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Relevant and outdated child development theories in EYFS

Advice from clinical psychologist, Dr Charlotte Dunster-Page, on how to get the most from child development theories in your nursery
10 min of reading
12 May 2023
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Whether it’s Piaget’s Theory, Vygotsky Theory, Skinner’s Behaviourist Theory or something new, child development theories underpin our interactions with children in the nursery. Some we may be aware of, and others naturally shape how we understand children and how they learn. But which theories of child development are still current in EYFS today, and which are outdated? With the expert advice from clinical psychologist, Dr Charlotte Dunster-Page, we explore the good, the bad and the helpful.

What you can find in this article

Meet the expert: Dr Charlotte Dunster-Page

Dr Charlotte Dunster-Page

Dr Dunster-Page is a Principal Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Pathway Lead within the NHS. She also founded Born to Bond, a not-for-profit community interest organisation with the mission of supporting parents and families to develop secure and positive attachments with their children. Dr Dunster-Page is highly experienced in attachment theory and how it impacts children from birth. Her expertise in child sleep development and attachment is shared across educational and health professionals (having spoken recently at Nursery World UK) and families.

Are theories of child development useful in modern-day nurseries?

Dr Dunster-Page explains how theories are necessary in EYFS settings: “They give nursery practitioners a framework and a common language to use when discussing child behaviour and how children learn.” The EYFS curriculum is underpinned by educational and child development theory. Without an evidence-based approach and an understanding of the possible developmental opportunities, nursery practitioners can feel in the dark when trying to help children achieve their best outcomes.

Theories of child development can give confidence to nursery practitioners who may have little EYFS experience, giving guidelines for practice, observations and expectations of progress. Many nurseries will share the child development theories that underpin how they built their ultimate EYFS curriculum, giving confidence to parents and setting out a straightforward ethos and vision for their nursery’s curriculum intent.

Nurseries that use theories well in their EYFS curriculum are careful not to become blinkered by one theory alone. For example, the Montessori learning method is very popular, and rightly so, in nurseries. But some settings may find their sleep methods don’t align with their ethos. It is important to choose learning and development theories that suit your geographical location, vision and curriculum intent.

Child development theory: The good, the bad and the helpful

All child development theories are useful, even to measure how far society has moved when understanding how children learn. Before we explore how to apply these theories to everyday nursery life practically, let’s recap some of the most common theories in childcare and education.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory in EYFS

Attachment theory focuses on developing connections with both primary and secondary attachments (for example, parents are the primary attachment, and key workers are the secondary attachment). Humans are social animals and require relationships for survival, learning and development. Dr Dunster-Page is an expert in attachment theory and champions the need for nursery settings to see other theories through an attachment lens. For a successful attachment with a key worker to form, it is vital to retain EYFS staff, reducing a high staff turnover.

Behaviourist Theory in EYFS- Skinner

The behaviour theory in education is well known, based on the idea of conditioning (learning through a response). Operant conditioning is learning through rewards, punishments, and external factors. There are three main groups of consequences to learning:

Dr Dunster-Page explains that behaviourist theories’ principles can be seen as outdated but useful if explored through an attachment lens. Positive feedback and building a secure relationship are beneficial for security in toddlers. However, the behaviourist approach can encourage the aim to ‘get out of the emotion’ as soon as possible, but with no real modelling or guidance for the child to learn how to regulate and feel these emotions.

Child development theories in EYFS

Social Constructivist Theory in early years- Vygotsky

“What a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow,” Vygotsky. This quote is often thought of in academia supporting children to further their knowledge of a subject. Dr Dunster-Page also reminds us that this applies to emotional regulation and interactions with others. The Social Constructivist Theory recognises the importance language acquisition has on child development. Using the scaffolding opportunities of others to help stretch a child to go just beyond their independent capabilities.

Child development theories in EYFS 2

Maslow’s Humanistic Theory in EYFS

The hierarchy of needs is a well-known educational theory using the levels of need as guidance for supporting children towards self-actualisation. The basic foundations of safety and security allow children in nurseries to feel safe and able to learn in a supportive and nurturing environment.

Child development theories in EYFS 3

Constructivist Theory in EYFS- Piaget

One originally recognised educational theory, Piaget’s Constructivist Theory, suggested distinguished learning stages from birth to maturity. This theory is often recognised as the underpinning of parts of the EYFS framework, championing the need for active exploration and learning through play. Piaget claimed children have a readiness stage they must achieve before progressing to more complex thoughts and experiences. This readiness concept underpins the prime areas of learning in the EYFS framework.

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory in EYFS

The final child development theory we will explore briefly is Social Learning Theory from Bandura. The most famous experiment that underpinned the approaches was the Bobo Doll experiment. This theory is underpinned by the understanding that children imitate behaviour through observational learning if the cognitive development is sufficient to support it. Applied to the EYFS setting, children will imitate positive modelled behaviours of sharing, manners and resilience.

How can nurseries implement child development theories?

Considering these theories are most likely the building blocks of your EYFS curriculum, you may be wondering: How can this be applied to my everyday implementation of said curriculum? Dr Dunster-Page shares six practical ways you can apply theories of child development to your daily practice.

Understand how children learn in EYFS

Children do not learn linearly; a child’s learning process is full of progress and regressions, which is completely normal. Dr Dunster-Page reminds us that all children experience a different interaction level when they leave the nursery setting and have very different experiences and interests. Consider running a staff meeting about how children learn, focusing on these theories of child development shared in this article. You can also link observations and next steps according to your chosen EYFS curriculum for staff to further explore internally, and to discuss with parents.

Recognise different attachment styles in toddlers

Attachment styles are prominent in child and adult psychology, with attached, avoidant and anxious attachment styles being the most commonly accepted. Dr Dunster-Page highlights that practitioners and children both have a preferred interaction style. Some children prefer closer contact when seeking reassurance, while others are more of a ‘brush it off and carry on’ style child.

Being mindful of the child’s preference for support, comfort, and encouragement is important to building secure key worker relationships. Should you have concerns about attachment-based concerns that may be outside of the ‘norms’ for their developmental age, this should be flagged to management and your settings SENDCo. Recording the child’s interaction preferences on their unique Blossom Child Profile allows for continuity between different nursery practitioners and helps the child be supported in a way that suits them.

Facilitate a language-rich nursery setting

Vygotsky champions language acquisition as a main driver of progress, learning about new concepts through scaffolding and support from peers and adults. Apply this learning theory to your EYFS setting by developing opportunities for language-rich learning. Examine how to develop talking and language skills at your setting, or how to integrate more communication and language activities into your daily routine.

Child development theories in EYFS 4

Strike the balance between child-initiated and adult-supported learning

Building on the ZPD and scaffolding model, paired with Social Learning Theory, children learn through purposeful interaction with others. Therefore, your nursery practitioners should aim to strike a balance between child-initiated play and adult-supported learning. However, this is easier said than done, explains Dr Dunster-Page. She shares a practical example to explain further:

“If a child has invited you to join in with their jigsaw puzzle, this is the perfect opportunity to put the ZPD into practice… but only if appropriate. The child may be piecing the jigsaw pieces together and have the competence to connect two pieces unassisted but struggle with more. Giving the child the choice of two pieces for the next step can assist the next learning step.

However, if the child begins to stack the jigsaw pieces to make a tower, and you direct them back to complete the jigsaw, this can be too involved. Take a pause and allow the child to direct their learning.” Dr Dunster-Page, Clinical Psychologist.

Have realistic expectations of EYFS children

We often hold children to unachievable standards with behaviour and can forget their brain development is not that of an adult. The brain's prefrontal cortex only begins to develop at the age of 2-3. As a result, children cannot regulate their emotions the same as an adult can.

As adults, we may have been able to cook a beautiful meal one night, but the next, we settle for an easy, quick meal as the capacity is not the same. The ability is there, but the willingness or capacity has changed due to external factors (a busy day, poor sleep, or hunger). Although children are the same, their ability to complete a task they have perfectly performed the day before may vary. It is essential to recognise the fluctuations in child understanding and competencies. Through recording effective EYFS observations, this can be documented quickly and can help practitioners build a realistic picture of a child’s level of development.

Support your nursery parents with attachment

The transition to parenthood is challenging, and many parents (up to ½ of parents can struggle with building a relationship with their child at some stage). Your nursery practitioners must be vigilant in supporting parents by directing them to support groups and parent-parent activity groups where possible. Your nursery may be able to organise a stay-and-play session for parents, allowing parents to build a positive, supportive network and helping to develop nursery-home relationships.

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