Developing independence in Early Years

As part of my middle leadership role in my old school I was asked to complete a teacher-led enquiry on the development of independence. Below is the research paper I produced from the project.

Why did I decide to undertake this study?

There is a perception in our Nursery is that the children are not able to complete many tasks without adult intervention. Whilst this could be true to some extent I believe that often adults are intervening long before they are required to do so. They could be doing this for a variety of reasons however rather than fostering a greater level of independence, this is creating a dependent cohort which will struggle as that support is removed.

Historically children were transitioning to reception without the ability to undertake many simple tasks such as cleaning up after themselves, putting on their coat or shoes and feed themselves. Whilst staffing ratios are higher in the nursery they are not so high to allow all adults to help children constantly. Within the school the ratios are higher so it is important for us to develop independence as soon as possible.

What was put into place?

An initial staff briefing on the purpose of the project was held. A discussion was had about the best approach for developing independence and what we thought were the main areas where independence was key.

We then developed a statement which we then displayed in the staff area:

‘We want children in our setting to be independent in many activities. We show children how to complete activities however we want children to be able to then show the other children how to do this. As a staff we would like to spend more time with the children developing their language and communication skills, relationship skills and literacy and numeracy skills rather than fastening coats, etc. ‘

Staff were then given guidance on how to use phrases and vocabulary to encourage the children to demonstrate their own levels of independence, e.g. ‘Show me how to… tell me how to… ask X to help you…’ This was reinforced with 1:1 exchanges with staff in the setting throughout the year.

Provision areas were then developed to reflect the high expectations that the staff had of the children. For example, a self-service wet suit area was established which encouraged the children to dress and undress themselves. They could also select the wellies themselves and share this experience with their peers.

Other adults in the room were shown how to demonstrate modelling to the children and how importance it is to use language to explain the process.

For example, one member of staff observed me as I played with a group of children in the superhero role play area. One child approached me to put on their costume. I helped him and explained each part of the process, ‘first you take your jumper off, then it goes over your head, then you put your two arms in and finally you get someone to fasten the velcro at the back.’ After I had helped this boy I told him to help someone else but as he was helping him I was giving him verbal cues, reminding him of the different stages of putting on the costume. The staff member who was observing them repeated this in the afternoon but in the painting area where children had to put an apron on and fasten this at the back.

Adults were then instructed to model activities to the children and to explain each step. This language was then to be used by the children who could then ‘peer-model’ these activities to other children in the setting.

Throughout the year the adults were coached about how to improve their practise and were given cues by myself. This coaching took the form of 5 minutes at the end of the day where we could reflect on the activities of the day. Usually these were 1:1 sessions where I had just observed some practice which might have been improved. For example,

‘I was outside with another member of staff. I was instructing children to different parts of the outside area to collect resources and put them away. The other adult was collecting resources from the hands of children as well as picking objects up off of the floor. When resources were dirty and needed to be washed she would quickly wash them herself. We discussed how best to encourage the children to tidy up independently, returning to the rationale as above. We decided that the children can wash they resources and collect them together to be out away because they have done this before. One of the reasons she was doing it for them was her uncertainty of the remaining time. I explained that the following day we could alter the tidy up time, she suggested 5 minutes earlier. The following day we tried this and it was somewhat successful however she chose to start tidying up 10 minute earlier as she felt there was a lot of mess.

I returned to a similar situation with this member of staff a few weeks later in the messy area inside. Lots of the different resources can be cleaned and put away by the children. She agreed that if the children are given time to clean up themselves it will increase their skill level and make our jobs easier. She is continuing to try this method in the classroom.’

Background research:

‘Kaleidoscope: Contemporary and Classic Readings in Education’

‘The Perils and promises of praise,’ Carol Dweck, 2007, Page 57-60

‘Developing Independent Learning in the Early Years’

David Whitebread, Holly Anderson, Penny Coltman, Charlotte Page, Deborah Pino Pasternak & Sanjana Mehta

I used the above research and highlighted a few strategies which I felt were beneficial to the children. These strategies were ones we had tried before but in an ‘ad-hoc’ way. They were:

‘‘reciprocal teaching’ (Palincsar & Brown, 1984): a structured procedure which involves teachers modeling the teaching of a particular task to children who are then asked to teach the activity to their peers’’ (pg 6, Whitebread et al.)


‘‘co-operative groupwork’ (Forman and Cazden, 1985): a range of techniques involving children in collaborative activites which oblige them to articulate their own understandings, evaluate their own performance and be reflective about their own learning.’’ (pg 6, Whitebread et al.)

The research also highlighted a checklist of independence. Whilst it is not a strategy that can be applied to the setting, it is noteworthy to mention the similarities between that and the characteristics of effective learning.

Results and outcomes:

In our setting the obvious way to assess the increase in independence was to observe the children at the beginning of the project, the middle and the end. I chose 6 children (2 higher ability, 2 middle ability and 2 lower ability) children based on their academic abilities within the prime areas. The higher ability children had good speaking and listening skills, physical development skills as well as developing personal, social and emotional skills with a higher degree of resilience compared to the cohort as a whole. As expected the higher ability children demonstrated more independence than their less academically able peers initially however this was still limited to a few activities (e.g. putting on their coat, finding their name cards, going to the toilet) which they had been doing at home or in the 2-year-old nursery. It is worth noting that at this stage I am defining independence as the ability to carry out an activity which has been modelled by an adult. When carrying out this activity the children can do so with a high level of skill and satisfaction to both themselves and the adults around, e.g putting their coat on the correct way up.

The lower ability children had the skills and experience of some of the basic activities however would come to an adult first to ask for help, e.g. putting their coat on, going to the toilet, etc. This could be because they did not have the confidence in their own abilities or, and perhaps more likely, they were used to having an adult available to help them and were unaccustomed to doing these things themselves. The middle ability children, as expected, rested somewhere in the middle. At this point I felt confident that a link between abilities in the prime areas and the levels of independence seemed appropriate mainly due to the skills I had perceived as being important to developing independence such as the ability to speak, listen, attend, take account of what is being shared, make and maintain relationships and the ability to control their bodies – all of which are prime area characteristics.

Throughout the year I continued to monitor the progress of these children and initially saw little progress with the middle and lower ability children. They were still relying heavily on the staff in the setting. At this point I was asking the higher ability children to ‘reciprocally teach’ the different tasks in the setting to the other children however they were becoming frustrated that the lower ability children were unable or unwilling to ‘do it their way.’

I was also becoming aware that the adults in the room were not necessarily following the training that was initially delivered. A small group of adults were not allowing the middle or lower ability children the time they needed to problem solve and to learn the rudiments of the activities. I modelled the approach again with the these staff, this time focussing much more on the language that would encourage them to try themselves, (show me how to, etc.).

As the year progressed the higher ability children were more and more unwilling to peer model to the younger children unless there was an intrinsic desire. For example, one of the higher ability children showed her much younger brother how to tidy up the messy area. When I asked her why she showed him she replied, ‘I want him to do it like me.’ The other higher ability child showed no intrinsic motivation and neither showed any motivation based on tokens or praise.

However, the middle and lower ability children were beginning to demonstrate much more independence by observing what the adults in the room had been doing and trying this themselves. Much of this is evidenced later in the year when the children were becoming older and the expectations within the setting were being raised in preparation for transition to reception. Many of the less able children in the room and in particular the 2 children selected, are now able to explain in very basic terms how to carry out an activity with which they were unfamiliar earlier in the year. The middle ability children are now modelling to the lower ability children how to complete activities and sharing their own knowledge with the adults. They are even correcting adults who took ‘short cuts.’

To some extent the middle and lower ability children have surpassed the higher ability children by demonstrating more independence than their peers. There are a few reasons why this might be the case.

1) Higher ability children are often seen as ‘more able’ and are therefore less ‘targeted’ by the adults in the room for direct instruction. When new activities are devised it is often expected that they will already know how to take part.

2) These higher ability children are less resilient than their middle or lower ability counterparts. They are not as used to getting things wrong so when they struggle with an activity or a learning a new process they will often give up. This is especially pertinent now as the child to staff ration is so high and these children are unable to ask for help directly from the adults.

3) Higher ability children are less inclined to spend time learning new skills and processes within the setting as they are being exposed to more ‘academic’ learning at home. For example, one of the higher ability children who was chosen is doing a great deal of maths and literacy work with their parents at home. There is greater emphasis placed on this type of learning at home so she, in turn, is placing more importance on those skills than learning how to wash the snack cutlery.

I believe it could be a mixture of all three that has caused the higher ability children to plateau in their learning of independence skills.

Dweck’s view on growth mind-sets has suggested that point 2 above might be particularly pertinent in the nursery at this time. Many of our higher ability children display a fixed mind-set approach to some activities and therefore feel ‘set back’ when they fail because they are so used to being praised for getting things right. Dweck suggests that for some children, being praised for getting something right, rather than the effort exerted, could contribute to this fixed mind-set.

At the time of this study I had not investigated Dweck sufficiently otherwise I would have used ‘praise’ as a strategy with the children.

However, one must also consider the adult element in all of this. As we are approaching the end of the year, adults are less patient with children and often do things for children to get through to the next activity. These take time and the pressures of assessment, transition and high ratios lead to some staff doing things for the children to make things quicker. We also must return to Dweck and the concept of a fixed and growth mind-set. The adults in the room who are working with the children are being asked to alter their established practice – something they know they are good at. It is not unreasonable to think the adults approached this project with a fixed mind-set.

Perhaps more training was necessary with adults in order for them to fully engage with the practice and see this as something achievable and to value the process and not just the end result.

What went well/what didn't go well and what would I do differently?

The strategies I chose were not always accessible by all of the children. Reciprocal teaching for example could be a very sound strategy for children with increased speaking and understanding abilities. However, for our children this was not always possible. Higher ability children struggled to communicate with the lower ability children and this less to frustration and exhaustion.

Despite starting relatively early in the year, many of these children had been with us for over a year already. These strategies should have been started with the youngest children who were just entering the nursery from the two-year-old provision. The higher ability children should have been chosen based on their time in the setting and their familiarity with the processes and their understanding of them and not just on academic abilities.

I assumed the children’s academic abilities in the prime areas would automatically equate to higher levels of independence. This was a mistake. There are children who are in the setting at the moment who are very independent because they have learned a lot of this at home out of necessity yet show low levels within the prime areas. I should have used the checklist of independence (Whitebread et al.) to gauge where the children were working at or devised my own and incorporated this into my planning. For example, we have a little girl who can wash, dry and clothe herself. She can put on her shoes and coat and then go out to play. Yet she shows no ability to make friends, to speak or listen to other children nor does she have particularly high level of confidence – all of which are prime area ‘skills.’

Parents are infrequently on board with strategies we are introducing at school. Their focus is often on the traditional academic subjects and this means developing independence is very misunderstood. Any strategies we tried at nursery were not carried on into the home.

However, staff remain the biggest barrier to developing independence. With the best intentions, staff are still doing many things for the children. Despite reminders and retraining this will continue until the staff see the benefit to taking the time to allow the children to try for themselves.

Implications for further practice?

Older children are moving onto reception and taking with them a lot of the skills we have taught them. The teachers in reception are new to teaching and therefore might not fully understand the need for independence. The younger children staying in Nursery have learned some skills from the older children but still rely on the adults. The adults in particular need to develop their understanding of why independence is so important and how they themselves are modelling this. There will need to be a lot of work in September on developing the independence with the other children.

One thing that has struck me throughout this project is that the skills I have been developing are present within the characteristics of effective learning. We do not use the characteristics of effective learning very much in the nursery. We sometimes write a report about these but rarely do we plan for them or assess against them. One major implication for my future practice and that of the setting is the need to use these characteristics far more. One way could be to unpick each characteristic and examine ways that we as practitioners can develop this through the strategies highlighted above. The use of peer modelling within every sub-characteristic would appear, at a glance, to be a beneficial strategy to use.

This study has had a lot of implications for my future practice. I am now aware of a lot more strategies for developing independence but I also have a much deeper understanding of resilience and how this influences the development of independence with the children in my class. I also feel that the team has benefitted from this study though I do feel that constant coaching may be required to support staff in continuing this work.

Recent Posts:
  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon

© 2020 To James Tunnell. NurseryNook® is a registered Trademark in the UK. Share with love!