Early years expert plays key role in Department for Education project to help toddlers’ skills development hindered by Covid-19 pandemic

  • Early years expert at Kingston University Helen Sutherland was selected by the Department for Education (DfE) to help toddlers whose skills have been stunted by the pandemic
  • The project involves Miss Sutherland going into early years settings in South West London and giving specialist training and support to practitioners
  • The DfE’s Covid-19 recovery programme was launched to strengthen teaching in the early years sector and address the pandemic’s impact on toddlers’ learning and social skills

An early years expert from Kingston University is playing an important role in a Department for Education (DfE) programme to help young children develop language and social skills impeded during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Helen Sutherland (right), who specialises in early years education and toddler wellbeing, was chosen by the DfE to lead its early years Covid-19 recovery programme in the London boroughs of Kingston upon Thames and Merton after applying for the role. The programme was created to strengthen teaching in the early years sector and address the impact of the pandemic on the youngest children.

Rolled out nationally in September 2022, the programme involves a range of experts including Miss Sutherland delivering face-to-face sessions to early years practitioners and those working in settings such as pre-schools and nurseries. Training for leaders, mentoring for practitioners and wider support, depending on early years providers’ priorities and needs, is available through the initiative.

The programme was launched by the DfE after it identified many pre-school children had missed out on vital learning, including the development of language and social skills, when early years settings were closed during pandemic lockdowns. “There’s been an increase in the number of toddlers with special educational needs since the pandemic. This has come from not only a lack of learning at nursery but also from not being able to socialise with other children of a similar age,” Miss Sutherland said.

There had also been an increase in children requiring behavioural support, particularly in children under the age of three, with biting one of the main challenges along with learning how to share and take turns, she added.

As part of her role, Miss Sutherland visits early years and daycare settings for a three-day period to upskill and support workers, including training them about ways to communicate with toddlers and babies and ensure their wellbeing. She also helps with curriculum design. “Ahead of my visit, setting staff complete a diagnostic test to outline their needs and I then observe for a morning before discussing my ideas with the management team. It’s all about designing a plan that meets a settings’ needs, because each one will be very different,” she said.

As part of the programme, Miss Sutherland has so far helped two day nurseries, one school and a pre-school. The work Miss Sutherland, an associate professor for professional practice, has been doing with the early years settings ties in with core objectives in the University’s Town House Strategy and its commitment to knowledge exchange.

In her latest venture, Miss Sutherland is drawing on the Toddler Wellbeing (ToWe) project, which she launched in 2018 to improve the way early year’s practitioners work with disadvantaged toddlers. “The early years are crucial to a child’s future success and this period is even more important for those toddlers from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said. “I have always had a passion for providing practitioners with the tools and support needed to help young children succeed.”

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