The nature-nurture debate can often divide opinions; are our children a result of genes (whom they are born into), or are they mostly influenced by their environment? Whatever your opinion on this, I think most people accept that the environment can have a positive impact on our children and, as educators, we do our best to ensure that it is as nurturing as possible. And there has never been a time when nurturing children and supporting their wellbeing is more important. In the midst of a global pandemic, we must ensure that we support our children and hold them in mind and keep them in the centre of our practice.
So with this in mind, I find it helpful to reflect upon the six principles of nurture which were designed for use in nurture groups in schools and settings (Lucas, Insley, & Buckland, 2006). Within our early childhood settings, we tend to adopt a nurturing approach where we act as co-regulators and help children to become more resilient and it, in turn, raises their self-esteem and contributes to a higher level of wellbeing. I’m going to briefly touch on all six of these principles now and share a few strategies that we can use to support our children.
The six principles of nurture
- Children’s learning is understood developmentally
- The classroom/setting offers a safe base
- The importance of nurture for the development of wellbeing
- Language is a vital means of communication
- All behaviour is communication
- The importance of transition in children’s lives.
(Adapted from Lucas, Insley, & Buckland, 2006)
1. Children’s learning is understood developmentally
Our first nurture principle is about developmentally-appropriate practice so we need to start with the child and think about individual children and their age and stage of development. Bear in mind the principles of the EYFS – every child is a unique child, children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships, children learn and develop well in enabling environments and children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. So at this time, when we need to provide a nurturing curriculum, rather than a catching up curriculum, we must focus on children’s wellbeing and provide activities and experiences which begin with the child and are based on what they can do. We can also include opportunities to support children’s wellbeing such as access to calm, safe spaces, breathing techniques, sensory play, mindfulness and yoga activities and ensure that our settings openly talk about our emotions and feelings.
2. The classroom/setting offers a safe base
The second principle is referring to attachment theory and ensuring that our settings are nurturing places and spaces. We want our settings to act as a secure base for our children, however, sadly, this is not the case for all children. How securely attached a child feels will have a direct influence on their behaviour. Research has shown that children and young people who have a good start in life have significant advantages over those who have experienced adverse childhood experiences or trauma, or those who have had difficulty forming secure attachments. The environment that children grow up within, or the nurturing environment makes all the difference. These children tend to do better at school, attend regularly, form more meaningful friendships and are significantly less likely to be involved in crime or experience physical or mental health problems. Understanding attachment theory can help us to understand why children behave the way they do and help us to remain more sensitive to their needs. We can better understand how external influences (relationships, stress, poverty, neglect, emotional environment) can affect children and this will then help us to plan more effectively for them and use appropriate strategies to support them – intervening early if needed. Being aware of this can help us to adapt our expectations accordingly and use a range of strategies to intervene sensitively.
3.The importance of nurture for the development of wellbeing
When considering wellbeing, I find it helpful to think about the whole child, so to look at learning and wellbeing holistically and provide a supportive emotional environment. Here are a few ideas of how to do this in practice:
- Ask about children’s experiences during lockdown, perhaps families may want to share photos or videos of pictures or dens made of duvets and airers!
- Respect children’s feelings and give a clear message that all children are valued and emotions accepted.
- Provide a predictable and secure environment in which all adults are consistent in their approach to children’s behaviour.
- Support children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties by reflecting on and meeting their individual needs.
- Act as a role model and encourage positive behaviour using emotion coaching techniques.
- Provide activities and opportunities that support children to recognise and articulate their feelings and emotions.
- Use key person systems to ensure we build strong, authentic relationships with children and families.
- Offer understanding, reassurance and security to all children at this time and do not chastise any regression in behaviour (wetting themselves, thumb sucking or becoming excessively clingy to a carer). This will pass with time as the child feels more safe and secure.
4. Language is a vital means of communication
When nurturing children, we need to reflect upon how we communicate with them in ways that they fully understand. In addition to spoken words we should use gestures, pointing, body language, posture, eye contact and movement (this links with behaviour in principle 5). We mustn’t assume that children know and understand any new rules we may have in place and we must share these with them offering them reasons why we need to change things. Children can be very resilient and how we communicate with them and their families will make a big difference.
5. All behaviour is communication
In addition to language, we communicate through our actions and behaviour. If you imagine an image of an iceberg – the behaviours that you see are just the tip and underneath what we see there is a lot more going on. You might want to make a note of a behaviour that you see and try to unpick what is under the surface…So the behaviour we see on the tip of the iceberg could be hitting, biting, shouting, screaming, aggressive behaviour, fighting, a very quiet child or a child who appears very clingy and tearful… but underneath the waterline, the child could be trying to get a message across. I feel angry, I am hurt, I am hungry, I am tired, I need love, I’m overwhelmed, I need a break, I want that toy, I want a friend, I want to connect with you and this works, I have these big emotions and don’t know how to deal with them…
We need to empathise and try to unpick the behaviour and work out what our children are trying to communicate with us.
6.The importance of transition in children’s lives
It would be easy for us to underestimate the impact that transitions have. I really like this quote by Daly, “Something adults may consider to be a small or insignificant event can be quite traumatic for children” (Daly et al., 2004:111). So we have the really BIG things like COVID-19 to worry about, but sometimes it’s not the really big things that will have the biggest impact on our children, it can be the small things that are really big for them. For example, having to go through a different door into our setting, or not being able to sit next to their friend…
Therefore, we need to see the world and our settings through our children’s eyes to really try to understand how they will feel and what will affect them most.
Looking to the future
If we bear in mind these six principles, we will help to keep our children and their wellbeing central to our practice. It has been, and continues to be, a difficult time for everyone, so we need to practise empathy and using the principles of nurture can enable us to do this. It will take time for us all to get used to new routines, rules and a new normal that keeps changing. So let’s support our children and families by providing a nurturing environment that focuses on their wellbeing.
Daly, M., Byers, E. & Taylor, W. (2004) Early years management in practice: a handbook for early years managers Oxford, UK: Heinemann.
Lucas, S., Insley, K. and Buckland, G. (2006) Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines Helping Children to
About the author:
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.