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Strengthening the quality of early childhood education: the Early Years Library is a practical, evidence-informed resource for practitioners


15 Aug 2022

Dr Aleisha Clarke, director of evidence at EIF, introduces the new Early Years Library resource for early childhood practitioners, and the 'common elements' research that underpins the evidence-informed strategies and techniques which it provides.

Today we are publishing the Early Years Library, which provides guidance for early childhood education practitioners focused on supporting child development across three core domains: language and early literacy skills, early numeracy skills and social-emotional skills. Crucially, the Early Years Library is an evidence-informed tool, drawing on the most common practices across a set of evidence-based programmes. It’s free and open to anyone to use, and consistent with the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework. We hope it will provide early years settings and practitioners with the confidence and skills to introduce new strategies and approaches into their practice.

As has been the case since day one, early intervention programmes are an important focus in EIF’s work, as a way to commission and provide support that can be consistent, high quality and able to be evaluated for impact. Indeed, the EIF Guidebook provides information on over 100 early intervention programmes with evidence of positive impact, several of which are designed to support children’s outcomes in early childhood education. We know that interventions addressing specific areas of development, such as early literacy skill, can have a significant impact on children’s school readiness, which in turn influences other outcomes later in life, at school and beyond.

We hope it will provide early years settings and practitioners with the confidence and skills to introduce new strategies and approaches into their practice.

Programmes are one way, but not the only way, of introducing and embedding evidence-based practice – in early years services or elsewhere. We are acutely aware of the challenges and barriers that can arise in implementing evidence-based programmes, such as costs, time, or perceived issues of fit or transferability. This is where tools like the Early Years Library come in, as a way of providing practical guidance on the practices and strategies that are consistently used across the most effective early childhood education programmes.

As a result, we believe that the Early Years Library can support an increasing focus on practitioners’ daily practices and interactions with children outside of or alongside full-scale programmes. The integration of these practices into everyday activities has the potential to make a meaningful change in enhancing the quality of interactions between practitioners and young children.  

Sharing the common elements of evidence-based practice

This resource is based on a two-year programme of research funded by the Nuffield Foundation and carried out in collaboration with PEDAL, the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge. Our research set out to identify the ‘common elements’ across a set of evidence-based programmes focused on improving young children’s developmental outcomes. As we got underway in 2020, we called these the ‘golden threads’ that run through evidence-based programmes. Over the past 18 months, we have examined the content of the manuals for 22 evidence-based programmes, identifying the discrete practitioner skills, practices, routines and strategies which (a) support children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills and (b) are common or shared across multiple programmes.

The result is 55 common elements across the three major domains: literacy, numeracy and SEL. These common elements are presented in 14 individual booklets, which provide very practical information on the key skills within each domain (such as language and listening, phonological awareness, and print and letter knowledge), why these skills are important, and how they can be developed through day-to-day activities. These booklets are complemented by additional guidance on supporting children’s self-regulation.

The Early Years Library is designed to be flexible, in contrast to typical programme manuals. It can be used promote a better understanding of key skills, to weave activities into a curriculum, and to inspire practitioners who are planning in the moment.

As an example, practitioners can use the Regulating emotions booklet (within the series on Social and emotional skills) to help children monitor and manage their emotions and related behaviour. We identified two key practices that are commonly taught across evidence-based programmes: (i) learning how to calm down, and (ii) generating, choosing and implementing solutions to cope with strong emotions. The booklet provides a set of ideas on integrating these two practices into everyday interactions with children. Examples include:

  • On learning to calm down, a technique called belly breathing: With hands gently rested on their tummies, ask children to breathe in slowly through their nose and out through their mouth, feeling their tummy gently rise and fall.
  • On choosing a solution to cope with strong emotions, a technique called ‘Thumbs up! Thumbs down!’: Describe a challenging situation and ask children to decide which solutions make them and others feel better: “You are trying to put on your coat, but the zip has got stuck… You throw your coat on the floor. Thumbs up or thumbs down? You ask an adult for help. Thumbs up or thumbs down?”

Putting common elements into action

Throughout the development of Early Years Library, we have worked alongside a group of early years practitioners. This was crucial to ensuring the guidance was relevant, practical and accessible. Practitioners were enthusiastic about the guidance:

“The booklets are very clear, very concise, not too wordy, and go to the heart of the matter.”

“It is useful to reinforce that some of the activities we use are worthwhile, we use them for a reason, and there is research behind them.”

“The booklets will be a great way for new staff members to the sector to reflect upon their practice, why and how they do what they do.”

We believe our Early Years Library has the potential to enhance the quality of early childhood education in England. We are, however, at the very beginning of this journey. Whilst our work to date is clearly an important first step, the next phase of the research will help us to understand how the Early Years Library will be used and its potential for impact. Through this work we will ensure the Early Years Library and the common elements approach is supporting our ongoing mission to increase the use of effective early intervention to improve children’s outcomes.