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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 30-Mar-16 10:32:51

Guest post: "A child's first five years are a golden window of opportunity"

Children who start school behind are more likely to stay behind - and this is why Save the Children want to see early years teachers leading nurseries, says Dr Elizabeth Kilbey

Dr Elizabeth Kilbey

Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Posted on: Wed 30-Mar-16 10:32:51

(102 comments )

Lead photo

"It really is the early experiences in a child's life that create a foundation for their development."

If you're reading this as the proud owner of a three-year-old, you'll be pleased to hear their brain is twice as active as yours. This isn't because he or she is a genius, but because a child's brain is far busier during those pre-school years than at any other time in life. In fact, by the time your child starts school, their brain will be almost the same size as your own. Not at all terrifying.

The first five years set the foundations for your child's life. During this time their brain will develop rapidly, absorbing information like a sponge. This explains why your child is shuffling round on their bum begging to be picked up one day, and cruising round on their feet the next, using new words on a daily basis, throwing their wellies into the washing machine or occasionally even listening to what you're saying. This "golden window" of opportunity offers children huge potential for language and communication development, and for developing the skills they need to be ready for school.

This is why Save the Children want to see an early years teacher leading every nursery in the country. The organisation is campaigning for an investment in early years education to make this happen, so children get the help they need to develop when their brains are busiest getting ready for the future.

Read On Get On is a national campaign to get children reading and today, as part of the initiative, Save the Children has released a paper on the science behind the remarkable early steps taken by young children. As parents, we do whatever it takes to give our children the best start in life. Save the Children and a team at UCL looked at how we could do this even better during those crucial years.

This isn't about turning nurseries into classrooms. But, early years teachers are specialists in children's development, who ensure the right mix of learning through play.


The key to starting school ahead, the research shows, is verbally engaging with toddlers - by reading, singing, rhyming - all the stuff we often do without thinking. However, without this verbal engagement, children risk not having the language skills they need and can find themselves falling behind by the time they start school. Sadly, if a child starts behind, they are far more likely to stay behind.

When a child is born they already have most of the 86 billion neurons that we do as fully grown adults. Neurons form networks in the brain that allow children to learn everything they need for life, like being able to walk, talk and relate to their environment. In the first few years a child's brain is forming these connections at about twice the speed of an adult's brain.

A child's language skills also develop rapidly, expanding, on average, from 55 words at 16 months to 572 words at 30 months. That's a lot of talking back to prepare for. Language is so important because it's through talking and listening that children learn about and explore the world. But it's also through language that a child's brain develops crucial skills like memory and reading.

As a child grows older, it becomes more difficult to influence the way their brain processes information because the networks in the brain firm up and become more complex and efficient. Of course children will continue growing and developing throughout their lives, but it becomes harder and harder to influence their development.

So it really is the early experiences in a child's life that create a foundation for their development. Parents and carers play a vital role and there's so much we can do to support our child's early learning. And it really doesn't have to feel like learning - everyday stuff like talking and reading books helps to stimulate children's language skills right from birth. From games like peepo with babies, to talking to toddlers in short sentences about their surroundings - these can all help build your child's brain. There are more examples here of the different things you can do with babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers to encourage development.

Save the Children is asking the government to ensure there is an early years teacher in every nursery in England because, as our lives get busier, more and more two, three and four year-olds are going to some form of childcare every week.

This isn't about turning nurseries into classrooms. But, early years teachers are specialists in children's development, who ensure the right mix of learning through play. They can identify children who are struggling and help nursery assistants give the best possible support for children. They can also offer parents specialist advice and information.

Getting a good start in life can make a real difference to a child's life. With the help of nurseries and parents, we can make this a reality for every child.

You can sign Save the Children's petition calling for a commitment to investing in early years education, and an early years teacher leading every nursery, here.

Dr Elizabeth Kilbey is a consultant clinical psychologist, Oxleas NHS Trust, and an expert on The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds.

By Dr Elizabeth Kilbey

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irvine101 Wed 30-Mar-16 12:30:29

Yes, I read somewhere long time ago that you can influence child's brain development in first five years. But isn't it more up to how the parents engage with their children rather than nursery teachers? England start school earlier than other countries, so in theory, we should be benefitting from this, since most children start school before 5. But if not, how parents spends time before nursery/school may have more influence than that, I wonder?

WordGetsAround Wed 30-Mar-16 13:17:44

Completely agree with Irvine.

The first 5 years are so important that there is no way I'm leaving it up to a childcare setting to take charge of my children's development.

Lottapianos Wed 30-Mar-16 13:36:31

'But isn't it more up to how the parents engage with their children rather than nursery teachers? '

Completely agree, and this is what bugs me so much about the government's obsession with getting as many 2 and 3 year olds into nursery as possible. It sends the message that we will take them off your hands, we know what we're doing, you don't and you don't have to learn how to either. The article talks about the importance of talking to your toddler, singing and rhyming with them, and suggests that most parents do this without even thinking about it. Well it may seem obvious but its certainly not something that every parent does. I work with many children who are only spoken to when absolutely necessary and certainly never during play. There is huge work to do in educating parents about the importance of play, books, singing and language modelling in the early years and I feel very strongly that putting 2 year olds into nursery is not the way to do that.

corythatwas Wed 30-Mar-16 13:46:45

What bugs me is the implication that reading and academic pursuits are the only way of developing a child's brain. When I was a child in Scandinavia many years ago, there was very little in the way of nurseries and kindergartens and up to the age of 7 we learnt by pottering around our parents and joining in with whatever was happening; helping to prepare lunch, lending a hand (as appropriate) with DIY, doing a spot of gardening if we happened to live in a house with a garden, and lots and lots of undirected imaginative play.

There was never this class-based assumption that only middle-class parents have any knowledge worth imparting.

I have never noticed that I am hampered by lack of brain development though that may of course be because I'm as thick as shit.

Of course there are parents who have to be taught to engage with their children (there probably always were).

Bonkerz Wed 30-Mar-16 14:56:26

I do wonder why it has to be teachers though. I have a foundation degree in early years and more importantly have 3 children on my own who I have taught phonics and maths to!
It seems to me the government are set on demoralising and belittling my profession.

CHILDMINDERS TEACH ! We are EArly years practitioners and we TEACH all areas of the early years foundation stage! We motivate and stimulate children's learning abilities, encouraging learning through play!

We provide care and support to children and provide them with a secure environment in which to learn.

We develop and produce visual aids and teaching resources to support a child's development in all 7 areas of the EYFS and we organise learning materials and resources so that children can use them imaginatively.

We assist with the development of children's personal, social and language abilities by providing a good role model and lots of support. We develop strong bonds and attachments with the children which is essential for their future development.

We support the development of children's basic skills, including physical coordination, speech and communication and encourage children's mathematical and creative development through stories, songs, games, drawing and imaginative play.

We help and support a child's developing curiosity and knowledge by tailoring their activities and play towards each individual's child's likes and interests.

We work with others, including teachers and nursery nurses as well as health visitors and most importantly parents to share knowledge gained about the children.

We observe, assess and record each child's progress and plan for them so they can reach the targets set for them by the government.

We attend training to ensure our knowledge is up to date and so that we can remain the best at our chosen profession. We as early years practitioners never stop learning!

We ensure the health and safety of all the children we care for and ensure it is maintained during all activities, both inside and outside of our setting.

We keep up to date with changes in the Early years sector and developments in best practice.

Whilst doing all this we also welcome OFSTED and our local council at any time to come in a check we are doing a 'good enough' job!

We work tirelessly to ensure children are cared for and educated appropriately and ready to leave us and start school.
I have an outstanding grade from OFSTED and charge just £3 per hour per child.

Finallyonboard Wed 30-Mar-16 14:58:37

I agree that parental intervention in development is essential, however, when my DD is at Nursery I do expect a high standard of teaching and learning. As high (if not higher) than at home and perhaps more targeted.

She's currently in the pre-school bit and there is a teacher leading the room. I have noticed a significant augmentation in her verbal and written communication and at times, her capabilities have surprised me. I have learnt from the pre-school curriculum to take conversations and activities to the next level and gently push her even further.

The reality is, as much as we parents try to promote and extend learning, we ourselves can learn how/ what to teach from educators. There is a science to teaching, resources/ research develops quickly and those who have made a career in this field are paid to stay on top of research, techniques and information so that our DC benefit.

jannier Wed 30-Mar-16 15:21:45

I'm a child-minder with a degree. Early years Practioners with level 3 are taught how to play and interact with children in the way described, how to talk and work with parents and how to do assessments and referrals.
I have done referrals the problem is the people we refer to fail to understand that we know what we are talking about and don't just baby sit. You don't need to employ one teacher on a higher salary you need to train all staff in how to work and assess and teach the professionals who take referrals what the staff in nurseries and child-minders actually do and know at the moment more note is taken of a health visitor who may have only seen the child once in a year than the professional working with that child up to 50 hours a week who knows about development.
Parents need to have the time to play with their children unfortunately work pressures restrict this so instead children are pushed into early education with higher ratios and less individual time from an earlier age as cheap childcare.

Duckdeamon Wed 30-Mar-16 16:03:24

Perhaps government and charities are loathe to be seen to be criticising parents ("nanny state") etc.

Good early years childcare provision costs money.

Bonkerz Wed 30-Mar-16 16:12:01

What does save the children think about how the ratios will increase from 1/8 to 1/13 with one teacher on the premises? How can this be good for young children?

peachypips Wed 30-Mar-16 16:28:57

Have Save the Children considered that the mental health of the mother is one of the most significant factors in determining the development of the child in the first five years? Perinatal mental health costs the economy £8.6 billion per year and most of this relates to the child. There is new research carried out by Professor Vivette Glover at Imperial College London showing the damage to the foetus of anxiety and depression in pregnancy and the far-reaching effects in the first five years.

AndNowItsSeven Wed 30-Mar-16 16:43:19

My children have not/will not be starting school until the term after their fifty birthday. Ideally I would have preferred to defer to age six or seven.
Children do not need qualified teachers in nursery. They need 100% play based learning.
You don't need to be a teacher to read and sing and play with children.
Children don't need to learn phonics or to write their name in nursery. Age five is soon enough.

JolieMadame Wed 30-Mar-16 16:49:17

Agree, you don't need to be a teacher to be able to sing and tell stories with children.

Wouldn't it be nicer to enable parents to provide this important early learning by facilitating them to stay at home as much as possible with their children before they start school at 5? As a PP said, children learn beautifully by pottering about with their parents - unfortunately as parents in the uk work such long hours that opportunity is being lost.

geekaMaxima Wed 30-Mar-16 16:52:43

Children do not need qualified teachers in nursery. They need 100% play based learning.

^^ This.

OddBoots Wed 30-Mar-16 16:57:15

This does make a convincing argument that child development should be part of the secondary school curriculum for all students - the majority of them will become parents one day and parents are always going to be the primary educators of most children.

corythatwas Wed 30-Mar-16 17:22:09

We had that for a year in secondary school, OddBoots: I can't remember if it counted towards our grades, but it was compulsory for both sexes; this was in the 1970s and I still remember a lot of what I learnt in those classes; it has stood the test of time surprisingly well.

The only thing I found annoying about the course was the bit on hormonal teenagers: my mother was going through the menopause at the time and was a good deal more hormonal than me; I wondered why nobody taught us about that. hmm

whattheseithakasmean Wed 30-Mar-16 17:22:21

I don't see the rush to get teachers to start teaching teeny weenies. Fun times and play are what matters and you get fantastic nursery workers who are just fab with little ones - I don't really see a teacher is necessary in early years.

I'm a qualified and experienced early years teacher who has worked with young children and families in a variety of settings, such as most recently over the last ten yrs in pre-schools.

I think it would be great if teaching qualifications were fully recognised in early years settings as unfortunately this doesn't always happen at present and the expertise of teachers already working in nurseries isn't fully appreciated, supported, and rewarded.

There needs to be proper recognition and support for early years professionals with a variety of qualifications and following a variety of training pathways.

Lottapianos Wed 30-Mar-16 17:36:48

OddBoots, completely agree. Virtually every adult will be interacting with or taking care of a child at some stage and need to learn how to be around them, how to support them and roughly what to expect in terms of development in the early years. Although I'm loathe to put yet another demand on schools!

Mishaps Wed 30-Mar-16 17:53:41

"A child's first five years are a golden window of opportunity"

Indeed they are - a golden opportunity to learn how to love, to get on with others, to play, to develop their imaginations.

This obsession with cramming children with facts so that they can "achieve" (achieve what pray?) is sickening. The first five years are for being a child - that is all.

They will get more than enough so-called education when they get to school - or even, poor souls, at pre-school. What are we doing to our children?

The rise in the number of children with mental health problems is not a surprise to me at all.

Just stop buying into this stuff and start respecting their childhood.

Theleavesonthetrees Wed 30-Mar-16 18:14:16

Totally agree with Mishaps. We have sent our child to a nursery which values play as central to a child's development, respects children's voices and choices, follows what children want to do rather than setting prescribed learning activities, and refuses to use the term preschool as they believe children are capable beings in their own right as they are and are no more pre school, than we are all pre pensioners. Childhood and children should be respected as they are, children's natural learning process should be respected.

But Mishaps the first five years can still be a golden time of play and nurturing relationships, but also a time where interactions with others leads to rich language development, which will be the building blocks for all later learning and development, as well as crucially for emotional well-being too.

But the focus does need to be on play, relationships, and developing language. The EYFS (early years curriculum) is well written IMHO and does recognise this, also including physical development

00100001 Wed 30-Mar-16 18:32:17

Children who start school behind are more likely to stay behind

Says who?

Where are they citing this "fact" from?

potatomama Wed 30-Mar-16 19:15:28

Many (most?) nursery staff are already pretty well qualified in early years development/enrichment. This petition is unnecessary, undermines nursery staff and is a waste of Save The Children's effort.

louise987 Wed 30-Mar-16 19:25:11

It frustrates me how every time I read a guest post, enjoy and think about the content, I always, no matter what the topic/perspective then go on to read overly negative critical comments. Sure we can't all agree, and I totally get that it's easier to pick out flaws/disagreements when writing feedback, but I'm sure in real life people aren't so negative. Not really sure why I'm saying this as I'll probably get flamed too! blush

Anyway, I enjoyed this post and think it highlights some new research in this area. It's been known for a while now the importance of parenting in improving school readiness for children but as we know investment in 'parenting' is a difficult thing with many influencing factors. The now old Marmot Report raised these issues some time ago and it continues to be an issue that needs attention from financially constrained local authorities and public services.

Thanks for the interesting guest post MN!

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