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Helping children in the Early Years to improve their communication: The impact of an eight-month programme of professional development

8 min read
Fliss James, Deputy Director, East London Research School, UK
Julian Grenier, Director, East London Research School, UK
Melissa Prendergast, Deputy Director, East London Research School, UK

As practitioners working with children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we are keenly aware of the legacy of difficulties from lockdowns. In keeping with the recently published findings of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2022), we have noted that children have been significantly disadvantaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also seen that as children returned to Early Years settings, they settled back positively and recovered some lost learning (EEF, 2022). In keeping with the EEF’s findings, we have also noted the particular impact on young children at early stages of learning English as an additional language.

We work in Newham, East London, which is one of the most diverse local authorities in England, if not Europe. Seventy-two per cent of residents are from Black, Asian and other ethnically diverse groups, while 13.5 per cent of residents are from White British backgrounds. 

The majority of children in Newham are learning English as an additional language, with many starting in their nursery or school settings saying few if any words of English. Many families live in overcrowded housing, and levels of child poverty are high. As Law et al. (2017, p. 19) report, ‘with each increase in the level of disadvantage there is an associated increase in the numbers of children experiencing language difficulties’. As a result, the general positive impact of peer play and communication is not necessarily sufficient. Children may need more support from adults to get them started in communicating and playing with each other. 

In summary, the context of Newham offers great riches in its diversity and energy, but children also face challenges to their development. In these conditions, we developed the Newham Communication Project (NCP) to help children to recover from some of the effects of the pandemic on their development. 

Project summary

We developed NCP as part of our work with the East London Research School, and launched it in September 2021. It was a year-long programme of professional development aimed at supporting early communication for children aged between two and three in private and community nursery settings.

NCP built on the earlier Manor Park Talks project (Ang and Harmey, 2019). We designed it to enable a larger number of settings to take part and we refined the strategies from the predecessor programme to improve clarity and effectiveness. We re-examined Manor Park Talks to consider more fully the best evidence on implementation and adult learning. The programme design included evaluation, which was threaded throughout the year. This enabled us to shape the programme as it ran, responding to feedback.

We delivered training to managers and leaders, and a team of mentors from Newham’s seven maintained nursery schools provided wraparound support. The project reached 40 private nurseries and school-based nursery classes across the borough, including some nominated by the local authority as needing additional support.

Two guidance reports from the EEF informed the structure and content of the professional development: ‘Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation’ (EEF, 2019) and ‘Effective professional development’ (EEF, 2021). We considered which mechanisms within the design would help participants to develop their practice with children. 

The project began with a series of twilight training sessions, held online at the same time every two weeks. The first sessions introduced participants to a summary of robust evidence and included ‘calls to action’, which highlighted the moral imperative of doing all that we can to support children’s communication, which had been so adversely affected by lockdowns. This built a sense of purpose and motivation. 

Slotted in between the twilight sessions, participants attended fortnightly hub meetings, run by a trained mentor from their local maintained nursery school. The mentors provided bespoke support, focused on implementation. Social support from peers was an important mechanism to embed changes in practice.

The ShREC approach

Oral language skills are fundamental to children’s learning, thinking and emotional wellbeing. A wealth of evidence indicates that we should prioritise the development of children’s communication and language through socially meaningful interactions (Law et al., 2017; Rowe and Snow, 2020).

From birth, children are primed to engage with caregivers. They seek out and respond to interaction, connecting through eye contact, coos, gurgles, babbles and smiles. These active ​‘serve and return’ interactions between the child and the adult pave the way for conversation, providing children with the blueprint for turn-taking.

As Law et al. (2017) highlight, these interactions ‘optimise early development’. Research over the last two decades has built upon and also problematised the seminal work of Hart and Risley (2003), who argued that disadvantaged children face an ‘early catastrophe’ of a 30-million-word gap. This has been challenged by more recent researchers (for example, Romeo et al. 2018), who have shifted the focus from quantity of talk to quality.

It is crucial that Early Years settings establish warm, trusting and responsive relationships between adults and children. Attending to children’s social and emotional wellbeing and development has a positive impact on language development (Ang and Harmey, 2019). 

So, what do high-quality interactions look like, and how can we help practitioners to put them into practice every day? We distilled key evidence into a simple and actionable mnemonic: ShREC (James, 2022).

  • Sh: Share attention: Be at the child’s level. Pay close attention to what they are focused on.
  • R: Respond: Follow the child’s lead. Respond to their non-verbal and verbal communication. You could make a brief comment on what they can see, hear or feel.
  • E: Expand: Repeat what the child says and build on it by adding more words to turn it into a sentence.
  • C: Conversation: Have extended back-and-forth interactions. Give children time to listen, process and reply.


Evaluation: Impact

Throughout the programme, we monitored feedback during training and from mentors following their hub meetings and support visits. Feedback focused precisely on practitioner learning and implementation of strategies, rather than ‘satisfaction scores’. 

This meant that we could quickly support practitioners when they experienced problems with implementation or showed potential misunderstandings or gaps in their knowledge. We also used a mid-point review to identify where we needed to offer more intensive support, and to help settings to make intelligent adaptations to the programme without undermining effectiveness. 

The final evaluation consisted of focus group interviews and a knowledge-exchange event. Gathering and celebrating together enabled participants to share and listen to each other’s experiences. The knowledge-exchange day was also designed to help participants to think through how they would sustain changes in their practice. The qualitative data from discussions at the event informed the evaluation of the programme’s acceptability, practicality and impact.

As well as gathering qualitative data throughout the project, we collected quantitative data so that we could triangulate our findings. We evaluated the impact of the professional development on practice with a robust research tool, the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-3) (Harms et al., 2017). The ITERS-3 scale comprises 33 items, organised into six subscales. For the purposes of NCP, we focused on two subscales: ‘language/books’ and ‘interaction’. The mentor team were trained to carry out baseline and endpoint ITERS-3 observations using the two key subscales to ascertain changes in the quality of interactions. 

In ITERS-3, a score of 1 indicates inadequate quality; 3 is minimal; 5 is good; and 7 is excellent. Research published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggests that children will only experience a positive boost to their development if they attend a setting that scores 4 or above (Smith et al., 2009). 

Thirty out of 31 participating settings made improvements following the professional development and wraparound support. At the start of NCP, 37 per cent of settings had a score below this significant level of 4. By the end of the programme, only 14 per cent of settings had a score below 4. This suggests that by the end of the programme, 86 per cent of the settings were likely to have a positive impact on children’s language development. The baseline average of 4.2 improved to 5.4 by the end of the project. Every setting improved their score between baseline and endpoint.

These positive effects are especially powerful given the short duration of the programme. The introductory phase of professional development ended in November, and the final assessments of quality were completed in July, so the intervention was only eight months long.

Evaluation: Acceptability and practicality

The programme scored highly on acceptability. Every participant said that they enjoyed the online training and found it impactful. Every participant said that the hub meetings supported them with implementation and helped them to understand the strategies better. One participant, when asked to describe the project, said: ‘It’s really practical. I could see the impact straight away.’ Another commented that:

being part of the project boosted my confidence. It had an impact on my wellbeing. Returning to work after being furloughed really affected me, my confidence. I started to feel socially anxious. Being part of NCP helped restore my confidence in communicating with everyone, especially the children.

All participants were highly appreciative of the professional development programme and the online resources, including the Padlet, which enabled them to revisit prior learning and read further into the research. They all said that they would recommend the project to other settings.

Some settings found implementation difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic was creating significant challenges for settings, especially in terms of staff absence and stability. Additionally, many settings had complex staff rotas, which made it difficult to deliver professional development to the right people at the right time. As a result, implementation was messy. The project team learnt valuable lessons from that mess. With flexibility, timely adaptation and strong buy-in from participants, it is still possible to support change.


NCP is a programme of professional development, based on robust evidence and delivered with care over a sustained period of time. It had a positive impact on the quality of practice in a diverse group of settings and a disadvantaged area of London. Practitioners enjoyed taking part and found it both practical and acceptable.

In practice, NCP’s careful design, informed by the EEF’s ‘Effective professional development’ guidance report, was supported by the project team’s willingness to adapt and respond to the messy conditions of implementation. 

The programme scored highly on practicality and transferability. Settings reported that the strategies were practical and feasible to implement, and that practitioners used the ShREC approach in their daily practice. One manager described ShREC as ‘tools in your pocket’ that could be used ‘anywhere, anytime’.

Research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting children’s language development in the Early Years. This programme suggests a fruitful way of responding to this significant challenge.

    About the Author

    Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Newham, East London. He is a National Leader of Education and one of the co-founders of the East London Partnership Teaching School Alliance.

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