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Research School Network: BLOG: Leading in Early Years Supporting Covid ​‘Catch Up Leading effectively in an Early Years Setting following a global pandemic – What does the evidence say?


BLOG: Leading in Early Years Supporting Covid ​‘Catch Up

Leading effectively in an Early Years Setting following a global pandemic – What does the evidence say?

by Derby Research School
on the



Leading effectively in an Early Years Setting following a global pandemic – What does the evidence say?

Leanne Oswin – Evidence Lead in Education in EYFS across Portland Spencer Academy and Glenbrook Primary Academy, Nottingham

‘The learning that takes place during the first five years of life lays the foundation of all future learning’ Asmussen, K, 2019, EIF

With so many of our children having missed large chunks of their first years in school due to the implications of COVID – 19, it is imperative that as leaders and practitioners we look to the research to help shape and inform the decisions that we make moving forwards. This will ensure that our teaching, provision and environment enables the development of skills that have suffered due to extended periods of time at home as a result of the national lockdowns. Teachers and families across the country have provided extraordinary support to help children learn at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, for many children, the disruption caused by school closures will have had a negative impact on their communication, learning and overall well-being.


During the Autumn term, Ofsted gathered evidence from research interviews with registered early years providers and maintained nursery schools and unsurprisingly found that almost all providers felt that the pandemic had significantly impacted upon the learning and development of children (The Ofsted COVID-19 series: briefing on early years, October and November 2020). In addition, a study by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), found that babies and toddlers from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to having less access to books and outdoor space during lockdown. This has impacted upon their physical skills and vocabulary and language exposure. These studies raise some crucial issues regarding potential gaps in child development, which must be considered by school leaders and EYFS practitioners.


As a result of prolonged periods of time at home, many children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have not had access to a variety of toys or the opportunity to experience outdoor play. Some children, particularly those who speak English as an additional language, had had limited opportunities to speak and hear English during this time. Furthermore, concerns have been raised around children’s personal, social and emotional development with many children returning to our settings as less confident and more anxious. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to have been severely affected by school closures and may need more support to return to school and settle back into school life. Working across two schools with high levels of deprivation and pupil premium children, I have experienced first-hand children returning to school as less independent, more withdrawn and sedentary due to underdeveloped language, communication and physical skills. This coupled with children who are struggling to engage in play and activities due to extended periods of screen time has meant that we have had to reflect upon our pedagogy and curriculum and make evidence informed changes to reflect our children’s ever developing needs.

Lit KS1 Pic

What is the potential impact…


In their research interviews, Ofsted sought to ask providers about their perception of the impact on children’s development in the prime areas of learning. 53% of practitioners felt that children had fallen behind in their personal, social and emotional skills and 29% had slipped in their communication and language as a result of the periods of national lockdown (COVID-19 thematic series: October briefing November 2020). This coincided with what we were seeing and so we referred to the evidence base and the Early Years Toolkit’ to support us in our decision making.

What changes have we made…


It is recognised that the effects of lockdown on families and children differ according to the social circumstances of the school (Primary teachers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown, June 2020). As an EYFS leader, to enable our children to successfully catch up’ in the early years, I began by consulting the evidence base and reflecting on our pedagogy to help identify some best bets’. The Toolkit’ pointed to developing communication and language approaches, play-based learning and social and emotional strategies which we unpicked further as a team with our children, community and context at the heart. As a result, we adapted our timetable, curriculum and pedagogical choices to enable us to refocus on the prime areas for learning as these were the aspects which appeared have suffered most during this period of time.


For us, the social and emotional needs of our children and families have been at the forefront of our thinking. Many of our children and families lives during lockdown lacked the routine that school brings and we found that children’s sleeping and eating habits had regressed as a result meaning that children were finding it difficult to eat, play and learn to a fixed timetable. There is considerable agreement that children settling back into the normal school routine and readjusting to the context is a necessary precursor for children’s learning to resume in a purposeful and meaningful way. Therefore, developing daily routines and securing wellbeing and pastoral care needed to be a priority. As a result, we introduced staggered start times, flexible snack times, places to rest, short adult inputs and extended periods of uninterrupted play to support children to self-regulate. This has enabled us to provide the opportunity and support for children to identify and address their own personal, social and emotional needs. The inclusion of discussions, circle times and games and stories with puppets has helped children to name and understand their feelings and emotions. Adapting timetables and daily routines to be more flexible and giving more time to emotional well-being and health and self-care has enabled children to feel safe, settled and happy in their environment to ensure that they are in a place to learn.


Due to prolonged periods of time at home, without interactions from others, many children needed additional support to make friends and mix with others on their return to school. Prioritising and planning for extended periods of uninterrupted play, where practitioners get involved in the world of play and model how to effectively interact with others, including understanding and following rules, turn-taking and maintaining a serve-and-return conversation have all supported children in acquiring the skills needed to interact successfully with their peers. The use of group and turn-taking games, storytelling telling and activities that encourage children to think of and include others have all supported the development of these skills to help build and secure strong peer friendships and interactions.


Whilst the need to prioritise high quality interactions with children to develop their communication and language skills has been identified in the Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report (2018), supporting language development for nursery and reception children who have been adversely affected by the pandemic has perhaps never been more important. Recommendation 1 states the need to prioritise the development of communication and language as language provides the foundation of thinking and learning. We noticed the children were less likely to start a conversation, initiate play or comment during an interaction.


Research has shown that the use of sustained shared thinking during play can have the biggest impact on young learners and their communication skills. The EPPSE project (2017) found that in the most effective settings an:


Adult modelling’ skills or appropriate behaviour was often combined with sustained periods of shared thinking; open-ended questioning and modelling were also associated with better cognitive achievement.”


Consequently, we provided CPD to develop staffs’ understanding of how the use of sustained shared thinking can support high-quality interactions. Applying this knowledge with the evidence around play based learning approaches, we ensured that our timetable enabled extended opportunities for play to enable practitioners to talk with children around their immediate experiences, interests and activities to enable the application of sustained shared thinking.


With many children from our settings having had limited access to outdoor play and spaces during the periods of national lockdowns, we knew that physical development was an area which needed addressing. We noticed that children were struggling to sit, had demonstrably shorter attention spans, lacked physical confidence and were more difficult to engage in activities. As a result, we planned more opportunities for children to develop their physical skills outside, including both their fine and gross-motor movements to support them in developing the core strength and stability that had been lost due to extended periods of inactivity and screen time. The use of outdoor areas and our forest school helped to promote physical skills such as climbing, swinging, dancing and moving. We also built in opportunities to focusing on physical skills to aid independence and self-confidence such as dressing, toileting and using a knife and fork will all seek to rebuild skills that have potentially suffered and were impacting negatively on the self-confidence and independence of our children.

KS1 Literacy

In summary, as leaders we must recognise children’s different experiences during COVID-19 and the different approaches that will be required on their return to early years. Whilst global gaps and threads appear to be emerging and can be prepared for, it is vital that EYFS leaders spend time to recognise and identify the individual experiences that have impacted upon their unique context and cohort of children. Teachers need to use their professional judgement to assess where children are and how best to plan for purposeful and meaningful learning that can build from there. This is the foundation from which high quality teaching always proceeds, whatever children’s starting points. The needs of our children are likely to be diverse, and they are for each school to assess, taking their local context into account. What are your children telling you and what changes will you make to reflect their changing needs to help them to catch up”?

Leanne Oswin

Leanne Oswin

Evidence Lead in Education in EYFS across Portland Spencer Academy and Glenbrook Primary Academy, Nottingham

Leanne is currently responsible for leading the How?’ of the curriculum at Portland Spencer Academy. She is also the Assistant Head Teacher, EYFS lead and KS1 senior leader link. Within school, she has been the Assistant Head for the last 3 years. Prior to this, she was the EYFS and Key stage 1 phase leader for 4 years where she was responsible for teaching and learning within the phase. Furthermore, Leanne has also been Maths and Phonics lead in school and so has a wealth of pedagogical and subject specific pedagogical knowledge to enhance teaching and learning to impact upon outcomes.

Read more aboutLeanne Oswin

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