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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

Nurture Principle 1: Learning is Understood Developmentally

This new series of blogs will look at the Six Principles of Nurture and how they are relevant not just to Nurture Groups and nurturing provisions, but also in creating whole-school environments which prioritise relationships and wellbeing. In this blog, we’ll be exploring the first principle: “Children’s learning is understood developmentally”.

Stage instead of Age

The key theme of this principle is that everyone learns at a different pace and in a different way. We need to accept children as they are, rather than expecting them to fit into arbitrary expectations. Judging children’s progress by their chronological age is problematic when there are a variety of factors which impact on developmental trajectory. All children are individuals, and their unique journeys need to be recognised and respected.

Adoption UK have a nice framework called “The Wall”. Each brick in the wall represents a fundamental need. Here are some examples which make up a healthy wall.

- Sensory stimulation.

- Comforting touch.

- Available food and drink.

- Physical activity.

- Healthy sleep.

- Child-led play.

- Attentive mirroring and matching.

- Attuned responses to initiatives.

- Commenting and modelling.

- Predictability.

- Consistency.

- Structure and boundaries.

- Feeling kept in mind.

- Choices.

- Encouragement.

- Repair of ruptures.

- Socialisation and friendships.

The bricks above could be damaged, loose, or missing altogether when a child’s development has been disrupted by experiences of trauma and loss, such as abuse, neglect and bereavement. These children may struggle to see others as safe and positive if their past relationships have been characterised by fear. They will appear overwhelmed by their emotions if they have not experienced attuned, empathetic and soothing responses. They could be behaving in a way which guarantees that they will be noticed, after frequently feeling forgotten or overlooked.

The Big Ask

The education system poses many challenges for those who are neuro-divergent and those whose stress-response systems are sensitised as a result of previous adverse experiences. Louise Bomber encourages us to think about all of the different aspects of school which represent a “Big Ask” for these children.

- Separating from a parent/carer when arriving at school.

- Trusting adults to keep them safe and remember them.

- Sharing the attention of an adult with others.

- Coping with a wide range of sights, sounds, smells and other sensory input.

- Building friendships and balancing their desires with those of others.

- Managing conflicts and disagreements with friends.

- Attempting an unfamiliar task and taking the risk of making a mistake.

- Acknowledging when they need help and asking for it.

- Transitioning between different activities, classrooms and adults.

Louise Bomber warns that misinterpretations of how children react to these factors can lead to traditional behaviour management approaches. These will only serve to intensify feelings of shame and create a cycle of distressed behaviour and punitive responses. The onus is on us to rethink our attitude and perceptions, adapt our practice and make changes to the classroom and school environment which mitigate these challenges.

Pictures instead of Labels

When Dr Bruce Perry describes his clinical work in “The Boy who was raised as a Dog”, he talks about the need to forego simplistic labels and focus on creating pictures of their developmental journey. In a series of articles for the Foundation Stage Forum, Helen Edwards emphasises the process of children’s learning. Rather than relying on arbitrary targets, age bands and tick box exercises, she encourages educators to record high quality observations. This can be achieved through open questions such as:

- When, where and how does the child follow instructions?

- What do you see when they are listening?

- How do they talk and play with others?

- When and where are they most confident?

- How do they express their needs?

- What activities, resources and routines are calming for them?

- In what ways do they respond to change?

- What do they like to do for themselves?

Nurture Groups will be familiar with the Boxall Profile as a tool for observing and assessing social and emotional needs.. “Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies” by Dr Florence Ruby is a really useful resource for monitoring and supporting the wellbeing of whole classes in mainstream, specialist, and alternative provisions. The Developmental Strands of the Profile are reflective of The Wall and the resource offers strategies and activities for consideration. For example, if a child finds it difficult to finish a task, we might need to change the duration of the task, provide more modelling and guidance and reassure them that they can work on it again at a later point.

Maintaining a developmental perspective of children’s learning means getting to know their individual story. Proactive discussions with parents/carers are essential for understanding significant events in their background. This can be represented on a visual timeline as a means of representing everything the child could be carrying in their emotional backpack. Similarly, an ecomap can chart the supportive relationships which the child has both in and out of school. In Dr Karen Treisman’s “Therapeutic Treasure Box”, she recommends free playing and drawing as a natural way of observing how children engage with objects and people, the themes and images which are meaningful to them and how they speak about themselves and others.

Eliciting the voice of the child is important for connecting with their journey and interpreting their unique strengths and needs. We can help them to illustrate different aspects of their personality using jigsaws, picture collages, blob trees and strength cards. Sentence completion activities, such as “I feel happy/sad/scared when…”, “I am most proud of…” and “I wish people knew that…” can be useful in creating an “All About Me” resource to be shared amongst multiple staff and substitute teachers. Gareth Morewood offers the template for an individualised Student Passport. This outlines what already works for the child, what they can do independently, what they find difficult and what kind of help they would like.

Differentiation which respects Developmental Differences

Here are a few key themes to keep in mind when providing scaffolding for children with a range of needs.

Make it Specific - When we give an instruction or direction, we need to make sure that the language is clear and unambiguous. Some children may need bite-sized pieces of information with extra time to process what has been said before it is repeated. Visuals can be very helpful in both relaying information and allowing children to provide feedback. However, we need to be mindful of abstract visuals which carry little meaning for the child.

Make it Accessible – We need to show what we mean, demonstrate what we expect to see and use concrete materials and references to make the skill more tangible. Thinking out loud can also help to mediate the experience. Start from your own perspective by saying “I’m doing this because…” and “The next thing I need to do is…”. Then use similar prompts to scaffold the child’s thinking, such as “When/Where have you seen something like this before?”, “How is this similar/different to…?” and “What do you need to do first?”

Make it Manageable – Activities can be broken down into small steps, with the use of a schedule or checklist to show the number and order of tasks. Set realistic and achievable goals to work towards. Adjust the level of challenge accordingly, so that the child feels motivated to participate and satisfied by the process. We should proactively build in sensory breaks to support emotional regulation over the course of the day.

Make it Regulating – Sometimes a request can be perceived as a stressful demand. We can mitigate this by using more indirect language such as “I wonder how we can…?” and “Let’s try to…” Offering choices of what to do can enable the child to feel kept in mind and offer some degree of control within an adult-led activity. It’s also important to normalise mistakes as learning opportunities – this is more powerful when we notice our own mistakes – and convey that practise allows us to understand different and better ways of doing things.

Make it Meaningful – When we relate an activity to real-life examples or the child’s own interests and experiences, we immediately add a familiar context. Tapping into prior knowledge stored in long-term memory can lessen the load on working memory in the here-and-now. For changes to the normal routine, it can help to allow the child to safely observe what is happening first and emphasise all the things which are staying the same.

Make it Fun – Play has a fundamental role in development and wellbeing. A healthy diet of unstructured play, where we follow the lead of the child, is essential for helping them to explore different scenarios and generalise their skills across a range of contexts. Incorporating art, music and movement will also have plenty of physical and mental health benefits. Activities which promote curiosity and laughter will be more stimulating and more easily remembered. Ultimately, we need to provide an irresistible invitation to engage.

References and Further Reading

ADOPTION UK, 2015. The Wall [Online]. Available from

BOMBER, L.M., 2020. Know Me to Teach Me: Differentiated Discipline for those Recovering from Adverse Childhood Experiences. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

EDWARDS, H., 2020. Recording learning, not tracking progress (Part 2) [Online]. Available from

LUCAS, S., INSLEY, K. and BUCKLAND, G., 2006. Nurture Group Principles and Curriculum Guidelines: Helping Children to Achieve. London: The Nurture Group Network.

MOREWOOD, G.D., 2018. Student Passport Template [Online]. Available from

PERRY, B.D. and SZALAVITZ, S, 2017. The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And other stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. New York: Basic Books.

RUBY, F., 2017. Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies. Helping children succeed emotionally, socially and academically within the mainstream classroom and other small settings. London: Nurture Group Network Ltd.

TREISMAN, K., 2017. Working with Relational and Developmental Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Oxon: Routledge.

TREISMAN, K., 2017. A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma: Creative Techniques and Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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