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Supporting all children to flourish and thrive within the Early Years. 

School Leaders: How are the Principles of the EYFS being embedded in your school to support ALL children to flourish and thrive within their learning and development, particularly those with SEND?   

Teacher reading a book to children in early years
Reading to children in the early years classroom.

I am privileged to be able to work alongside so many children and staff in different Early Years schools and settings; a common theme that educators in EYFS are experiencing at the moment is the increase in children joining them with SEND or developmental differences. In part, this is due to the legacy of covid, however, there are other factors that we need to consider, such as advances in medicine which mean that children born prematurely or with disabilities survive and live longer than before (Education Policy Institute). Most significantly, the increase in SEND within EYFS may be due to our increasing awareness and understanding of neurodivergence.  

Educators, professionals and parents have an increasing understanding of what this looks like in the early years, which means we can identify these needs early and support children and their families on the journey towards accessing the right level of support and involvement of other services. This echoes the DfE’s recent SEND Review (2022) findings that children need the ‘right support, right place, right time’. Unfortunately, nationwide, health and education services are overstretched and under-resourced. Therefore, wait times for professional involvement are high, which is impacting on the level of specialist support schools and settings are receiving.  

However, as educators, there are so many ways we can review and adapt our practice in early years to ensure all learners feel heard, seen and valued for who they are. We need to start by reflecting on our current approaches and question whether it is neurodiverse-affirming and inclusive practice and what we can change to make our learning environments places where all can flourish and thrive.  

Whilst you read this blog, take the time to pause, ponder and then react. How will creating a long-lasting vision for improving play, provision and planning in your Early Years support the learning and development of all children throughout the primary phase and beyond? What role do adults play in supporting this? Take a look at this quote from Dr Brené Brown in her book, Atlas of the Heart: 

“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel  seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

Consider these questions below, in relation to the above quote. 

  • Are we ensuring all young children feel seen, heard and valued without judgement? Without preconceived ideas and expectations for how children should be playing, learning and developing?  
  • Are we being open-minded, stepping back and asking ourselves, “What does this tell me?” 
  • Can we use this information – centred on the child – to adapt our environment and approaches to teaching? 

Reaching the goal of deep connection and mutual learning from one another takes time. It requires a shift in the way of thinking that the adult’s role is not to just impart knowledge and wisdom onto the child but to learn from them – specifically, to learn how they learn differently and see this, hear it, and value it.  

Where to begin?

Let’s start with The Early Years Framework which states what our EYFS should seek to provide:  

  • Quality and consistency in all early years settings, so that every child makes good progress, and no child gets left behind.  
  • A secure foundation through planning for the learning and development of each individual child, and assessing and reviewing what they have learned regularly.  
  • Partnership working between practitioners and with parents and/or carers.  
  • Equality of opportunity and anti-discriminatory practice, ensuring that every child is included and supported. 

In essence, The Early Years Framework proposes that all early years settings should be inclusive, adaptive and supportive of children’s different stages of learning and development. To achieve this, we need to delve deeper into what the Overarching Principles in early years states:  

  • Every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident, and self-assured.  
  • Children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships.  
  • Children learn and develop well in enabling environments with teaching and support from adults, who respond to their individual interests and needs and help them build their learning over time. Children benefit from a strong partnership between practitioners parents and/or carers.  
  • Importance of learning and development. Children develop and learn at different rates. (See “the characteristics of effective teaching and learning” at paragraph 1.18). The framework covers the education and care of all children, including children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

In the EYFS we want a person-centred approach which values the importance of establishing connections and relationships; providing an environment which is responsive and tailored to individual’s needs, interests and intrigues; seeing parents as valued partners in children’s development journeys, and a deeper understanding of the ways children learn and develop. All of this feeds into how we, as educators, can support individuals on their unique learning paths.    

This raises important questions for school leaders to reflect upon, especially in meeting the needs of children with SEND: 

  • How do we ensure we support children with developmental differences?  
  • How well-equipped is the EYFS team to support this?  
  • Do they understand the different development pathways, regardless of diagnosis? 

It is vital that our early years staff have the knowledge, understanding and skillset to ensure the education they provide is truly inclusive. This means assigning time for specific training and research and then using this knowledge and information to create a vision, an ethos, and a curriculum which accepts and celebrates differences and guides children through their own learning journeys.  

So, what next? Delving deep into the Unique Child

As School Leaders you need to be aware of what these principles look like in practice and how you can best support your team to achieve this. The work of our expert Education Development Team can help you with this every step of the way.  

Let’s delve deeper into the Unique Child section from the Overarching Principles and look for practical ways to embed effective strategies, approaches and ideas into your early years.  

Every child is unique – celebrate, support and extend 

Peppered throughout The EYFS Framework is an emphasis on understanding every child is unique and that we should respond to their individual needs, but how do we do this? We are provided with a framework and guidance which identifies typical expectations of development and little else. Therefore, school leaders need to provide relevant training and development for the EYFS team so that they are up to date with the latest research and guidance. Kerry Murphy, Early Childhood and Neurodiversity specialist, leads the way with her published guides on neurodivergent play and understanding neurodiversity in the early years. This is one of many ways you could engage further in developing knowledge around meeting the needs of SEND children within EYFS. 

How to support and extend 

As the statutory EYFS framework suggests, we need to understand what the needs and differences are for each of our children and we need to consider how we can best support them as individuals. For some children, you may need to involve other professionals or seek specialist advice so that the children are receiving the correct support along their development pathway.  

Creating strengths-based one-page profiles for our SEND children, which celebrate differences as opposed to deficits in learning, can really help to shift the mindset of what support can be put in place for individuals to thrive and flourish. In doing this, you may want to consider the question: Should SEND children have interventions or interactions? I would argue that, particularly in EYFS, children should be supported in their learning journey through high-quality and targeted interactions within their play, rather than removing them from their play for a separate intervention. The reason for this is that often, a transition and change to a different environment will trigger children, which results in a negative experience as opposed to the desired outcome of targeted support. Like with many things, there are exceptions to this such as when a child requires personalised and targeted programmes linked to specific areas of SEND. For example, if a child has a set programme of physiotherapy exercises to complete or needs to be in a quiet, one-to-one space for Speech and Language Therapy. Fundamentally though, in order for support to have an impact on a child’s development, it needs to happen frequently and, wherever possible, organically through their play. By following a child’s interests, children are more likely to engage and interact with you. The positive relationship you build will then, over time, result in deeper learning taking place.  

How to celebrate 

It is vital we see the unique individuality of each of our children and value them for who they are rather than creating environments and expectations which encourage children to fit into a certain criteria or box. At such a young age, children have already created their own outlook and view on the world based on their interests, experiences, and the relationships they have developed. As educators, we need to spend our time interacting with them, getting to know how they learn and then tailoring the learning and environment to meet their needs.  

From research, we know that children are more likely to become confident, resilient and self-assured once they feel accepted and celebrated for who they are. One way to celebrate uniqueness is by sharing a range of high-quality texts with our children that explore ‘books as mirrors, books as windows, and books as sliding glass doors.’ Children need to be able to see themselves represented in books (mirrors), recognise and compare the emotions and feelings of others (windows), and understand that all differences are celebrated (sliding glass doors). Creating an emotional literacy-rich curriculum in EYFS, which supports in developing PSED, contributes hugely to that sense of individuality and recognition that everyone is unique and valued. Our Literacy Team have created a unit of work based around the book Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival about a little boy trying to find his identity – take a look here at how this might look in practice and use the planning to have fun with the children whilst they explore how special it is to be themselves! 


One of the main aspects of the EYFS framework is the unique child. This blog begins to explore how this can be considered for all children within EYFS. To reflect upon this and take it further within your school you may want to consider: 

  • How are children’s individual needs being addressed – through resources and interactions/ small groups / 1:1 interventions/ evidence of children’s interests being built on? 
  • How are children with SEND being identified and supported within the learning environment? 
  • Are focus activities/ areas of provision/ experiences levelled to meet children’s needs? Do they link to stages of development?  
  • How are individuality and uniqueness celebrated? 

We know educators can create magic for each child through their individual learning journey, and we feel privileged to be able to work alongside so many schools that do this so well. One final question, whilst you reflect on the unique child, is to consider the reason why you came into education – and compare this to the current practice within your EYFS setting – does this consider all children and are you staying true to your why of putting children first? 

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The author

Harriet Brettell is a Senior Education Consultant in the Education Development Team at One Education. As a team, we believe in educational excellence for each and every child. Providing a range of pupil and business-related services, we are proud to support world-class teaching in schools and trusts across the country. Within our Education Development Team we have experts, School Leaders and Lead Practitioners in EYFS, SEND, SALT, School Development and Literacy who work collaboratively to achieve the best possible outcomes for learners. Harriet is passionate about Early Years Education, empowering learning through Literacy and an advocate for SEND children. Harriet's belief is every child has the right to be seen, heard and valued for who they are and it is our duty as educators to ensure all children flourish and reach their full potential.

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