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Meeting the needs of high-ability learners in the Early Years

Written By: Jonathan Doherty
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7 min read
Jonathan Doherty, Senior lecturer in Teacher Education, Leeds Trinity University, UK

An inclusive Early Years curriculum

All children deserve the best possible start in life and the support that enables them to fulfil their potential (DfE, 2021). The EYFS champions equality and the principle that inclusion is a fundamental human right for every child. Inclusive practice means respecting diversity and avoiding discrimination (Langston and Doherty, 2012). Such a starting point allows every child to develop their individual talents and gifts, while participating fully in classroom life with peers of the same age and achieving the best possible outcomes. Inclusive practice values the uniqueness of every child and their sense of belonging.

Our understanding of high ability is evolving over time and is not without contention. Some critics view it as elitist and exclusive. It has been linked to the reproduction of social inequalities of class, race and gender (Böker and Horvath, 2018). In contrast, there is a strong argument that high-ability pupils are not appropriately challenged in mainstream schools. At a time when there is a focus on increasing equity and raising achievement among low-performing pupils, able children are often ignored (Sahlgren, 2018). Since 2010, UK government policy has focused attention on disadvantaged children, but gifted children have not been high on the agenda (Koshy et al., 2018). Children have a voice that deserves to be listened to but this has challenges. Murray (2019) reminds us that in order to promote development and learning in early childhood settings, practitioners must find ways to listen actively to young children’s views, and to understand and respond to them, however they are expressed. Supporting more able young learners aligns with the SEND agenda on meeting individual needs. It aligns with inclusive education, as outlined above, because a culture of high expectations, challenge and risk-taking will secure excellent outcomes for all learners and benefit every child.

In every school and setting, every age group and every ethnic and socio-economic background, there are children who can be described as ‘more able’, ‘gifted’ or ‘high ability’. Kettler (2014) describes the characteristics of more able learners as having greater processing speed and superior memory; being better at problem-solving; using metacognitive strategies in their learning; and displaying higher-order thinking. To illustrate the latter, Renwood et al. (2018) use the example of fairy stories with Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking, suggesting that children could compare and contrast two versions of the same story (analysis); support their answers to ‘What do you think would happen if…?’ questions from a practitioner (evaluation); or design and build a type of house that the wolf could not blow down (creating). Ability can be viewed as developmental potential, with cognitive ability outstripping other areas of development – so-called ‘developmental asynchrony’. High-ability learners demonstrate observable personal traits (e.g. curiosity, agile thinking and high motivation). They possess the ability to learn well (e.g. learning new ideas and concepts easily and quickly) and display atypical learning styles (e.g. dislike of repetition, showing interest beyond their years, being inclined to choose unusual ways of working). They show particular abilities in the EYFS areas of learning: advanced vocabulary (CL), solving mathematical problems (mathematics), developed motor skills (PD) or showing confidence in changing plans and strategies (PSED).

The years from birth to five are crucial for development. Children learn and develop more from birth to five years old than at any other time in their lives (DfE, 2021) and typically make huge strides forward in their development during this period. In the first few years of life, more than one million new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning. The Early Years is a time when neural pathways are built daily and new connections are formed in the brain from the experiences that children have (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). Development is not a linear process; it is highly individual and takes place unevenly, with some areas developing earlier and more obviously than others. An able five-year-old may be able to describe the properties of a dodecagon but struggle with basic mark-making. In ‘Development matters’ (DfE, 2021), development is referred to as a spider’s web with many strands, and not a straight line. Account must be taken as to how and when children reach these developmental milestones, as well as where their gaps are. Some able young children reach developmental milestones earlier than their peers, such as in talking, reading and writing. When identifying more-able learners, practitioners should have knowledge of the ways in which young children learn. This means considering each child’s strengths and interests at each stage of their development and working closely with parents. It is about implementing a pedagogy of listening and observing, rather than formal assessment, so that adults who support learning can tune into and develop these children’s unique strengths and talents.

Personality, the environment at school or home and opportunity factors all interact in fostering high ability. There is, however, agreement that high ability is made up of three elements: above-average intelligence, high levels of task commitment and high levels of creativity. This is the ‘three-ring conception’ model (Renzulli, 2011), as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Renzulli’s three-ring conception of giftedness

The three areas interlock, and talent in one circle does not make a person gifted. It is the interaction of the three that provides the necessary ingredients for high ability. Most attention remains directed at intellectual abilities: high intelligence (IQ) is essential for solving problems and creating new knowledge or knowledge that is used in different ways. Task commitment reflects the energy and perseverance on a problem (task), and creativity is expressed by showing imagination and independence.

Creative pedagogies for early childhood gifted education

High-ability learners require their unique abilities to be recognised and valued, in home and in school and setting environments. These children need opportunities to demonstrate these abilities and to be given appropriate learning challenges to develop their abilities fully. Schools and settings need to be resourced to identify and support able learners across all areas of learning. Role models and excellence in teaching reflect how the teacher’s role is key to meeting the educational as well as socio-emotional needs of highly able children (Cross and Cross, 2017). Creativity can be considered as a fundamental aspect of ‘new pedagogies’ for teachers; Davies et al. (2018) suggest that creativity is a 21st-century competence. Cremin and Chappell (2021) reveal seven features that characterise creative pedagogy: generating and exploring ideas; encouraging autonomy and agency; playfulness; problem-solving; risk-taking; co-constructing and collaborating; and teacher creativity. In the classroom, this translates into practitioners setting high expectations in teaching, being emotionally tuned into young learners, showing skill in working with parents and families, and viewing each child as a unique and competent learner. Their planning is flexible, and they make use of observation and assessment for learning strategies. Teaching is activeaced and stimulating in learning environments that encourage imagination and support children’s creativity. This paper argues that a crucial pedagogical strategy for these learners is cognitive challenge.

Introducing cognitive challenge

Building cognitive challenge into the Early Years curriculum is essential to allow young able learners to thrive. Provision for more-able learners can lack consistency, which leaves many experiencing insufficient stretch or challenge from teaching. Ofsted reports show that some schools and settings demonstrate good practice in this area, but consistently too many fail to challenge their more-able learners and are not meeting their needs. An analysis of all Ofsted reports (Howell and Ramsden, 2020) following inspections between June 2018 and June 2019 showed that Early Years and primary schools had the highest percentage (50 per cent) of poor provision for the most able. More than 44 per cent of reports highlighted the need for a change to provision. The most common changes required were in the level of challenge for the most-able pupils and in the progress made by these pupils.   

What do we mean by challenge? Stretch and challenge means teaching where challenge is at the front of teaching and learning for all learners. This takes learners out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to push towards the outer limits of what is possible for them to achieve. Meeting the needs of the more able is more than simply target-setting and more about expectations, the language used and the curriculum and learning opportunities on offer. A report by the National Association for Able Children in Education (Lowe and McCarthy, 2020) defined cognitive challenge as ‘how learners become able to understand and form complex and abstract ideas and solve problems’ (p. 16). The learning environment is one of the key features of effective practice identified in ‘Development matters’ (DfE, 2021) and an important aspect of pedagogy. Indoor and outdoor environments offer many opportunities for challenge. Physical environments should be set up for children to access resources independently and take a lead in their own learning. Resources should encourage deeper learning and conditions for rich play experiences should be provided. Practitioners should create learning environments to identify and support the gifts of young more-able learners.

Takeaway teaching strategies

  • Create learning environments that recognise that cognitive advancement results from stimulating and challenging physical environments
  • Use adaptive teaching in activities, often with more open-ended outcomes
  • Allow more time for a task but expect greater depth and breadth
  • Allow shorter time for activities to require more-able learners to work more quickly
  • Require learners to choose from a range of resources so that they must evaluate and select appropriate materials
  • Use more abstract concepts and ideas
  • Set tasks that involve higher-order thinking skills
  • Use whole-class teaching strategies and questioning techniques
  • Limit teacher guidance and allow learners to work things out for themselves.

In conclusion

Like every child, those deemed to have particular gifts and talents deserve to have the best teaching and their needs met. The characteristics of the more able are evident in young children, and recognising these can form the basis of discussions between supporting adults as to exactly how to meet these individual needs. In the EYFS, this begins by observing and listening to this group of learners. Adding the ingredient of cognitive challenge will extend learning and thinking, and inform ‘next steps’ in the classroom and all contexts where learning takes place so that their unique skills and talents can flourish.

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