Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to present some workshops at the NAHT conference. The organisers had asked if I could run a workshop on behaviour strategies in EYFS and on physical development. Since both subjects are close to my heart I eagerly agreed.
It was pleasing to see so many leaders taking an interest in these vitally important areas of child development, and over the course of the day I had some interesting discussions with leaders about their thoughts on the research and ideas I shared.
I want to focus on one of the workshops over the course of my next few blogs as it is an area of interest which I have been developing for some time.
Back in July I joined in a thread on Twitter about handwriting. Unfortunately, the person who started the thread subsequently deleted all their tweets, so it is not possible for me to share a direct quote, but the opening tweet, if I recall correctly, read something along the lines of:
“If we did more handwriting practise in EYFS we wouldn’t have the issues we do in key stage 2”.
Several other teachers had joined in the thread and were in agreement, with many saying that children did no handwriting in EYFS.
As someone who visits many schools and settings, usually between 50-75 a year, I was surprised to read people stating categorically that handwriting is not being taught in YR as this didn’t resonate with my personal experience. By the time I decided to add some ideas, most of the teachers who were joining in seemed to be in agreement that, in Foundation Stage, more sitting at tables and practising cursive script would be beneficial and support children’s writing later on. Handwriting is an area I’m frequently asked about in my school improvement role, so I decided to contribute some thoughts.
Context is important here. I have taught all year groups in primary school, from Nursery to Y6 although more than half my teaching years were spent in the EYFS and KS1 classrooms. I have taught in tiny and very large primary schools. I taught single year groups but mostly mixed age classes and I was a class- based SENCO for 13 years in 3 different schools, supporting children with a range of complex needs, including a number of children with profound multiple learning difficulties and additional physical needs. I think that this last fact is probably the one which has influenced my understanding of physical development more than any other aspect of my teaching career. I realise now how lucky I have been to have been able to be trained by experienced professionals who specialised in physical development. I draw on this experience to help me in the work I now do, but I am constantly learning and finding out new information as I visit schools and settings, working with new teachers all the time, and as I continue with my research at CREC (Centre for Rerearch in Early Childhood).
Early on in my career I worked with occupational therapists, who are real experts in physical development. We had to work together to develop programmes to support children who were not meeting their physical development milestones. This gave me so much insight into the importance of physical development and the impact of trying to force children to develop skills without the necessary precursors. I owe just about everything I know about physical development to those professionals who took the time to support me, to develop my understanding, so that I in turn could support the children in the schools where I worked.
The nature of most of the schools where I worked meant that children would often join us at points other than YR, and some habits and mindsets were already established. For example, the child who was forced to learn cursive script whilst still using a palmar grasp didn’t like writing and found it painful and uncomfortable, so developed distraction techniques and some poor habits and negative behaviours which took a lot of work to unlearn.
The child with a late diagnosis of dyspraxia decided they were “stupid” and “couldn’t write” when a greater focus on physical development would more than likely have identified some of the key issues and possibly led to an earlier diagnosis, but would have most certainly improved their postural strength and core stability, giving them greater motor control and a sense that they might actually be able to be a writer.
So, what did I learn from the occupational therapists and from the children and families I worked with over the course of the last 3 decades?
I learned that writing is really quite a complex activity and requires a wide range of different skills. Some of them physical, some of them cognitive and some of them emotional. Writing is hard work. There are many things to consider when we write: selecting the right grapheme for the phoneme we require, spelling, composition, grammar, punctuation, content, confidence and of course, physical development.
I also learned that I will never know everything I need to know about child development, but I can keep on learning and I can keep on asking the experts.
McPhillips et al (2000) noted that children who experience difficulties with reading also have difficulties with balance and motor control, so it is vital that teachers understand the impact of physical development on children’s cognitive development. Over the course of the next few blogs I will focus on different aspects of physical development, and how teachers of young children can support them to develop these areas so that learning is a pleasure and a joy rather than a pain and a chore, although I am by no means an expert in this area I hope you find the blogs useful.
Further reading: McPhillips, M. Hepper, P.G., and Mulhern, G. (2000) Effects of replicating primary-reflex movements on specific reading difficulties in children: a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial. The Lancet.
Every Child a Mover, Jan White (2015)