do here and they do just as well by the time they’re nine or eleven.

These are things that we learned through experience but our brain doesn’t have a particular preference for when. We can do that later, but we do have a responsibility to gradually share all of those cultural tools with children. Always remember that these are always on the go.

I would say you cannot do a maths activity without the child having a feeling about it, what’s going on, also using their bodies because children are in their bodies. Are they comfortable can they move things, and they need the communication about it. So you can never just do maths, the primary is always there so they’re always on the go because they’re part of child development and we gradually spread out into the specific areas as well.

“The CoEL are the spokes of the wheel…”

How does this fit with the characteristics of effective learning? Well, I would say that the characteristics of effective learning are the spokes of the wheel, they are what drives the learning. Because if a child is not doing those things, then they’re not going to learn, they’re going to be sitting there passive not taking things in, not prepared to try something new, not thinking about it, making the links that they need to do. So they are the essential drivers. Always there.

Okay this isn’t development matters, you probably know about the themes of the EYFS and when Helen Moylett and I did the revision for the 2012 development matters material, we thought, we have these themes but they link together in quite a specific way the child brings who they are, including their learning powers and their drives and their individual temperament and characteristics.

It depends what they meet in the relationships, what kind of relationships and interactions will they experience? What kind of activities materials will they explore in their environment? That feeds into the learning and development. So we can’t ever just look at the child and assess how’s the child doing if we don’t take into account the relationships and environments.

“Your two toolboxes”

We try to simplify that big, big juggling job you’ve got to something that’s easy to remember what counts. So what counts is a child and the strength of those characteristics of effective learning and what counts is what you’re doing here.

When I talk about your two toolboxes so whenever we’re assessing something that’s going on we can think, How do I need to be with this child? What’s my interaction to be like and what do I need to offer in terms of experiences as a very quick rule of thumb. Okay so assessment, we also have this in the EYFS. When I began discussing the legal requirements we talked about ongoing assessment. Formative assessment and the purpose of that is that we do something about it for the benefit of the child. So assessment just to keep a record is a huge waste of your very valuable time, just to have a record of what’s happened.

It’s only useful if we are shaping the learning experiences because of it. So we start here, we actually tune in and notice what’s going on, the detail and then we assess.

“The real assessment question is – Did I get it?”

Now to me, assessment does not mean finding a level and matching it to one of the development matter statements or whatever. It means we need to say – What did that mean when I saw that child do that? The questions I would always have in my mind is, how do I get to know this job better? Who is this child? What are they thinking? How do they feel and what do they care about? That’s your assessment and you might or might not link it to an EYFS strand.

But the real assessment question is, do I get it, do I get what’s going on, the question in the child’s mind their purpose etc. So that’s where you’re actually creative and also intuitive.You think, what’s going on here and then you do your planning, the what next and I would say there, always think about your two toolboxes the planning the interaction and the experience. Always a roundabout cycle.

We have principles of early years assessment and it is ongoing over the course of time. So we don’t just do a one-off sit down I’ll give you a test for 20 minutes and know everything about you. Which, sadly the government is planning to do with the baseline assessment for all children entering reception.

Think about how much time and attention it takes you to get to know a child, and they think they can sit them down for 20 minutes. Not at all what we would want for these young children.

Across time we should always really include those prime areas because they’re always there and are the most fundamental and the characteristics. Those two, we know are the power that you have to give children things that will carry them forward successfully through their lives so always involved and aware of them and also people who know the child well, so the key person and other people who interact with the child regularly and parents so it’s great to hear about parents feeding into the learning profiles. This last one can be challenging ‘reflect the uniqueness of every child, who learn differently.’ It’s not gonna be the same for every child.

“You are doing hundreds of observations a day”

OK, ways of looking, this comes from a painting. I’ll show you the whole painting in a minute and see if we can find where that is.

This is looking very closely and when you’re with a child in an activity it’s just that one moment, or that five minutes and it’s in a particular context and you’re looking closely at what they do and what they say, we’re giving a lot of detail and it might be with your interaction at the same time. You use that to go around that cycle.

Your short-term planning, you think “I see this and now I can think what does it mean and so what am I going to do in this interaction right now?” You may record it. Probably not, occasionally as Tom said, you have a system to make sure that you get a pattern of recorded observations but I would say to you that you do hundreds a day.

Hundreds and hundreds of observations a day and you don’t write most of them down.

You’re clocking it in your head as you get to know that chart. Okay so we’re looking in detail and saying, we’re not trying not as we’re observing not to jump to conclusions we’re trying to really look accurately.

Also I think it’s important to look holistically, so let’s say I have this photograph and we immediately in order to know anything about what was happening for this child need more than just the photograph wouldn’t we?

So it could be that he ran over to the table where there was some paints out and someone had already mixed them up and he put his hands in and held them up and then ran off, or it could be that he said “I want to go and do the painting and I’m going to use all the colours” and he went over and mixed them and said, “I’ve made purple.” So they need a lot more than just a photo. Let’s take that second case, let’s say the child did that well was he doing all those things?

He certainly was doing all of those characteristics. He was exploring with his senses, exploring the colours and the textures, he was motivated he said “I’m gonna do it” and he stayed and concentrated and he was thinking about it saying “look what I’ve made.”

He was making sense of his experience there. You would say that whether he was engaging with others, his confidence to do it, he talked about it his use of his hands. I don’t know, maybe some of those were then some others maybe they weren’t but you would almost always have those characteristics and primaries and maybe the others.

“Your most powerful next step is right then and there”

Well this is just to reinforce that when we talk about doing that assessment cycle it’s not just when you have recorded your observation but that you do it all the time and your most powerful planning and your most powerful next step is right then and there. Because you’re going to choose, okay this is a next step for this child over the next three weeks.

Well that’s just one tiny bit of their learning isn’t it? An identified next step. They’re not just doing that in the next weeks they’re learning every area all the time. So in a way, you might have an overarching okay idea that this is something we’re hoping this child will do, or supporting this child to move on to.

But that is one of hundreds, and as you work and play with children, you’ll be spotting right now and over and over. It might be a next step that means we are going to move on in a progression. We see they’re doing this they’re really confident so I’m going to give them a new challenge.

It might be that the next step is they need to experience that in different contexts to get really confident about it. So it could be staying where you are but experiencing it and bending it. It doesn’t necessarily mean moving on. Then when you are working with each other, you can make the decision that now it’s time for me to say something or now it’s time for me to pick that brick up and hold it so they can balance it.

Those decisions you have done that around the cycle and that, minute by minute is where the learning happens and the most powerful assessment that we do. Occasionally stand back and you’ll see the whole picture – where was that bit… I think it was here.

“Part of a much bigger picture…”

One little moment of a child’s experience it’s actually part of a much bigger picture and there, that’s where you are looking at “okay I’ve got all these thousands of observations on every child, some of them went down most of them not but I know it” and then it’s time to step back and say so where are we now, what does it all look like?

That’s when you will look at the overall level as we’ve seen, making assessments across all the areas of learning and you can then look at progress over time. Well just like the close up looking, it has to have a purpose.

“You can change the way you’re working”

We don’t want to waste your valuable time doing something that won’t lead anywhere. Short-term planning leads to what you’re gonna do right now, well maybe tomorrow but this kind of assessment also needs to lead to something. It can inform how you’re going to plan for the environment if you say, “oh, this child or a group of children are not making progress as I would think they could if I change what I’m doing.”

So you can change the way you’re working. It’s also to share, to pass along to parents, to understand what kind of progression is happening.

So you gather all that progress information that’s your day to day, moment to moment, some of it written down, the great majority of it not written down. You need information from parents anyone else that knows the child, the child themselves, what are they telling you they like to do and they find challenging and hard or that they really enjoy. Maybe other professionals if they’re involved.

So you have all these sources of information and then once in a while you summarise it and you analyse it and again you need to use it for something or there’s no point. To effect your provision or the way they’re practising has just to understand children’s progress and be able to share that with other people who need to know. Make the most of the information.

Supportive transitions is an important reason to say overall this is where that child is and to make sure we’re not missing those invisible children who are the ones just chuntering along nicely make sure that all children are moving on.

“What you hold in your head is evidence”

How do we do it? Well this is also what it says in the law, it’s a pretty strong statement, “assessment should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction nor require excessive paperwork, it should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to promote children’s successful learning and development.” They are looking at revising some elements of the EYFS at the moment and they’ve tried to make that statement even stronger to say that no one should ever ask you for evidence that’s written down.

That what you hold in your head is evidence and, it’s hard to to get away from but I think that only what is necessary to promote their learning and development not to evidence and not to prove that we did it not to meet somebody else’s standard but only if we used it. I need to write that down because I want to share that with the parents so they’ll be able to understand more with this. I need to write that down because I want to look at it later with the child so we can have a really great review and conversation, then the child can feel proud about what they did. And have a learning conversation. Or, I’d better write that down because I might forget it!

OK, now what quality of recording? A lot of people still use these, although more and more people are going on to electronic systems.

“Do you think Dan really said that?”

Look at this observation, someone took a picture and wrote that Dan enjoyed playing in the sand today with his friends. “I’m learning to make friends.” Do you think Dan really said that? No, I still find people put in quotes things that they think are as if they’re speaking from the child and Dan didn’t say that. That’s the adult’s assessment and it also says Dan enjoyed playing. How do you know he enjoyed it?

That’s the adult’s assessment, that’s not an observation. The whole thing is an assessment without any evidence really. If he enjoyed it, does that mean that he just stayed there for a long time silently and you were assuming he enjoyed it because he was concentrating?

Or you could say Dan chose to go to this sand and play really energetically for however long he did, put some of his own language. Then that tells us something that ‘enjoying’ does not and what did he do with the other children? What kind of interaction was there? Is he parallel playing or did they do something together? So the quality of observation that gives you real information about what happened and what the child said.

We also have to be careful, even if we’re not writing it down but using much handier systems like Famly and the use that we’ve had described to us, we still need to keep it at a minimum so that we’re not watching everything through the tablet and not being with the children.

You don’t want to be distorted away from interacting, and this question “does the device frame the way we see the children?” Are we seeing everything if we’re too busy looking at something there thinking about what objectives we might tick off. Okay, so we come to the ticking things off – development matters.

“Development Matters is not is a tick list”

You’re probably familiar with all the statements whether in this format or another and then it runs from birth through to the end of the EYFS.

Development matters was put together for a few reasons. One, to give guidance around typical child development progression. So it gives some support for you to think roughly where are children going, and what are they likely to be doing. Also to support that periodic stepping back and say well I want them to be more or less on track here. It’s for that as well, but what it is not is a tick list and I’d urge you to be very very careful about that.

When we were putting this together we were told it had to be slim, we didn’t want tomes of child development. You could have umpteen statements in each band. So it’s a sample of possible things, it’s not everything and you will see so many things children do and if you want to go to and find a statement you’ll go, “hmm I can’t see it.” Well because it can’t be there that’s why your assessment counts. So when you write what you see, write the observation and then what you think that means in terms of what they’re showing you don’t worry if it’s not there.

There are, even with that tiny sample, about 570 of them and if we expect every child to do 570 that becomes a big kind of recording task in itself doesn’t it. To make sure we’ve got all of those. Well, when we were putting it together we had a big team of advisers covering early years development. Some were very concerned about making a list at all, because they said people will use it as a checklist and assume that a child has to do it.

So we put this in the actual printed copy of development matters on every single page across the bottom of the page. It says children are different, the statements and their order shouldn’t be taken as necessary steps for an individual child. Individual children don’t have to do all those, they don’t have to do them in that order. They might have one from another band and then that one and you can’t say, “oh they missed one, it’s a gap, we have to go back and do that.” Not necessarily, they might be doing other things.

They should not be used as checklists and we also have the overlapping age stage bands. They’re not fixed age boundaries, they’re just age so you should be doing that and they’re meant to suggest a typical range but not a prescribed set of things. So why do we not want a checklist? Well if we had a checklist approach and we had lists of things that children are beginning to do and we’re gradually ticking them off, we don’t have a picture of a unique child. What we end up is the identical child, as if they’re all the same, they’re all developing in exactly the same pattern.

“Sorry, it doesn’t work like that,”

That comes from this view of learning, that we have three prime areas, four specific areas and they’re just tracked down in a linear way and we expect them to do that. That would make our jobs a lot easier if it was the case! Because you’d say, here they are, well the next step is here in six months so I can plan the whole year ahead.

Well developmental psychologists who really look in detail at learning processes say “sorry it doesn’t work like that, it’s different for every child and things will stop and start, because if you’re here let’s say you’re right here and you say okay we know there’s the next step, well not in this case because maybe I learned something but actually I’m really busy now doing this and so I’ll just put it back up to slightly more comfortable things there that I don’t even have to think about so you’ll go backwards you’ll plateau. Then make sudden gains and they all interweave with each other as well as a holistic view, not separate predictable strands.”

So that’s more what it looks like. So we want to gather the picture of where those children all are, not as if we’re tracking them down the line.

Think of it like this, here you are this side of the field and the children there run across to the trees and this is the course of your year for instance, or two or three years. You want to get a picture of how they’re doing.

Well they’re all different. Here’s one with this ball he’s a very active child he explores through his body and he’s finding out about things that way. This one wants the facts and the information, to have conversations and look things up. This one likes to look at things from different perspectives, a very creative sort of child. This one feeling the sensitive side of that. For them, the main thing is my friends, they’re doing things together and learning about being with others.

So there’s all kinds of different ways and they will all be doing their track across here in their own way. If we have our mind on those statements, we end up missing all that. Because we’re only noticing what’s happening here and if we see someone over there, we pull them back and show them the next step. But they don’t have to go in that specific direction!

“It’s not about a numerical ticking off”

If you’re detailing in your mind, as well as sometimes in a recording those individual pictures, how each child is doing things in a different way at a different time, how then can you do a summative assessment because they’re all so different? Well that’s where the best-fit judgment comes in.

Let’s say these children are all the same age roughly, three and a half, four and you’re going to do your termly assessment. You think, how can I give a picture of the kind of progress they’re making? Well that’s why we have the bands, we would say this middle band is roughly where they are for their age. You can see that the majority are more or less in there. Some of them like this one aren’t really, this one is just clearly beyond.

We don’t need to check every statement to see that, we need to read the thing as a whole and say does this band describe them better than that one? It’s not about a numerical ticking off. Does that feel more like where they are and that’s enough. So don’t focus on data at that point about how many targets have they ticked off. That’s not what it’s about but then you can see that they’re gradually, although in a wiggly way, working their way down and making projects. I think the idea of having the developing or secure is helpful because this one is quite different from that one isn’t it? So that gives you a sense of how well it describes in that band but not numerically. Now I would wish we could say ‘typical’ rather than ‘expected’ all the time and we talked to the government about doing that because when we did the kind of development progressions they said we want to know what’s expected of children at every age. It’s not expected, what we will give you is what’s typical. If you keep that in mind it’s typical but it’ s not an expectation.

OK, so EYFS gives us a lot of support for doing a good job with the whole range of responsibilities we have. Gives us those principles and that it’s based around play which is the best place for you to really have time to be there and see and observe what children can really do and I would urge you to try to simplify all those juggling balls and just keep in your mind this picture.

Whatever is going on any minute when you’re around children, you’ve got a couple of things to balance you’ve got to think “okay in what way am I seeing these characteristics?” What is the focus of that, because those are the things that build learners for life and what are these prime areas that are called the foundation stage for a reason. Those are the things we’ll need the foundation in. So how are they here? You also will pick up specific things but keep your prime focus there and then, the next step is not necessarily the next step for the child, it’s the next step for me, as the person who’s providing through the toolboxes.

What’s the next step in terms of how I engage them, how I interact, how I support them and the conversations we’re going to have and the environment. So that’s my attempt to give you a little simpler picture than all of the things to keep in mind. Okay, that’s all from me today! Thank you.