Ofsted ready series

Once a provider is registered on the Ofsted Early Years Register, Ofsted carry out regular inspections to evaluate the overall quality and standards of its early years provision in line with the principles and requirements of the Statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Providers on the Early Years Register will normally be inspected at least once within a 6-year window. Ofsted will prioritise the first inspection of newly registered providers on the Early Years Register. This will normally be within 30 months of their registration date.

Take a look at the information below to help you to reflect on your current policies, practices and provision in readiness for your Ofsted inspection.

During your Ofsted inspection, be prepared to discuss your curriculum. The curriculum will be built upon the areas of learning within the Early years foundation stage and encompass what you believe children should experience to flourish, learn and grow (your aims and rationale). Your curriculum will evolve and change over time in response to the interests and needs of the cohort of children on role.

Use the Ofsted language of the 3 i’s to help you describe your curriculum:

  • intent of curriculum design, coverage, and appropriateness, - what do you want the children know or be able to do?
  • implementation of curriculum delivery, teaching and assessment, - how do your resources, activities and environment support your aims?
  • impact on attainment and progress, knowledge skills and readiness for the next stage of learning - what are children learning as a result of what you offer?

Really think about why you do things the way you do. Your curriculum can be unique to you and based on your current children’s interests and needs, providing activities and experiences that deliver the areas of learning. Inspectors will assess your curriculum favourably when you have built or adopted a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure, and sequencing and implemented it effectively. They are likely to assess it negatively where the curriculum limits children’s opportunities. It is important that children have access to a highly ambitious, broad and rich curriculum.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • is your curriculum based on the Statutory early years foundation stage (EYFS), which gives you a framework that you can build on, through the 7 areas of learning?
  • what is at the heart of your provision and what does it offer to those who use it?
  • what three things define your setting and how do they impact on children’s learning and development? (Ethos)
  • how have you organised your environment and why?
  • what do you intend the children to learn? - do resources and the environment meet children’s needs and promote their focus on learning? (Curriculum intent and implementation)
  • what is your definition and approach to teaching? (Teaching implementation)
  • how well do you use additional funding, for example Early years pupil premium?
  • do children develop, consolidate and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills across the areas of learning? (Progress)
  • are children prepared for their next stage in learning? (Outcomes for children)
  • what changes have you made and what is the impact? (Impact)
  • what are your future plans to develop the curriculum and why (Vision)?

Strengthening staff practice

Find out more about how curriculum planning helps give the children a better experience, covering all early years foundation stage areas of learning by reading Curriculum planning - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK

Access this quick read article How to Build Your Own Early Years Curriculum.

Recently across Northamptonshire, we have seen several Ofsted recommendations relating to providing children with more opportunities to develop their own ideas during creative activities. Key to this, is understanding how to provide support for children to build on their own creative ideas. To achieve this, we have to see creativity as a process in which children can explore, experiment, investigate, invent and transform their ideas. Being creative enables children to share their thoughts and feelings. Creative play promotes brain development and through creative experiences children are literally building their brains for life.

Good creative practices will include opportunities for children to:

  • be imaginative
  • be curious
  • be productive (the ability to generate a variety of different ideas through divergent thinking)
  • be original (the ability to produce ideas and creations that are new and unusual)
  • problem solve (the ability to apply knowledge and imagination to a given situation)
  • ask ‘what if?’
  • extend physical skills
  • be self-expressive
  • develop self-esteem and confidence
  • immerse themselves in the process

Your role to promote creativity

You are central in supporting children’s creativity. You can present new resources and materials, introduce words, create stories, teach and model new skills, organise stimulating environments and create interesting displays that children want to engage with. You should offer encouragement, be interested and praise children to value what they are doing or making, and celebrate their achievements with them.

It is important to remember that children’s creative ideas can be suppressed when adults impose their own ideas. Rigid adult-led ideas and limited choice in the materials available, mean that the opportunity for children to be creative is too restrictive. We often hear that parents expect to see completed end products from arts and crafts activities in your setting. Be confident to explain that children’s creativity in the early years is about sensory exploration and process, and not focussed on children reproducing adult-led craft ideas. Developing a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘creativity’ may help to strengthen the quality of creative opportunities for children in your care.

Reflecting on practice

The Early years foundation stage states

The development of children’s artistic and cultural awareness supports their imagination and creativity. It is important that children have regular opportunities to engage with the arts, enabling them to explore and play with a wide range of media and materials. The quality and variety of what children see, hear and participate in is crucial for developing their understanding, self-expression, vocabulary and ability to communicate through the arts.

Allowing children to be creative

If adults have the idea and the children carry it out under their supervision to produce an end product, then this is not promoting children to think creatively or discover their artistic talents. This sort of activity is often misnamed “creative.” What it really is, is a very public celebration of the adult’s ideas, presented as if they are the child’s ideas.

Creative environments

Children need opportunities within the learning environment that give them freedom to make, move, investigate, reflect and play. Mark making and creative areas need to be carefully thought about, well organised and attractively presented to enable children to independently access resources to represent their ideas. Continuous provision should be regularly reviewed and developed in response to observations of children’s current interests and engagement levels. Introducing added resources and tools alongside familiar items will spark young children’s curiosity and imagination to try new ways of combining materials. Outdoor spaces provide much more than just a chance to ‘let off steam;’ children can make music, paint, act and dance, while the natural environment itself can stimulate all sorts of creative responses through play and discovery.

Extending children’s thinking

Support and challenge children’s thinking by getting involved in the thinking process itself. Do not just ask what they are making. Instead describe what you see, colours, shapes, movement, materials, sounds, lines or feelings, providing rich language for the child.

Questions might include:

  • ‘I wonder...’
  • ‘What do you see?’
  • ‘What does it make you think of?’
  • ‘Why do you think it is happening?’
  • ‘How can you tell?’
  • ‘How could you...?’
  • ‘Can you tell me more about that?’
  • ‘What would be the best way to...?’
  • ‘Why did you decide on those colours?’
  • ‘What would your picture be called?’
  • ‘What would you like to do with your art?’
  • Try to avoid making empty judgments; such as “wow, it’s amazing”. These comments often close down any further conversation about a child’s creations.
  • Instead, try commenting about what you notice:
    - You used zig zag lines.
    - I saw you doing big movements with your arm for this part.
    - I see lots of shades of blue and green.
    - Your colour choices are bright.
    - Tell me about the orange circle I can see.


Visually, the learning environment should be appropriately stimulating to encourage curiosity. You should remember that it is about sensory exploration rather than a pre-determined end product for a display. Clear visual spaces between displays support children to process information. In an attempt to provide a visually stimulating environment, displays and materials can become over stimulating, chaotic and confusing to the child. Always question who the display is there to benefit to ensure it is at an appropriate height and location. High quality displays should celebrate children’s originality and share experiences that take place throughout the setting. Settings should value children’s mark making and creative efforts and ensure displays reflect the uniqueness of all children.

This quote from 1998 still stands today 25 years later.

Creativity is about representing one’s own image, not reproducing someone else’s.(Duffy, 1998)

Reflective questions

  • Do you have a good understanding of the meaning of ‘creativity’?
  • If you work within a team, do all staff have the same understanding and approach to creative experiences?
  • Do displays reflect child led work?
  • Are displays leading towards adult directed craft activities? How could this be developed to fully promote children’s creativity?
  • What types of open-ended resources do you provide for children to use freely?
  • Does your routine allow for children to revisit and build on experiences?
  • How do you promote child-initiated creativity on a large scale?
  • How do you respond to children’s spontaneous interests and promote active learning?
  • How does your setting provide opportunities for children to use all their senses?
  • Are children able to make their own unique creations?
  • Do you value all children’s mark making efforts?
  • How are children supported to display their mark makings to share and celebrate them?
  • Do you teach children how to use mark making tools?
  • Are there invitations for mark making in the learning environment? Are they well organised and inviting? Is equipment of a high quality? Are they well stocked?

Strengthening staff practice

Learn more about Imagination and creativity - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK (education.gov.uk) as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS), including advice from experts and suggested activities.

Learn more about Communicating through arts - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK (education.gov.uk) as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS), including advice from experts and suggested activities.

Read more about information about Why creativity is important in early child development (mffy.com).

During an Ofsted inspection, inspectors will discuss children’s learning and development with you. There will be a particular focus on communication and language, as the development of children’s spoken language underpins all 7 areas of learning and development that are set out in paragraph 1.6 of the statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Do you monitor whether the use of dummies affect the quality of children's speech as they play? It is important you provide consistent messages to young children, particularly about when they can use dummies.

Watch this useful 7 minute clip about dummy use and the possible impact on children’s speech from South Tees NHS Speech Therapy Dummies - YouTube. It contains an activity for you to try to help strengthen your understanding about speech sounds. For group-based provision, it would be useful to watch together at a staff meeting.

Take a look at some tips and advice about Speech and language development in children: Common questions answered - BBC Tiny Happy People.

The first few years of a child’s life are especially important for mathematics development. Research shows that early mathematical knowledge predicts later reading ability and general education. Conversely, children who start behind in mathematics tend to stay behind throughout their whole educational journey. The objective for those working in early years, is to ensure that all children develop firm mathematical foundations in a way that is engaging, and appropriate for their age.

Mathematics does not begin with numbers and counting. From birth, babies are using their senses and developing awareness of everything that is going on around them in an effort to understand. They are born curious, born problem-solvers, and born communicators and these characteristics will help them to become mathematical thinkers and explorers.

Babies learn first about the space they are in, exploring through sensory experiences using their mouth, lips, tongue, eyes and smell to discover objects, gradually becoming familiar with their ‘spatial and shape properties’. They then reach out for objects and start to crawl, walk and negotiate the spaces around them, working out the best way to approach a problem and solve it to get what/where they want. Then they learn about the order of events and begin to predict what will happen next. They also start to hear number names and associate them with small groups of objects, for example, adults engaging them in songs and finger rhymes which involve counting.

Mathematical development for young children grows through their play and exploration, active engagement, creative and critical thinking, serve and return interactions with adults, their embodied experiences and, essentially, their schematic patterns of thinking, such as interest in trajectories (horizontal and vertical straight lines) and transporting (moving things from one place to another), where they gradually come to understand concepts of length, distance, spatial awareness, speed, motion, direction, time, pattern, order, angles, sequencing and weight.

Mathematics should not be seen as a tricky area to ‘teach’, we are all mathematicians in our daily life. Maths is happening everywhere at any moment, we just need to keep an open mind, open eyes and listen. It needs to be woven into your curriculum and throughout the whole of your environment so babies and young children can freely explore and experiment with maths in their play.

The most valuable resources for mathematical learning are the adults who share children’s excitement as they learn. A knowledgeable practitioner creates exciting opportunities for children to practise their problem-solving skills, offering suggestions and ideas to extend their thinking and broaden and deepen their understanding on how numbers work and their relationship between quantity, size and shape. Your role is to help children to develop a positive attitude towards mathematics and a lifelong interest.

Some top tips for mathematics

  • Maths opportunities are everywhere
    Practitioners and parents should help children take advantage of purposeful maths experiences in everyday situations
  • Properties of shape
    Understanding what a shape or a quantity can or cannot do is far more important than knowing its name
  • Problem solving
    If children know the answer or are given the solution, they are not problem solving. Give children problems to solve, not answers to remember
  • Risk taking
    Children need to be willing to take risks physically before they develop the confidence to problem solve mentally
  • Process over product
    Higher level learning happens during the process of a child’s chosen activity and not from the product of an adult led task or worksheet
  • Exploring
    It is far more important for children to take a risk and have a go, than to have the right answer
  • Questioning
    Must be appropriate, why are you asking them? Questions should sustain thinking and should not interrupt or arrest learning. Allow at least 10 seconds for an answer. Listen more, talk less.
  • Model the language of thinking
    Practitioners should regularly model the language of problem solving, ‘I wonder if/why/where/what/how…’
  • Extending learning
    Regularly introduce resources and experiences in new, different and stimulating ways
  • Breadth and depth
    Be sure to provide a wide range of experiences that allow children to apply and extend their skills in all areas of maths and at all developmental stages.

Strengthening staff practice

Access resources, activity ideas and advice for teaching early years maths: Mathematics - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK.

Group time is more than simply reading a story together or singing songs. It offers children a shared learning experience. It provides a safe space for them to engage in social interactions, practice speaking confidently, develop their listening skills and take turns.

Quality group times, support the development of these skills and offer further opportunities to work on positive behaviour and increasing self-esteem and understanding.

However, it can be challenging to make group time successful for each child. In recent local Ofsted reports, the management of group time is commonly highlighted as a recommendation due to children losing interest during adult led group sessions.

Every group time should promote the development of these 5 skills;

  • concentrating
  • thinking
  • looking
  • speaking
  • listening

Top tips for quality group times

  • be prepared. Group times should be well planned and organised. They should not be used to contain children through routine times of the day, such as tidy up time or getting ready to go home.
  • keep it short. Plan for 5 to 10 minutes maximum to stop children getting the wiggles and behaviour deteriorating.
  • ensure there are adequate staff available to support. This is not the time for staff to be carrying tasks whilst children are ‘busy’.
  • the group size should be well considered to ensure all children’s needs can be met. Smaller groups allow for deeper learning.
  • the mix of children should be thought about to group together children with similar interests, learning styles or at a similar stage of development. Grouping children appropriately allows you to meet children’s learning needs, and introduce ideas and activities that offer the right level of challenge for each child.
  • group time is an excellent opportunity to make sure each child understands how to use new resources added to the environment. This way, all children have received the same directions on how to use the equipment safely and successfully.
  • group time can be used to promote wanted behaviours. Introducing these concepts at group time helps children understand the rules of the community and how to be a part of the social environment.
  • make it engaging and interactive. Small group learning provides opportunities for children to ask many different questions and for you to answer or help children find answers. Back and forth conversations are much easier to foster in small groups, and they allow you to ask questions based on individual children’s imaginations and understanding.
  • implement small group learning while the other children are participating in free-choice activities to allow for others to carry on with sustained play and learning. Not everyone and everything has to come to a stop.
  • think about where you hold group time. Consider the seating arrangements and what else is going on. A story might be best in a cosy quiet area, whereas for social interaction children need to be positioned to be able to see one another.
  • set out clear roles for staff during group times. Agree who will lead the group time and what the other staff will be doing to support during that time. It’s important to decide on these roles prior to beginning the group time to ensure it runs smoothly.
  • be prepared to end the group time when you see the children’s attention waning. Learn to read children’s cues and be ready to adapt your approach.

For group settings, it is good practice to observe the quality of teaching and learning at group times as part of your peer-on-peer observations.

Quality group times provide greater opportunities to connect with each child as an individual and making them purposeful offers greater success in developing children’s knowledge and skills.

In recent local inspections the top trending recommendation relates to teaching skills linked to further promoting children’s communication and language. Inspectors are keen to see an increase in speech development by modelling new words and always using correct pronunciation of words.

During conversations with children inspectors are observing if practitioners adapt their interactions so younger and quieter children continue to be engaged in activities to further build their learning and confidence. Key to this is that you are consistently promoting children's early communication and language development. 

Types of teaching strategies to implement to support speech and language development are as follows: 

  • narrate what you or the child are doing
  • repeat words regularly
  • add 1 or 2 words to what the child says
  • use statements about what you notice
  • pose open ended questions that promote conversation
  • use pictures or objects when talking
  • chat about what captures the child’s gaze
  • allow time for children to think and respond in conversations
  • use nursery rhymes and songs in play
  • model correct pronunciation of words and phrases rather than correcting
  • get down to children’s level and position yourself face to face
  • use gestures and facial expressions to support speech
  • focus attention before giving instructions
  • chunk instructions/information into manageable parts
  • talk about what children are interested in - let them talk first and let them lead the conversation
  • use comments and prompts to balance out questions, E.g., Say “what a tall tower, it will be as tall as you” instead of “what are you building?”
  • model good communication with others 
  • introduce new words building on what children already know
  • promote reading and a love of books
  • adapt your language and keep your voice interesting to ensure young children remain engaged and interested using tone, pitch, volume and intonation

As you go about your everyday practice this week, hold these strategies in mind and notice how often and how well you are implementing them in your interactions with children. Where are your strengths and where is there scope to improve?

Further information

Learn more about exploring language - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK (education.gov.uk) and interactions - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK (education.gov.uk) as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), including advice from experts and suggested activities.

Giving children more time to think about what they want to say before moving on with further questions during conversations has been a trending Ofsted recommendation in recent local early years inspections.

You play an important role in helping children develop their communication skills and you can increase language development by encouraging them to take charge of the interaction.

OWLing is all about being a good conversation partner. OWL stands for Observe, Wait, Listen and is a teaching strategy you can use to help you remember to give children more time to respond and take their turn in communication. When you want a child to initiate, or take a turn, you need to wait. The more a child initiates conversation, the more feedback and language input they receive from the people around them based on their immediate interest. Think of it as “Children who lead get the language they need”. By enabling them to initiate conversations it increases motivation, extends interactions about current fascinations, and provides rich language-learning opportunities.

Owling is based on three skills that work hand in hand:

  • Observe carefully, paying close attention to what the child says or does. Sometimes the child will initiate the interaction, and this will be a clear and intentional effort to communicate through actions, gestures, sounds or words. Sometimes the child might simply start an activity or routine. Tuning in tells you what the child is interested in.
  • Waiting gives the child time to initiate, process a question or thought and respond, or show interest in something. While face-to-face with the child, keep silent and wait for 5-10 seconds. The key thing about waiting is to give the child enough time to understand that you expect them to send you a message. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sound, words, or gestures. It lets the child take charge of the interaction. Waiting lets the child know that you think they are important, and they are valued. The waiting time may vary for each child. Some children who may have a language delay might need you to wait longer to send the message that the child is expected to initiate. With other children, who are easily distracted and shift their attention frequently, if you wait too long, the child may lose interest. You need to discover the right amount of time to wait for each child. ‘Wait’ means three things: stop talking, lean forward and look at the child expectantly. Naturally, this means you are observing and listening.
  • Listening is essential. Rather than planning what to say next to steer the conversation, you should be listening to the child so that you can respond appropriately to whatever the child says. By listening, and then responding to what the child says, you are letting the child know that they are genuinely present, focused on the child and interested to hear what they have to say.

Strengthening staff practice

Watch and share this short clip ITS Language and Development Watch, Wait and Listen.

Improving practitioner interactions with children is frequently featuring within recommendations given in local Ofsted inspections. Research tells us that the role of the adult is vital in nurturing good language and building social and interaction skills in our youngest children. It is the high-quality interactions between children and adults that support the developing brain and help them make sense of language and develop their vocabulary.

When we ask children questions, especially open-ended questions, we support their language development and critical thinking. We encourage them to tell us about themselves and talk about what they are doing, share their ideas, and their thoughts. Open ended questions help to spark conversations, extend discussions and stretch children’s thinking.

Try tuning in to your questioning in your interactions with children; Are you posing open-ended questions and giving time for children to process questions and reply? Typical open-ended questions start with ‘What, why, how and where, I wonder… or tell me about…’ Children need to give fuller responses that draw on a wider range of vocabulary. This approach ensures every child has opportunities to use and explore their communication skills during their play to develop their spoken skills even further.

Strengthening staff practice

Watch this short video clip from Famly sharing some top tips for asking children more open-ended questions: How to Stop Asking Toddlers Silly Questions.

Read this article focusing on the power of open-ended questions in the Early Years. How to use open-ended questions in the Early Years.

Working in partnership with parents and/or carers is fundamental to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Research has shown the impact of high-quality early years provision is significantly linked to the effectiveness of partnership with parents - this is why Ofsted will often require evidence that parent partnerships are taking place.

You must be able to demonstrate to Ofsted how well:

  • you share information with parents about their child’s progress in relation to the EYFS
  • you help parents to support and extend their child’s learning at home, including how to encourage a love of reading
  • you work with parents to promote children’s attendance so that the children form good habits for future learning

It is important for parents and early years settings to develop a strong and respectful partnership. This enables you to work together to support children to make meaningful connections to their wider world and foster a love for learning and therefore, thrive in the early years.

How to build a partnership with parents

Successful relationships become partnerships when there is two-way communication, where you and parents really listen to each other and value each other’s views. Parents know their child best and have a wealth of information that will help you to understand what is going on it the child’s life at home and what early experiences they have had - this will help you to plan appropriate learning within your provision to meet the child’s needs. Equally you are an expert in child development and can offer advice and reassurance to empower parents to continue learning at home.

Ensure you have a secure way of communicating that works for all of you. Be flexible in your approach to communication with parents. Think about how you might need to adapt to suit different parents, for example those with English as an additional language or a specific learning or social need. Also consider the best way to engage the parents that are not regular visitors to the setting or have limited time to chat at drop off and pick up times.

Here are some popular and proven techniques in ways to engage parents in communication and involve them in their child’s learning:

  • Home visits to support settling in for children and families
  • Communication diaries to encourage two-way flow of information
  • Notice boards, particularly in outdoor spaces where parents may wait
  • Newsletters - emailed or hard copies based on parental preference
  • Regular light touch daily/weekly updates
  • Make good use of social media to share information instantly
  • All about me forms and reflect and update them throughout the year
  • Learning journey - hard copy or online systems capturing meaningful observations
  • Questions asked and discussion initiated during drop off or pick up
  • 2 Year Progress Check and target setting completed together to reflect the voice of the parent
  • Book and toy library to promote parental engagement in play and reading at home
  • Parent forums and workshops to share what is being taught so they can continue learning at home with their child
  • Parent evenings offered as a way to discuss children’s learning and development in more detail, these can be held face to face, via telephone or video call appointment
  • Coffee mornings to help parents build relationships with each other as well as the setting
  • Set up a reading café: one morning a week, parents arrive slightly earlier for tea and toast and the chance to share books with their child or others
  • Activity days and special events where parents are invited into the setting to complete activities with their child
  • Find out about parent skills, then invite them in to share their experiences through storytelling, cooking, gardening, etc

When communication is effective it will benefit the children in many ways:

  • parents can be encouraged to discuss issues, talk together and get advice and possibly extra support from the setting
  • it paves the way for open feedback where parents feel comfortable raising concerns with their childcare provider, knowing it will be heard and addressed in a safe environment
  • it can help keep children safe. After all, open communication helps with safeguarding and child protection in feeling safe enough to talk about any problems they may have especially at home
  • it will help make transitions within and beyond the setting smoother
  • parents can be engaged in their child’s learning in the setting which helps you to support parents in continuing their child's learning and development at home. Evidence suggests the most important predictor of children’s future outcomes is the quality of the home learning environment, so involving parents in their children’s learning is the most significant factor in enabling children to do well

Home learning and why it matters

Over 70% of children’s lives are spent, not in a setting, but with their families and the wider community. Therefore, home and community must be recognised as significant learning environments in the lives of children and the crucial role it plays in a child’s early development.

It matters because:

  • increased learning opportunities at home have been shown to have a positive effect on literacy and numeracy attainment at school
  • a positive home learning environment is even more important than parent occupation, education or income
  • home learning environments impact school readiness and a good one will improve independence and creativity once at school

Top tips to engage parents in home learning

Form a shared language with parents and a joint understanding about how children develop and learn

Parents need to understand the importance of play, how to interact with their child during that play and what age-appropriate activities are suitable for different stages of their child’s development.

Make useful resources available to parents

These can be in relation to developing motor skills, language development, behaviour management and more. These resources can offer additional guidance that parents can use at home to cultivate further skills and talents in their children.

Encourage all parents to chat, play and read with their child

Develop simple messages (including video/imagery) about the ease and importance of chat, play and read through every day experiences. Recommend complementary activities that a parent and child can complete at home. These activities can extend your curriculum beyond the setting and reinforce what you have been teaching. Once parents get first-hand experience teaching new things to their children and seeing the impact, they will be more compelled to take an active role on an ongoing basis.

Loan out resources

If children have a particular toy or book they’re fascinated with, why not loan it out to the family for the weekend? It will help to give more continuity to the child’s development and improve parent understanding of what goes on during the week.

Strengthening staff practice

Get help to improve your practice - Working in partnership with parents and carers - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK. Find out why working with parents is so important and how to do this well.

Read Debbie Garvey’s (researcher in early years) blog where she discusses ways to reconnect with parents and carers after COVID-19. Blog: Reconnecting with parents and carers | From pregnancy to children aged 5.

For more evidence based research read Improving the home learning environment - GOV.UK. This publication is a policy document setting out the evidence base underpinning the Government’s behaviour change model to improve the home learning environment.

Promoting home learning:

Share the Hungry Little Minds government campaign comprising of short videos and simple, fun activities that parents and children can do together.

One of the trending recommendations from recent Ofsted inspections locally, picks up on behaviour. Do you monitor the consistency of your approach in teaching children expected behaviours? It is important that you reinforce expectations with clear explanations to help children to manage risk. Key to this is ensuring you and all staff have a good understanding of how to help children behave well. Do you have a clear behaviour policy and procedures in place that form part of your induction period?

Consider how you support self-regulation in children to help them manage their own behaviour and understand the impact of unwanted behaviours. Self-regulation is a person’s developing ability to be aware of and control their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours in a positive way. It is the ability to manage and understand your own feelings and actions appropriately. Adults play a key role in supporting children’s development of self-regulation skills over a period of time.

Self-regulation is learnt from co-regulation. Young infants are dependent on the adults around them. You can do a lot to support children to recognise their feelings, find coping strategies and self-regulate. It is a modelling process by the adults around a child to teach them the skills and strategies needed to be able to regulate their own emotions. This begins in the very early on between the caregiver and the baby through helping them to soothe and calm their feelings through positive and warm interactions. The adult needs to be tuned in to the child’s emotions and able to respond sensitively and swiftly to reduce the child’s stress.

Adults who are emotionally responsive and caring to children’s needs in an upsetting and overwhelming moment, help the child to manage their stress. This process happens through coaching and modelling how to understand, express and control thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Tuning in and reliability helps the child to know their needs will be met and they learn the ability to calm themselves.

Co-regulation is the starting point for young children to learn how to manage their feelings and emotions through their interactions and relationships with supportive adults. The adult helps the child to soothe developing their ability to build the essential skills to self-soothe.

"Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution." - L.R. Knost.

These early experiences set out the foundations for self-regulation. Through having their needs met, children begin to make connections in the brain about soothing feelings. The adult is providing the support, coaching, and modelling to help the child understand their feelings and behaviours. Children with this positive experience of consistent care learn that over time the adult is there to offer support if needed. They then learn to develop self-soothing skills, such as thumb sucking or having a favourite blanket to snuggle as the beginnings of self-regulating their emotions and as they grow and develop, they have less dependence on others.

10 top tips to help children to self-regulate

  1. Get your own needs met so that you can support children and be a positive role model.
  2. Provide warm, responsive relationships where children feel respected, comforted and supported in times of stress.
  3. Name emotions to help children understand what they are feeling.
  4. Validate children’s feelings to teach them emotions are perfectly okay.
  5. Make a safe space in your environment where children can go to help control their emotions.
  6. Teach children the skills they need to stay calm, cope, and adapt. When children learn how to cope with stress, their behaviour will improve.
  7. Have realistic expectations. Only demand from children what they can handle to avoid placing undue stress on them.
  8. Be supportive and encouraging and help children to develop a toolbox of coping strategies to use when having difficulty regulating their emotions.
  9. Ensure that children’s resource pool for regulation is regularly replenished. Partnership working with parents can benefit children’s essential needs, such as sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise.
  10. Be consistent. When children know what is expected of them. Predictability helps to decrease stress.

Children who experience nurturing and stable caregiving, go on to develop greater resilience and the ability to self-regulate uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions.

Strengthening staff practice

  • Keep Your Cool Toolbox developed by Dr Mine Conkbayir, offers effective ways you can access free, to help young children and teenagers to better manage their emotions.
  • The Handy Brain Model adapted by Dr Mine Conkbayir, provides an easy way to understand what happens in the brain when a child or teen 'flips their lid' due to feeling overwhelmed.
  • Katrina McEvoy gives the lowdown on self-regulation in her article What Is Self-Regulation? | Famly.
  • Watch Dr Mine Conkbayir and Ursula Krystek-Walton who explain how neuroscience, self-regulation, and a thoughtful approach to training made a huge difference to the children Betram Nursery Group care for on Famly Sessions: Let’s Start A Self-Regulation Revolution | Famly.
  • The pamphlet Nurturing self-regulation – A Froebelian approach looks at connections between children’s environments, experiences, emotions and behaviours. Using case studies from practice, the authors consider how educators can connect with the child’s unique world. They suggest ways to create a harmonious, democratic and empathetic community, in which children and adults develop the skills in self-regulation.
  • Dr Lynn McNair and Carol Cerdan share their Froebelian perspective on children’s self-regulation: how to use reflection and freedom with guidance to create more harmonious and inclusive relationships. Watch a Froebel Trust | Nurturing self-regulation webinar recorded on 30 March 2022.  

A key part of helping infants and young children to build their developing brain is what’s known as ‘serve and return’ interactions with adults. Babies instinctively serve by babbling, cooing, gazing and through facial expressions indicating their interest in something, and adults return the serve by tuning in and responding through warm interactions.

By providing positive feedback through eye contact, sounds, words, and physical interaction, the adult helps spark the child’s interest and enthusiasm in practicing things like speech, language and social learning.

Having back-and-forth conversations with children is the best way you can help them learn and develop language. Serve and return interactions also help children develop other essential key skills for life, such as sharing attention and turn taking. It is an active process that fosters a child’s enthusiasm to know more through positive feedback. 

Top tips for serve and return interactions

  • Serve up a conversation starter and wait for the child to return.
    Make eye contact and ask an open-ended question, more than yes or no. Who, what, where, how and when questions are great to ask to prompt thinking and encourage an interaction
  • Talk about what you’re doing as you do it.
    There are opportunities throughout the day for conversation. Talk to children during everyday routines, such as mealtimes and at changing times.
  • Wait before jumping in too soon.
    Children need time to process information and may need a little longer to respond. Allow them sufficient time and resist jumping in with another question or the answer. Count to 10 in your head. Try maintaining eye contact, with an anticipatory expression so that they know you are inviting them to respond and waiting for their interaction. You are aiming to achieve a natural, back-and-forth conversation.
  • Spot the signs of a serve.
    Crying is a clear example of communication when something is wrong. Try tuning in to more subtle serves when children are alert, active and ready to play. Babies and children will initiate conversation through gestures, eye contact, pointing, sounds and words. This is also a great opportunity to pick up on a child’s immediate interests.
  • Use a warm and positive tone.
    Using a more melodic, high-pitched tone than you helps gain and maintain baby’s attention. To start with, short, simple sentences are best, with lots of repeated words, so that children are immersed in a language rich environment.
  • Share books and tell stories.
    Reading books, pointing to pictures and naming objects, even with young babies is a brilliant way to introduce new words and expand language. The more words and conversation children hear the better, so chat, sing and read with them throughout the day.

Strengthening staff practice

Find out more about why interactions are important by reading Interactions - Help for early years providers - GOV.UK.

Access this quick read article 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return or if you prefer, watch a short clip 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return on YouTube.

Being independent has many benefits; the core of which is that it builds self-confidence and self-esteem. Independence is an essential life skill and one that needs to be nurtured from an early age. All aspects of independence are important for children to learn to be self-sufficient individuals.

The drive for independence starts from babyhood. Young babies rapidly make decisions about what they play with, what they like to eat and who they prefer to be with. Toddlers will thrive in a healthy environment where they have opportunities to do more for themselves. To become independent, children need to be confident in their own abilities otherwise they will remain over reliant on the support of adults.

Which of the following things have I done today that the children could have done for themselves?

  • clearing away
  • delivering messages
  • setting up the outdoor play
  • preparing materials such as making playdough, mixing paints and combining ingredients for cookery
  • choosing food for snack time
  • selecting materials for constructions
  • putting on their coats and shoes
  • setting the table for mealtimes
  • pouring their drinks and serving their food
  • cutting up their food

Below are ways that will try to encourage independence in young children:

  • Self-service at mealtimes
    During mealtimes, encourage children to self-serve. As we return to normal life after COVID bring food and drink to children at their tables, encourage children to help themselves by pouring their own water and putting food on their plates. Give younger children choices and let them self-select items. Allow older, more able children to cut their own fruit or make their own sandwiches, consider introducing rolling snack where children can choose when they want to drink or eat. Self-service not only helps grow their independence, but it also helps children with their fine motor skills and is a great way to provide opportunities to develop mathematical skills.
  • Dressing themselves
    Encourage children to dress themselves. Throughout the day children will be required to put on their coats and possibly swap between their outdoor wellies and indoor shoes. Most children struggle to begin with, such as putting their shoes on the wrong feet. Provide plenty of time and offer encouragement and support to avoid this being stressful and reinforce practice makes perfect.
  • Washing hands
    Washing hands has always been important but made even more so due to the COVID pandemic. Urge children to wash their own hands from a young age as it is an important independent habit they will practice for the rest of their lives. Make hand washing more appealing by encouraging children to sing a song, consequently teaching children about the importance of personal hygiene in a fun and constructive way.
    Children respond positively to routine, so encourage them to wash their hands before and after eating, after going to the toilet or touching pets. As children experience these routines over and over, they learn to anticipate what comes next, and they start to take on more responsibility with less help. Therefore, children learn to use their initiative and in turn strengthens their independence.
  • Tidying up
    Always encourage children to tidy up after playing with toys or making a mess. Simple tasks such as putting away toys makes them feel like they’re making a contribution to the environment, which ultimately gives children a sense of importance and helps build their independence. Making tidying up part of everyday practice teaches children responsibility which is also a crucial skill for developing independence. Communicate that they are responsible for tidying up their own resources and give them positive reinforcement when they complete this task. Furthermore, tidying up helps children understand where things belong so they can learn to independently access what they need.
  • Arts and crafts
    Children enjoy lots of arts and crafts-based activities. Not only are these activities fun but they also promote creativity in children. Allowing the children to be creative strengthens decision making skills which support their growing independence. Children use critical thinking when choosing what colours, shapes and materials to use. Not only does this give them a sense of independence but also a sense of pride, allowing the children to express themselves creatively. Arts and crafts also help improve fine and gross motor skills, for example simple tasks such as using a pair of scissors or holding a paintbrush can refine co-ordination, control, and movement. These independent skills are then transferable to other areas of their life, for example children who mix and pour paint will become more confident in pouring their own drinks.

Suggestions for practice

Promote physical and functional independence

  • help children to tidy resources for example, provide a dustpan and brush for clearing up dry sand and a floor cloth or short-handled mop for coping with spillages
  • encourage children to take responsibility for their own possessions, such as clipping Wellington boots together with a named wooden peg
  • play a game to help children know where things are kept, for example, put items such as crayons, counters and blocks in a drawstring bag and ask children in turn to take an item from the bag and return it to its proper place

Offer choices and decision-making in activities:

  • painting: provide paper of different shapes, sizes and colours and make the paper easily accessible by placing it on a low table
  • construction: provide options such as, adding pebbles, sticks, stones and shells to the block area and provide rubber bands, masking tape and Blu-Tack for fixing
  • have available collections of miniature play figures to add to the construction
  • storytime: offer alternatives for a story and ask children to vote for their choice of book
  • encourage reflection: offer a structure to support independent thinking, for example, provide an attractive pictorial chart and gradually introduce the following questions, 'What do I want to do? Who do I want as a working friend? What things do I need to work with? Where do I find them? How well did we do it?' 
  • talk through the questions with the children and model examples of how they might respond to them, over time children will come to use these questions for themselves

Speaking, listening, and understanding are central to every aspect of our lives. From expressing our needs to learning how the world works, we depend on our ability to listen, communicate, and make sense of our social and material environment. This is reiterated in the Early years foundation stage statutory framework, in point 1.6 it states, ‘The development of children’s spoken language underpins all seven areas of learning and development. Children’s back-and-forth interactions from an early age form the foundations for language and cognitive development.’

Research into education recovery in early years providers found that children’s communication and language skills were not as strong as those of previous cohorts. You can read more about the findings within the report Education recovery in early years providers: summer 2022. One in four (23%) children who struggle with language at age five do not reach the expected standard in English at the end of primary school, compared with just one in 25 (4%) children who had good language skills at age five. Several studies have indicated that, if children do not develop sufficient communication and language skills before starting school, this disadvantage persists and affects future attainment. These findings mean that it is important for you to offer plenty of opportunities for all children to learn and practise speaking and listening.

There are several reasons why a child may have problems with speaking or understanding language. Some children may have a lifelong condition such as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), or a language disorder associated with another condition, such as autism or cerebral palsy. However, children may simply have not yet had the right early experiences to help their communication and language skills develop – though they may be able to catch up quickly with the right support in place, which is why your role of early years practitioner is so crucial.

How to successfully promote communication and language in your setting

It is essential that you provide a curriculum that aims to help children build vocabulary and language structures and gives the opportunity for them to use and practise vocabulary and language structures within their play. The success in implementing this will be through the quantity and quality of your interactions and your use of stories, rhymes, and songs.

Creating a ‘chatty’ curriculum

1. Encourage back-and-forth interactions

  • This can be non-verbal when working with babies, such as taking notice of what they are looking at and talking about it or making the most of the times the baby is keen to copy your facial expressions - try sticking your tongue out, blinking or making lip sounds for added engagement
  • Copy the sounds the baby makes - say back to them what they are trying to tell you through their noises
  • With older children expand on what they say by repeating and building on it. For example, if they say “car,” you could say “yes, look at that red car over there” - giving the child complete sentences helps them to learn more about grammar
  • Give opportunities to respond by leaving pauses after your sentences - this helps them learn turn-taking in conversations, but also gives them time to think and anticipate your next sentence

2. Have quality conversations

  • Respond to babies babbling as if they are initiating a conversation
  • Speak slowly, so that children have time to process the information you give them, as well as clearly and calmly
  • Use short sentences so that they aren’t overwhelmed with language
  • Make eye contact, getting down to the child’s level if necessary
  • Model the right pronunciation and sentence structure, making sure to enunciate each word and sound - for example, it helps children learning to speak if you say, “going to” rather than “gonna”
  • Listen carefully when children are talking to you - give them your full attention
  • Do not interrupt when children are speaking
  • Make signs, gestures, or actions as you speak to help convey your meaning
  • Use a more melodic, high-pitched tone - young children are more likely to tune into this and listen to what you are saying, thus accelerating their language development
  • Use parallel talk - this involves talking about what the child is doing - for example, “you are wearing a nice blue dress today” or “you are playing with the toy giraffe.”
  • Use self-talk - this involves talking about what you are doing, such as “I am tidying up the toys because it’s almost time to go home.” This helps teach children to pay attention to cues and predict what will happen next
  • Use open ended questions to help spark conversations, extend discussions, and stretch children’s thinking - this will not only support children’s language development but their critical thinking skills

3. Introduce new vocabulary

  • Label objects and actions around you to teach children more vocabulary - for example, “look at that dog chasing the ball!”
  • Do not use ‘baby words’ - children will need to learn the adult version from somewhere, and if you model it for them, they will learn it more quickly
  • Use expressive language to discuss objects, actions, and emotions - for example, “that’s a beautiful picture!” or “look at that tall tower!”. This will help children to expand their vocabularies

4. Read to the children and introduce songs and rhymes

  • Reading in early years is extremely effective for language development - frequent exposure to books can give extensive occasions to use and embed new words - this is critical in helping children to learn vocabulary as it gives children exposure to more complicated words and complicated structures that they may not have experienced
  • When you read, point to the words as you say them - this helps the children link the spoken word to the written word and will aid their literacy development later on in life
  • Talk about each page to encourage the child to speak - for example, you could say “that’s a lot of food - what’s your favourite food?”
  • Engage them in the book by using intonation, pointing to pictures, and letting the child guess what will happen next
  • Toddlers might want you to read them the same book over and over again - this is great for getting them to really absorb the language and testing whether they can finish the sentences for you
  • Read children books on different topics, particularly as they get older, so that they broaden their vocabularies. Talk about words that they are not familiar with, asking them if they know what it means, and explaining it if not
  • Singing is particularly important for babies and younger children - it can really help their language development by supporting them in differentiating sounds, recognising rhymes, improving their memories, and broadening their vocabularies. Just as with reading, pause before the end of a song line, getting the children to fill in the gap - for example, ‘twinkle, twinkle, little… (star)’
  • Make up your own songs or ask older children to do so. If they are silly, the children might enjoy and remember them even more!
  • Rhymes are key for language development, just like singing - they help children to differentiate sounds and learn more words, rhymes increase phonological awareness skills and prepare children for learning to read

5. Practise, practise, practise

  • Children need time to practise the range of vocabulary and language structures they have learnt and using them in different ways, such as having the opportunity to explain what they are going to do or what they have done, how they feel about something, retelling a story, telling their parents what they have done in their morning

6. Provide a language rich environment

  • This is not just having words and labels in your provision but having a ‘chatty’ environment where adults are engaging all children in conversation through high quality interactions
  • Have plenty of books available that are in a good state of repair, age-appropriate and appealing
  • Ensure the environment isn’t too noisy and there are ‘quiet spaces’ available to talk. To develop communication skills, children need to be able to hear properly - you could use tents or dens to create areas where children could talk to each other
  • Ensure background noise is limited, for example, make sure the general volume isn’t too high when you have conversations, and radio, music and televisions are turned off.

Strengthening staff practice

Access resources, activity ideas and advice for teaching communication and language to early years children. Find out more information by reading Communication and language - Help for early years providers.

Read the Foundation Years Blog: The crucial role of the early years workforce in supporting young children’s communication and language skills | From pregnancy to children aged 5 to learn about developing good quality universal provision.

Read these articles from Famly where speech therapists Jo and Diana from Soundswell discuss How to Support Early Speech and Language Development and provide Language-rich environments in the Early Years.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Fliss James explains how practitioners can use the ‘ShREC’ approach to support high quality interactions. Access the EEF blog: The ShREC approach – 4 evidence-informed strategies… 

Speech and Language UK are offering a free online short course. This is a great place for practitioners new to the early years foundation stage to start learning about children and young people’s speech and language development. It looks at how you can support the development of these skills on a day-to-day basis in your setting, and how to spot children and young people who might be struggling to develop these important skills.

For practitioners that may be interested in developing their understanding on communication or refreshing knowledge, you can register at CPD online short course.

Inspectors will evaluate how well early years providers fulfil their statutory responsibilities in keeping children safe. It is essential that you keep your safeguarding knowledge up to date to be able to confidently talk to the inspector about safeguarding practices in your provision.

Everyone who works with children needs to understand how to recognise the signs and symptoms that could indicate a child is being abused, and how to respond and make child protection referrals. It is crucial to ensure new staff have a secure understanding of the setting safeguarding procedures as part of their induction and ongoing updates take place regularly. Northamptonshire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NSCP) recommend that all practitioners complete a refresher safeguarding course every 2 years.

All childcare providers need to consider the government guidance Working together to safeguard children - GOV.UK and What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused: Advice for practitioners - GOV.UK when implementing robust safeguarding policies and procedures for their setting as well as aligning them with the safeguarding policies of our local children’s safeguarding partnership (see details below).

Local safeguarding information

In West and North Northamptonshire, we have a Children’s Trust which was established to deliver high quality social care services to children and young people within the resources made available to the Trust by the Council. The Northamptonshire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NSCP) which ensures the safeguarding and welfare of children is a partner agency with the Trust. If you have a concern, referrals are made to the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) which is a co-ordinated service by the NSCP.

For West and North Northamptonshire procedures of how to report a concern you may have about a child please visit Report a concern to follow the procedures.

The Designated Officer must be informed of all cases in which an allegation is made against an adult. Please refer to the Report a concern about an adult working with children and young people for current reporting procedures. You should raise a concern within 24 hours of the incident.

If you are a manager, a trustee of an organisation or a childminder with assistants, you should make sure all staff and volunteers understand and can implement the settings policies and procedures.

The NSCP have created a series of Tea Break Guides to help update or extend practitioners knowledge. They are a useful tool to have up on a wall, in a staff room, use as a discussion point with colleagues or simply read over a cup of tea.

Supporting documents

Read the Early years inspection handbook - GOV.UK to learn more about Ofsted guidance on inspecting registered early years and childcare providers under the education inspection framework.

Last updated 12 February 2024