Musically Managing Self as an Early Learning Goal

Musically Managing Self as an Early Learning Goal

Independence is considered to be a great asset in the West. The ability to make our own choice is greatly valued, partly because it frees up the time of others and partly because doing what we want generally makes us happy. Many activities in preschool are aimed at helping to develop independence by improving children’s confidence in trying new activities and facing challenges with resilience and perseverance (‘Early Years Foundation Stage Profile - 2021 Handbook’, 2020). Many of these skills are learned through self-regulation skills, and music is a fantastic way to support this.

A study (Hautakangas et al., 2021) in Finland considered the effects of a popular self-regulation programme on a group of 28 children over 10 weeks. As an essential skill that helps us to control our attention, thoughts, feelings and actions, it uses working memory, behavioural inhibition and task-switching to help us do this. Studies have shown that children with high self-regulation skills achieve highly academically, which affects their self-esteem and beliefs about themselves. On the other hand, poor self-regulation skills have been linked to aggression and poor relationship skills.

Research shows that self-regulation skills can be taught to children, and that in areas of high deprivation, these taught skills can help children to achieve equally as well academically as their more affluent peers. Self-regulation develops from repeated experience: from the external, it becomes internal. It relies on the teacher’s consistency in achieving goals, rules and strategies, with regular feedback and reflection to the child.

Many courses have been developed to support this skill, but often they require specific instructions, equipment or finance that is not easily available. Comparing the intervention group with a group that had not been through the course, a statistical difference in self-regulatory behaviour was found, showing that it could not have been coincidentally more effective – the children had changed their behaviour because of the course. In fact, these changes were evident, even when checked 5 months later, with children showing interest in wanting to learn even more new self-regulation skills.

Repetition appeared to be key to the success of this programme – teachers referred to activities and reminded children throughout the day, as opposed to limited times. Interactive support by a suitably trained teacher was also found to be instrumental in its success, with a focus on problem-solving and the ability to apply the programme personalised to each child.

Practically, self-regulatory skills can introduced through developing experience with personal care, addressing basic hygiene like dressing, toileting and healthy food choices. There are a number of musical ways that help to introduce these skills as fun games.

Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush

Here we go ‘round the Mulberry Bush

The Mulberry Bush, the Mulberry Bush

Here we go ‘round the Mulberry Bush

So early in the morning

This is the way we brush our teeth

Brush our teeth, brush our teeth

This is the way we brush out teeth

So early in the morning

This is the way we comb our hair

Comb our hair, comb our hair

This is the way we comb our hair

So early in the morning

This is the way we put on our clothes

Put on our clothes, put on our clothes

This is the way we put on our clothes

So early in the morning

This lovely traditional song is sung with children walking in a circle around an imaginary Mulberry Bush. It could go on forever with the activities that children could demonstrate, with the others copying the actions.

Do Pity My Case

Do, do pity my case

In some lady’s garden

My room to clean when I get home

In some lady’s garden

Do, do pity my case

In some lady’s garden

My face to wash when I get home

In some lady’s garden

Do, do pity my case

In some lady’s garden

My toys to tidy when I get home

In some lady’s garden

This game could be played in a few ways: walking behind each other in a line “through the lady’s garden”, where the child at the front chooses the activity, e.g. my face to wash, and then goes to the back of the line so all have a turn; rolling or bouncing a ball to a circle of children in turn, giving each a turn to catch and think of an activity; passing an instrument, and the one with it has to choose the activity.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Head, shoulders, knees and toes

Knees and toes

Head, shoulders, knees and toes

Knees and toes

And eyes and ears and mouth and nose

Head, shoulders, knees and toes

Knees and toes

This traditional children’s song has its roots in an even older tavern song (!), but has been used to teach body parts to young children for a number of generations. Younger children will enjoy matching the words to the body parts, while older children will enjoy the challenge of using it as a memory song, leaving out one or more of the words. Along with self-control, this way of singing also teaches musical timing, as children need to have a sense of how long not to sing in order to accommodate the left-out words.

Independence is considered an important part of self-identity, with research showing that it leads to not only academic success but also personal and relationship success, too. Self-regulation is an important part of developing independence, and cannot be taken for granted. Music makes the process of developing these skills so much more enjoyable!

More songs like these can be found on Musicaliti’s account on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/musicaliti/sets/learning-with-music, and You Tube https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXcjujGUVdOU6vQv5NS7mgT4lL_Egu_0j as part of the Learning With Music https://www.routledge.com/Learning-with-Music-Games-and-Activities-for-the-Early-Years/Turnbull/p/book/9781138192591 series.


Early years foundation stage profile—2021 handbook. (2020). Department for Education, 27.

Hautakangas, M., Kumpulainen, K., & Uusitalo, L. (2021). Children developing self-regulation skills in a Kids’ Skills intervention programme in Finnish Early Childhood Education and Care. Early Child Development & Care, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2021.1918125


About the author:

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.



Supporting staff with social, emotional and mental health needs

Supporting staff with social, emotional and mental health needs

In my September article, I talked about supporting children who have high social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH). This article will be looking at how we also need to support staff who have high SEMH needs. We need to view SEMH within a model of difference rather than one of deficit. We are all on a SEMH needs continuum, and we all need to have our SEMH needs met.

Often as practitioners, we think about meeting other people’s needs first, the children we work with, our families and colleagues; sometimes, we can be the last on the list or see looking after ourselves as a luxury. However, we can only look after others if we are taking care of ourselves. When we think about well-being for adults, the media makes us believe that well-being means going to nice spas, having massages, and spending lots of money; this is not it. Well-being is about recognising what helps us feel happy, healthy, loved, connected and putting in place the things that will support this.

We all need to be in a place where we recognise what helps us. A question to think about is: What helps you to thrive and not just survive?

When we are feeling low, stressed, unwell, it is easy to forget or drop the things that help us; they can often end up being the things that get left off the day because we are too tired or too busy. This can then become a negative downward spiral. If we are too tired or too stressed to do things that help us, our SEMH needs can become higher.

On my laptop, I have a photo board called my happiness board. This happiness board is there to remind me when I am feeling tired or stressed about the things that help me. It is a board of photos, a mix of my friends and family, my team, my garden and swimming spots. This board acts as my reminder, it makes me smile whenever I open it, and when things feel too much, it can remind me to do something that will help me.

Knowing what helps you

One key factor with well-being is knowing what helps you. I am a swimmer, I swim each morning Monday - Friday at my local pool, and whenever I can, I also wild swim. The daily swims keep me sane! The routine of getting up at the same time each morning, going to the pool, swimming for 30 minutes, and connecting with my friends at the pool is essential for my well-being. In the lockdowns, I found it so painful both physically and mentally not to be swimming. Alongside my daily swims, over the last 5 years, I have learnt to love cold water swimming, where possible I swim all year, only in a costume, in the sea and rivers. There is something about the shock of cold water that is both exhilarating and incredibly mindful. As you enter the water, all your body thinks about is the coldness; you forget everything else at that moment. So when work and life are feeling hard, I increase my cold water swims.

I am not suggesting that you should all take up swimming and cold water swimming! However, I am suggesting we all need to find our thing. For example, a friend yesterday told me he had just heard he was probably losing his job, he went for a long walk with the dog, he was telling me that is his equivalent to my cold water swimming, that is what grounds him, enables him to let go, that is what nurtures him.

My day job is all about nurturing children, and it can be helpful to think about what nurtures us. Below are some ideas :

  • Exercise
  • Being with friends
  • Being with family
  • Laughing - listening to comedy or watching something funny
  • Eating well
  • Baking
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Music
  • Being in a choir
  • Being in nature
  • Yoga/mindfulness
  • Engaging in faith-based activities
  • Being creative
  • Pets

Take a look at the list, are there things on that list that you enjoy? Maybe you do them regularly, or perhaps there are things you would like to do more often or try. As you will see from the list, they are not radical new ideas; in many ways, they are simple everyday activities, but they can bring us joy and connection and help us relax and let go.

How can we support our colleagues?

We must be recognising and talking about what supports our well-being in our workplaces. It needs to be an embedded part of the environment to recognise the importance of well-being for staff and children. This is not met by holding a once-a-year or once-a-term well-being week; as lovely as they can be, there is a danger of them being tokenistic. We can promote well-being in our workplaces by having an emotionally literate environment, where we can all safely recognise our feelings and ensure these are respected by others. We can provide basics, e.g. a safe and healthy workspace, availability of drinks, and child-free spaces to have our breaks. We also need to check in with one another, make sure others are OK. We could do small acts of kindness for others, some examples are:

  • Making a drink for others
  • Covering a late shift if you can see a colleague is especially tired or stressed
  • Bringing in flowers or chocolates for everyone to enjoy
  • Thanking people for doing their job and telling them how much you appreciate their work

These are very basic and simple ideas, and of course, they will not be enough when someone is struggling, but they can go a long way in helping staff feel appreciated. For example, in our team, we talk to each other about what we do to support our well-being; our manager actively encourages us to go and do those things, helping us all to recognise we need to look after ourselves and encourage one another to do the things that help us.

Key points

Looking after our well-being is essential, not a luxury.

We are unable to support others well-being if we are not in a good place ourselves.

Write a list or make a photo board of things that help you to feel happy, healthy, loved, connected.

Have conversations in your team about what supports well-being.

For more information, take a look at my new book.

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton is a freelance nurture consultant, she has worked in early years for 30 years. Sonia currently works in a specialist team in Bath supporting 3- and 4-year-olds who have social, emotional and mental health needs. Sonia also trains staff across the country: she specialises in supporting the wellbeing of children and staff. Sonia has written 8 books including: 

Supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years” published by Routledge,  Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions”, “Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff” and “Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing”. Sonia is also the series advisor for Little Minds Matter series of books promoting social and emotional wellbeing in the early years with Routledge.

Website - http://soniamainstone-cotton.com

Email - sonia.main@icloud.com

Instagram - @mainstonecotton


An introduction to supervision in the early years

An introduction to supervision in the early years

Securing a robust supervision system into each settings practice is a challenge, yet it is a key component to our work for many reasons. The role of supervision in early years settings remains a requirement in the latest statutory framework for the EYFS.

Providers must put appropriate arrangements in place for the supervision of staff who have contact with children and families. Effective supervision provides support, coaching and training for the practitioner and promotes the interests of children. Supervision should foster a culture of mutual support, teamwork and continuous improvement, which encourages the confidential discussion of sensitive issues. (Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, Sept 2021 paragraph 3.22).

The call for supervision as a requirement became an outcome from the Plymouth Serious Case Review (2009) which looked at the failings of a nursery and the abuse one practitioner inflicted on many children during a short period of employment. One of the many failings was staff’s lack of knowledge of safeguarding and where to go with concerns. The Tickell Review (2011) tightened up the statutory requirements around staff supervision and training and understanding of abuse in the workplace and the start of a mobile phone policy in settings.

The role and responsibility for providers to ensure that practitioners receive supervision needs to be embedded in practice across all settings. Knowing what supervision actually entails is essential in order to provide it effectively. It is also important to explore the meanings of supervision, mentoring, coaching and performance appraisal and where they may be interlinked. The EYFS uses these terms without fully explaining the differences.

Sturt and Wonnacott (2016) layout four functions to supervision which explain why supervision is helpful to embed in practice:

Managerial function

Are you doing what your provider/leader/manger thinks they are paying you to do? Everyone works better when they know exactly what is expected of them.

Development function

Could you improve what you are doing with some training/professional opportunities for growth?

Support function

What support do you need? What would help you emotionally to do your job even better?

Mediation function

Whenever you are at work are you behaving and therefore representing the provision, as is befitting your role?

Each of these four functions can be looked at in more detail. It is important to remember that supervision needs to be flexible to respond to individual needs and that the balance across the four domains will vary in every session.

In discussion with colleagues, the following benefits of one to one supervision were highlighted:

  • As a leader you are more up-to-date with the ‘temperature’ of the setting, how staff are feeling about their performance and where they might need support. The staff on the ground know what is going on and any issues can be identified, explored and resolved before they escalate. 
  • Individual staff can talk about their key person working, and/or wider observations about individual children, in terms of their learning and development and any barriers that might be present or possible. This aspect can also support safeguarding concerns, where both you and the practitioner can be professionally curious and ‘think the unthinkable’ about children’s welfare, in a safe confidential space. This might of course lead to action to protect a child. 
  • Support can be given more readily by you when it is required – some team members might not ask for help unless they see a window to do so. These meetings create that window which can open up your relationship with each practitioner and will enable them to ask for support when they need it, outside of these meetings. 
  • The supervising relationship can help reduce potential fear of the appraisal/performance system in the setting as you or a line manager will be meeting each team member on a regular basis.

The balance between support and challenge

Within the supervision relationship, there is an important balance we need to provide so that practitioners are encouraged to be the best they can be, exploring ideas with motivation and confidence. With a support-only approach, supervision can become just a ‘cosy chat’ where little learning takes place. With a challenge-only approach, the practitioner can become very anxious or defensive. The best place for supervision, and therefore the best place for learning, takes place where there is both high challenge and high support as this table illustrates:

High challenge

Practitioners feel under pressure, can lose confidence and avoid taking risks for fear of reprisal

Practitioners explore new ideas with strong motivation, trying new skills and developing their professional knowledge and understanding

Low challenge

Quality of care and standards tend to drift downwards as staff feel uninspired

Staff keep doing what they have always been doing and can get bored or laissez faire about their practice

Low support

High support

Adapted from Cook (2016).

Finding time as a leader, and continuing to develop your skills as a supervisor are challenges in themselves. It might be worth asking yourself who is supporting and challenging you – do you have a coach, mentor, peer to provide the same platform that you are expected to provide for others. Remember to look after your own needs as well as those of your team. Supervision is a huge topic - necessary and worthy of your time to do well to safeguard children, strengthen your team and stretch yourself.


  • Cook, J. (2016) “Leadership and Management in the Early Years”, Practical Preschool Books
  • Sturt, P. and Wonnacott, J. (2016) “Supervision for Early Years Workers”, Pavilion

About the author:

Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

Ruth is currently writing about coaching with a playful approach.

Contact: ruthmercercoaching@gmail.com

Website: www.ruthmercercoaching.com

The hope of story

The hope of story

They sweep us up in the anticipation and excitement of adventure. We find ourselves intrigued by mystery or fascinated by the inner workings of complex characters, involved and invested in the actions they take and the resulting consequences.

Indeed, through works of fiction, young children begin to enter worlds of fantasy, with these created landscapes often becoming a part of their own.

But did you know that this transportation, this immersion in invention, can foster hope and lead to healing?

Bessel van der Kolk, the prominent neuroscientist and trauma specialist, says that many survivors of childhood trauma whom he knew ‘were avid readers as kids. They were terrified, abandoned, and continuously exposed to violence, and yet they found Harry Potter or Jane Austen. They disappeared in the stories. The imaginary worlds generated by other people allowed them to create alternate universes to the ones they were living in.’ (2015). Emily Esfahani Smith in “The Power of Meaning” (2017) discusses research showing ‘that fiction can help people who have endured loss and trauma cope with their experiences.’

Through story, children can grapple with and reflect on difficult and painful issues. Metaphor can be used to introduce ideas and gently explore subjects, offering layers of protection.

Along with the refuge and potential for processing that story holds, is the hope that is inherent in many a tale.

What is hope exactly? It can often be thought of as a somewhat dreamy emotion when it has, in fact, been defined as ‘a dynamic cognitive motivational system’ (Kaufman, 2011). This simply means that hope is an active, thinking system that motivates us, reducing feelings of helplessness.

And how does hope facilitate healing?

Research has revealed that hope is related to divergent thinking: the ability to generate numerous ideas. Story and imaginative play contain this hope for children in the form of options. Vivien Gussin Paley (2005) believed that ‘developing…ideas in play opens the mind to possibilities.’ Cremin et al. (2006) define possibility thinking as, ‘imagining what might be’, with children ‘posing, in multiple ways, the question, “what if?” It is this imagining that “is significantly correlated with…greater physical and psychological well-being, improved self-esteem, and enhanced interpersonal relationships” (Rand & Cheavens, 2012).

As children explore possibilities, agency is developed. Alone or together, immersed in story, they analyse, discuss, debate, expand and consider alternative endings. The understanding that existing stories can be critiqued, re-imagined, and reworked is empowering, with the conceptualisation of alternative endings incorporating some core areas of possibility thinking in the context of children’s learning:

  • The making of connections
  • Intentionality
  • Innovation
  • Risk-taking and
  • Self-determination

(Adapted from Cremin et al., 2006)

There is an almost ever-present awareness of struggle and adversity contained within narrative that reminds us of the constraints and/or barriers that exist in life. There is a battle to be fought, a conquering of some sort to be achieved, even if it is of the self. The use of imagination - and at times the adoption of magical, whimsical thinking - can help to formulate pathways through and/or out of situations. In imaginary worlds, anything is possible: a spell to disappear a disease, time travel to ensure an accident never occurred, a powerful salve to cure pain. Fantastically, we can begin to craft different endings to ones that were, that are, or that may be.

Isn’t this simply denial? I would say not. Rather, the employment of imagination is a means through which we can explore reality. Wishing for different outcomes allows us to acknowledge disappointment or come to terms with the handling of a situation: pretence that causes us to reflect on what could have been or could be ultimately brings us back to an examination of what is now and our feelings about it. Research has in fact shown that high-hope people are those who can anticipate barriers and adapt, moving forward in the face of hardships.

As children fashion their various endings, they develop an understanding that it is within their power to decide where the focus of a story might lie and what their story solutions might be. And as they realise that their ideas can materialise, a resilient enthusiasm for engagement is cultivated, one that will aid them in whatever circumstances they may find themselves in.

Another healing aspect of story recreation and composition is that it allows children to run the gamut of their emotions. Narratives act as a vehicle for the expression of what might be positive or happy but also what is difficult: shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger, grief, and despair. Children can speak of and act out feelings fiercely, something that may be suppressed in real life. In story, there is room for the liberation of longings, and crucially and with consent, these story offerings can be used a springboard for dialogue.

The consideration of stories (the ones we invest in), their creation (the ones we craft and tell), and the curation of them (the ones we assimilate) literally make our lives. Dan McAdams, a story researcher, after working with life stories and meaning for 30 years and analysing hundreds of them, found interesting patterns in ‘how people living meaningful lives understand and interpret their experiences’ (Esfahani Smith, 2017). He found that people motivated to contribute to society and future generations were more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, that is, stories that move from bad to good, and that extract meaning from suffering. In contrast, others told what McAdams described as contamination stories, where people interpreted their lives in terms of bad events overshadowing the good.

As we continue to navigate what have been perilous times for many, we find ourselves in need of redemptive stories, of alternative endings, of story arcs that bend toward wholeness and happiness.

I believe that these endings will be found when we begin to further champion children’s choices and value their voices. This will foster in them a brave self-belief, and they will begin to operate in the role of author of their own life stories.


  • Cremin, T., Burnard, P. and Craft, A. (2006) “Pedagogy and possibility thinking in the early years.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 1, 2, 108–119.
  • Esfahani Smith, S.E. (2017) “The Power of Meaning: The True Route to Happiness”. London: Penguin Random House.
  • McNamee, G.D. (2005) ‘“The one who gathers children: The work of Vivian Gussin Paley and current debates about how we educate young children”. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 25, 3, 275–296.
  • Rand, Kevin & Cheavens, Jennifer. (2012). “Hope Theory”. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, (2 Ed.). 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.013.0030.
  • Van der Kolk, B. (2015a) “Trauma in the Body: Interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk”. Foxborough: Still Harbor. Accessed on 7/7/2020 at www.stillharbor.org/ anchormagazine/2015/11/18/trauma-in-the-body.

About the author:

Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.

She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.

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Nutrition for learning

Nutrition for learning

Children tend to be naturally inquisitive and boundless in their approach to understanding the world around them and learning new concepts. The early years setting provides an opportunity to work with children and their families/carers on the foods they consume. Helping them understand some basic nutrition and the importance of balance in their diet at an early age can impact them in the short term, as well as setting them up well for their long-term health as they mature. Both factors are also fundamental to behaviour, as a child who can focus for even short periods of time, will be able to engage with new experiences which will assist their processing, understanding and ultimately, their progress and development.

The developing brain:

Brain structure is laid down by both genetics and environmental factors such as food, learning and exercise. Early nutrient deficiencies can impact on the growing brain and an awareness of key nutrients for brain development can be a factor that parents/carers can influence and therefore can help support optimal brain health for their child/children. Brain development is on-going in line with its amazing plasticity, though significant stages of brain development include the third trimester until age 2, when the brain undergoes rapid-growth, and adolescence, when the brain undergoes pruning.

From birth to 6 years old, socialisation, cognitive, motor, communication and emotional development is the focus. From 7 to the mid 20s the connections further develop to establish faster signalling, self-control and decision making, which are the last areas to mature.

Key brain nutrients

The development of the brain thrives on food diversity and requires a wide range of nutrients, while there are some key nutrients that play a larger role, which include:


Protein provides the building blocks for brain structure and maintenance and is also essential for neurotransmitter production, which influence mood, thoughts and facilitates the communication between the cells of the nervous system. A reduction in protein may lead to smaller brain growth, so protein should be included in each meal with a recommended intake of between 15 to 28g a day depending on the age of the child.

Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, legumes and lentils.

Fats (omega-3)

The brain’s dry weight is made up of 60% fat. Fats are essential for all cell membranes, cognitive function and mood. 25% of the brain’s fat is made up of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, which is essential for structure, function, metabolism of glucose and for reduction of oxidative stress. Supplementation throughout childhood, has shown improved cognition, focused attention, and a profoundly positive effect on neurotransmitters and mental health. It has also been linked to decreased neuro-developmental disorders, lower rates of allergies, atopic conditions and improved respiratory health. There is also some evidence it can improve sleep quality and duration.

Focus on: Eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds and avocado.

Supplement: As the body relies on dietary sources, it is worth considering/suggesting to parents an omega-3 fatty acid supplement for your/their child/children high in DHA and EPA.


Carbohydrates provide glucose and fuel for the brain but carbohydrates such as white bread, rice and sugary foods rapidly convert to glucose and can have a detrimental impact and negatively affect glucose metabolism. Regulating blood glucose levels is important for mood and concentration and will also have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Focus on: Slow release carbohydrates such as wholegrain options (oats, brown rice, wholewheat/seeded bread), include protein with carbohydrates at mealtimes and/or increase vegetable consumption. Swapping beige foods for green can help to increase vegetables. Try alternatives such as courgette/carrot spaghetti, sweet potato noodles, cauliflower rice or bean mash.


Iron increases brain energy production and is required to supply oxygen. The relationship between iron and cognitive performance has been well researched, so if there are any concerns abut a child’s development it’s worth suggesting they are checked for anaemia.

Focus on: Meat, eggs, quinoa, grains, legumes, lentils and broccoli. Eating these with vitamin C rich foods, such as peppers, sweet potato and tomatoes will support absorption.


Iodine is required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, which regulate the body’s metabolic rate, heart and digestive function, muscle control and brain development. Any deficiency can impact on brain growth, signalling and brain weight. Low levels of iodine have also been associated with learning difficulties.

Focus on: Sea vegetables (samphire, kelp), yoghurt, eggs, tuna, cod, salmon and strawberries.


Zinc is abundant in the brain and contributes to both structure and function including neurotransmitter release and the development of the hippocampus for learning and memory. Several studies suggest supplementation may impact on cognition, motor development and memory, specifically during puberty.

Focus on: Meat, seeds, nuts, lentils, legumes, quinoa and fish.

Blood sugar balance

A key factor for concentration is ensuring meals and timings support a balanced blood sugar. If a child’s blood sugar peaks and troughs this can have a dramatic affect on their concentration and ultimately their behaviour. Therefore breakfast is key to starting the day and appropriate snacks, which contain both protein and fibre throughout the day also support to keep levels even.


Anti-nutrients are factors, which may have a detrimental affect on brain health for some individuals. These include trans fats, gluten, artificial sweeteners, high sugar, caffeine, and high toxin exposure (cigarette smoke, household chemicals, toiletries etc.).


Lifestyle factors that support brain health include keeping well hydrated, getting adequate sleep, exercise and learning.


?Within early years settings a project about ‘Feeding my growing brain’ can be an ideal opportunity to talk about what the brain does and introduce key foods and lifestyle factors that support the brain to grow and develop.

A simple and delicious brain food recipe to try in your setting is Mackerel pate - see page 24 to make it yourself!

Being informed of all these factors such as key nutrients, blood sugar balancing, lifestyle factors and anti-nutrients can support early years settings to educate children and families and ultimately support optimal brain development, increased concentration and learning.

For more food fun in your setting, sign up to the Youngest Chef Award. This award is for Early Years Foundation Stage pupils (ages 3-5) and is written by teachers for early years practitioners/teachers. It is designed around the popular children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and has been developed and launched by The Food Teacher™. The award is a ‘Mini Muncher Challenge’, which can be delivered across 5 sessions (every day over a single week or once a week over a 5 week period) with 50 minutes of planned teaching time each session. Find out more at; https://youngest.youngchefoftheyear.com/

About the author:

The Food Teacher™ Founder and Director, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as an award winning registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has written and published several books: “Heat-Free & Healthy, the award-winning

No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools” a series of Mini-Books and has also

co-authored the award-winning “Now We’re Cooking!” Delivering the National

Curriculum through Food. She has also launched a programme of Young Chef

awards for schools, which support delivery of the curriculum and nutrition. In

2019, over 4,000 children completed the awards across the UK.

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