Use your words

“Use your words”.

This phrase rings out across many Early Years settings as practitioners try to support young children to step away from “acting out” and move towards articulating their intentions verbally and being more “self-regulated”.

However, in their latest research, the Sutton Trust found a significant concern amongst parents of preschoolers about their children’s communication development or wellbeing during the pandemic.

In relation to language skills, the Education Endowment Fund also suggests that the pandemic has had an impact on children’s language, alongside their socio-emotional development.

With a focus in the news on the government’s recovery plan for education, there is clearly a need to put the EY at the centre of any recovery plan. I was shocked to hear to hear the news of the planned increase of a few pence per child for funded places in Early Years settings as just as one example of the inadequacy of the government vision in this vital area.

In August 2020 the government did announce funding for Reception-age children to benefit from a multi-million pound package of funding to boost their early language skills in an evidence-based “catch up” programme focused on raising outcomes in speaking and language skills among young pupils whose education has been disrupted by Covid-19.

However, I am left wondering whether a formalised training package with a focus on oral language skills and teaching vocabulary will miss the mark when it comes to the needs of our very youngest children, and also miss the point of the holistic nature of children’s development in communication and language beyond catching up on vocabulary and oral language skills, following the pandemic.

If these children could use their words, would we hear “I need a hug”, or “I’m overwhelmed”?

Maybe, in the Early Years, the funding should focus, as staff have been focused throughout the pandemic, on small children’s wellbeing and mental health. How will children catch up unless they are ready to learn? How will we re-orientate them back into school or nursery? What about containment (Bion 1962), building wellbeing and resilience, not just building vocabulary?

As good early years practitioners know, communication goes beyond words and vocabulary and is summed up in the new Birth to Five Matters document, in its description of the key person as one who “helps the baby or child feel confident that they are ‘held in mind’, thought about and loved”.  

Not only do we need to tune back in to all of our children’s communications, be they non-verbal, behavioural or verbal, but we also need to be strong advocates for children and families who may not have strong voices themselves in these days as we move towards recovery together.

Julie Kent


Bion, W. R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Karnac.

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