Laura Piper, Early Years Advisor, East Sussex County Council, UK
This project aimed to improve practice and introduce research and professional reflection in 36 baby rooms over two years. Each setting had a practitioner lead, with 146 practitioners and 600 babies involved in total. The practitioner leads undertook small-scale research on their self-chosen aspects of interactions and then shared this in action learning sets (network meetings). The network meetings meant that practitioners reviewed all the different aspects of interactions described below, through each other’s focus questions.
Each focus was formed using a variety of tools – observation by East Sussex (ESCC) leads and practitioner self-evaluation (developed by ESCC leads from their own research), alongside practitioners’ own observations. The practitioner leads overwhelmingly fed back the finding that time to step back, observe and analyse led to better understanding of babies’ communication and practitioners’ practice. Other studies have identified the usefulness of observation before interaction, including the Revised Adult Pedagogic Strategies (Penn Green Centre, 2018).
Goouch and Powell’s (2013) research: attendance at their eighth Baby Room Conference, plus listening to Degotardi’s (2018) outline of initial findings into the quality of educator interactions, sparked the idea for this project. Degotardi et al.’s (2018) research into educator talk and quality of communication is thought-provoking, while Zeedyk (2019) reflects that babies are born as engaged, relational beings, with their social skills present from birth. ‘How we treat them shapes how they develop, right down to the biological level.’ (Connected Baby, nd) The ‘Effective Provision of Pre-school Education’ project (EPPE, 2004, cited in Page et al., 2013) identified the importance of the quality of interactions between practitioners and children in settings. Children made more progress when practitioners showed warmth and responsiveness to the needs of individual children. Surely if the interactions are better, babies will develop greater social connections and communication skills? The ESCC leads wanted to know why interactions are so important for babies and what the impact of this focus would be.
The following categories are taken from the ESCC self-evaluation tool.
Practitioners researched different song types, babies’ responses to different styles of music, use of Makaton during singing and the importance of singing for communication development. Some identified that spontaneous singing didn’t often happen. Coaching by leaders led to more confident practitioners and a conscious effort to incorporate singing outdoors as well as indoors during routines and play. Musical Development Matters (Burke, 2018) was widely used in later cohorts. The use of sound-making objects with babies was explored, along with moving to music together. We discussed the musical quality of speech, known as ‘motherese’, and the familiar structures of songs, which allow babies to predict timing and rhyming (Trevarthen, 2002).
Practitioners reviewed the use of lullabies after hearing about different aspects and ways to sing from the Babysong Project (Young et al., 2017); lullabies can create calm and comfort. Parents were asked which types of music they play, as well as their baby’s favourite songs, to replicate in the setting. Some parents recorded their singing, and this was played to babies. Babies identified their parents’ voices and appeared more settled. The importance of singing was explained to parents, who also accessed support materials including song words, videos and ‘stay and sing’ sessions. Makaton was widely used and shared.
Degotardi et al.’s (2018) research into infants’ experiences was first reviewed. In this study, babies wore digital language processors, which recorded and generated measures of adult talk and infant vocalisations. Practitioners therefore observed in their rooms whether they provided meaningful talk or interrupted a baby’s thought/play. Were they close to babies, ensuring that they knew that the practitioner was interacting with them? Was a baby’s response considered?
Quality is complex to define, so practitioners reviewed responsiveness to individual babies. Interactions with more verbal babies were found to be more frequent than with generally peaceful and less verbal babies. Larger group interactions could be less personal, and babies were not always given enough time to respond. Babies need to see practitioners’ faces so that they can read and respond to expression. Practitioners consequently ensured that babies were not picked up from behind or their noses wiped without warning. They observed whether a baby was engrossed in an activity before interrupting them.
Environments were assessed by practitioners to decide whether they were interaction-friendly, ensuring that there were areas in which to snuggle and interact. The areas that encouraged interaction as well as any potential barriers were considered. Photos of families were displayed to provide communication prompts.
Some questions focused on the responsiveness of practitioners’ interactions when they only spent time covering in the room. They often demonstrated a lack of confidence as they didn’t know the babies well. Consequently, all staff now spend time in the baby room, familiarising themselves with each child and their cues.
Settings considered how they supported interactions. Researched skills included using Makaton alongside speech, considering tone and pitch of voice, mirroring babies’ actions, mimicking their sounds, using visual cues, acknowledging a baby’s body language and facial expressions, and prioritising warmth and close contact. Leong et al. (2017) concluded that eye contact with babies should support communication, as babies use this to signal their availability and intention to communicate. Intonation is important, because before babies understand words, they understand tone of voice (Gerson et al., 2017).
Settings researched non-verbal communication (NVC). Were practitioners noticing and responding to it? Did we understand communication development? Observations showed that NVC was sometimes missed by practitioners, and one setting linked this to missing play cues with older children. Practitioners researched NVC and the different stages of sound-making, babbling and language development.
Parents were not always aware of NVC and weren’t asked about the meaning of their child’s body language or sounds. This was rectified and information was shared. One setting considered whether practitioners’ own NVC was confusing and inconsistent to babies. They are now more purposeful and thoughtful in their NVC when interacting with babies.
Sustained shared interactions
How do you embed sustained shared interactions and do all babies receive them? This is where two or more people contribute to shared thinking, developing and sustaining conversation (or, in the case of younger babies, their NVC). The settings found missed opportunities, as not all understood the ‘serve and return’ nature of communication or noticed babies’ serves, and some found it difficult to build on babies’ serves, therefore cutting the interaction off. This often related back to whether NVC had been noticed and whether babbling was seen as conversation. Trevarthen (2002) refers to these interactions as ‘proto conversations’. He describes Stern’s belief that when an attuned adult supports a baby’s intention to communicate, they are building a model of behaviour that can be repeated infinite times with much enjoyment.
Harvard University’s website, containing handouts and videos, was shared with practitioners to enhance their skills. They became more confident to notice and extend babies’ interactions. Babies now anecdotally appear more settled and secure, because improved interactions have made settling in easier.
Non-baby-room practitioners were often unsure as to how to interact with babies in shared outdoor areas. Setting leads provided training on babies’ development and differentiation of outside activities for all ages. Practitioners all spent time in the baby room. They learnt to greet babies by name. Babies now appear happier and increasingly engaged in communication outdoors.
Interactions during routines were explored. Were routines viewed as tasks or opportunities? Practitioners adjusted their routines according to babies’ needs and preferences, abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach. Quick and functional nappy routines were revealed to be an opportunity for one-to-one interactions, further building relationships. Sensitive nappy checks have replaced set changing times. Thought has been given to adding resources/visuals near the nappy changing area that could prompt interactions. Older babies are now involved by helping to gather their nappies and wipes.
Mealtimes were sometimes rushed, with reduced interaction opportunities. Observations showed practitioners doing ‘jobs’ at mealtimes, which reduced opportunities to be with the babies, connect with them and respond to their NVC. Mealtimes have since developed into more sociable occasions, with babies situated in circles and not rows. Adapting routines has increased opportunities for meaningful interactions. One setting identified fewer opportunities for interactions during baby-led weaning, and focused on ensuring that these babies had increased interactions.
Parent questionnaires revealed that they tended to interact more with older children at mealtimes. They were invited to a setting’s mealtime, where interactions such as singing, signing and making facial expressions were modelled.
Babies and peers
Shin (2010, cited in Page et al., 2013) identified that the subtle signs of communication between peers can often be overlooked. Practitioners’ close observation of NVC and how babies watch and respond to their peers showed that babies are social beings who want to and do communicate with everyone. Practitioners realised that they were not always needed to support peer relationships. They are now taking a step back, allowing babies uninterrupted time and space to interact with peers, as they have realised that babies are very capable communicators. This is echoed by Davis and Degotardi’s research (2015).
Observations in a mixed-age setting highlighted older children’s frustration with babies when they interrupted their play. Staff responded with, ‘They’re only babies’, failing to teach older children to notice babies learning. To counteract this, children were encouraged to help and interact at mixed-group times and to spend time playing with the babies. Children began to include babies in their play and identify babies’ needs. Staff have changed their reactions when babies ‘disrupt’ activities to share what the babies are learning through this.
One setting wondered whether better knowledge of the babies would help interactions during settling in. Parents shared how they fed and changed their babies, alongside their signs of hunger or sleepiness, for consistency. Practitioners believe that this led to building quicker relationships, as they were able to swiftly meet babies’ needs. A co-key-person system was created, with regular practitioners covering. This means that the covering practitioners have a greater understanding of the babies and are familiar to them.
Practitioners bravely assessed and shared their practice and research, reflecting on their thoughts in network meetings. They felt that their work held greater importance in their settings following the project. The analysis of practice following the re-undertaking of observations and self-evaluations demonstrates a greater understanding of how babies communicate and build relationships through interactions. They better understand the different types of interaction, and notice and support them.
There were several overlaps between categories, such as the usefulness of Makaton. The main finding was the importance of recognising NVC. Additionally, practitioners should consider whether all babies have the same interaction opportunities. Supporting non-baby-room practitioners to become more familiar with babies and practice is vital. We have seen that interactions truly matter, and that a pedagogical focus on them has a positive impact on both practitioners and babies.