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Picking out the golden threads: a common elements approach to supporting children’s development

Virginia Ghiara and Aleisha Clarke explain why our common elements project is an exciting and innovative development for EIF. They also look at why it offers the potential to strengthen evidence-based practice across early childhood education providers.

Quality early childhood education (ECE) can maximise the life chances of children, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by equipping children with essential school readiness skills, including cognitive, social and emotional skills, which impact on later life outcomes. Ensuring the delivery of high-quality services in the UK remains a significant challenge. We believe that the common elements approach offers the potential to strengthen evidence-based practice across early childhood education providers.

We are always looking for better approaches to communicate evidence of what works and to support evidence use. Our Guidebook, for instance, provides a growing number of programmes which have been shown, through rigorous evaluations, to improve various children’s outcomes. Interestingly, programmes targeting the same outcome often have core elements, such as specific practices and strategies to enhance a particular skill, in common. These elements, or what we might like to call “the golden threads,” are likely to contribute to the effectiveness of such programmes.

This observation has paved the way for exciting ideas on using common elements to support the uptake of evidence-informed practice. By identifying the common elements of evidence-based programmes, we can promote a shared understanding of these common elements and support practitioners on the integration of these strategies into their everyday practice to strengthen current practice.

In January 2020, EIF and Pedal, the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge received funding from the Nuffield Foundation for a two-year project which aims to support the development of children’s skills and capabilities by strengthening the quality of early childhood education in the UK. The project, led by Dr Aleisha Clarke (EIF) and Dr Sara Baker (Pedal), will use a systematic approach to identify the common elements of the most effective programmes that enhance children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.

These two domains not only provide a foundation for school readiness and effective learning, but also play a vital role in reducing the inequalities that disadvantaged children may face when entering the education system. Working with Pedal, we have identified the most effective early childhood education programmes, and we will soon start to code these programmes, identifying the skills and practices used to teach these skills that are common across these evidence-based programmes. 

Our common elements work is not designed to replace evidence-based programmes. From the evidence review we conducted last year, we know that effective use of evidence-based programmes can have a significant positive impact on children’s outcomes. There are, however, obstacles to bringing programmes to scale, including costs, resource requirements, the need for contextual adaptation, and programmes not being perceived as feasible given competing demands.

We believe that the common elements approach can complement and support evidence-based programmes by providing practitioners with a set of less intensive practices, routines and strategies that can be integrated into their daily interactions with children. The common elements approach holds promise because learning and mastering some of the practices which are common across evidence-based programmes might not only bring practitioners closer to evidence‐based practices, but might also be a practical first step towards the use of structured evidence-based curricula.

In our project we will go beyond identifying common elements and will work in consultation with early childhood education practitioners to develop practical guidance on how the identified practices can be used to support children’s skill development in different contexts. For instance, our guidance will offer simple and practical strategies that can be embedded by teachers into their daily activities, such as using deep breathing exercises to help children regulate their emotions.

This is the first common elements research project that we have undertaken at EIF. We believe the identification of these practices has the potential to produce meaningful change in practitioners’ skills, knowledge and interaction with children. It will enable practitioners to use a set of low-burden practices that directly address children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills, contributing to children’s school readiness and, in the longer term, their social and academic development. 

This project is at the beginning of a long journey, as identifying common elements does not ensure, by itself, that these practices are associated with effectiveness. To unpack the causal links and find out which specific elements have the strongest causal impact in supporting children’s skill development, more work will be required beyond the lifetime of this project. We are excited to see where this journey will take us. The outputs from this project will serve as the foundation for further research on the impact of the practitioner guide and the common elements, while also guiding what will be required to ensure their integration into practice in a sustained manner.