Why every teacher should spend a term in early years

Spending a term in early years would mean that all teachers – regardless of key stage – would be better able to respond to pupils' needs, says Lizzy Price

Lizzy Price

An early-years teacher kneeling on the floor with a small child

I recently tweeted the following: 

For many teachers, the thought of tears and children with soggy bottoms is enough to send them running for key stage 2 or higher. But there are two important reasons why I still think that every teacher ought to complete a term (yes, a full term) teaching in early years

There’s the obvious: to acquire a deeper level of skill and knowledge of early literacy and maths.

And the less obvious: to understand how EYFS approaches build crucial mindset and character skills, which are central to educational success at all levels.

Early years: learning to wonder, question and investigate

I don’t need to say much on the first point. Many children still arrive (for various reasons) in secondary school without early number sense or the ability to read or write. There is an obvious need for teachers at all stages to be fully equipped with at least the basic skills to teach them. That much is obvious.

But that tweet I wrote actually had little to do with teachers developing their early literacy and maths skills (although that’s definitely needed, and I could write all day about the importance of pictures to early reading). It has nothing to do with progression or learning in the typical sense. It’s about the entire EYFS approach and how it paves the way for those ever-elusive character traits. And how we often burn those foundations once children begin on the national curriculum. 

The very cornerstone of teaching in EYFS is joy (stay with me – I promise I am not Marie Kondo-ing education). We respond to the children, and what brings them joy: their interests. 

We teach them to wonder, to question, to investigate and replicate. In doing this, we create learners who are self-motivated and invested in what they do. They persevere because they want to. They test and alter objects and ideas because they want to. They make mistakes willingly and chat about what they noticed – without beating themselves up – because it is of personal interest to them. 

This approach is hard, but in EYFS settings where they succeed, children come through early years curious, independent and invested in their own education. These children have the beginnings of something more valuable than the ability to decode. They have the beginnings of a learner’s or beginner’s mindset. 

This learner’s or beginner’s mindset means that they wonder and ask questions. They fearlessly make attempts – and when the attempts fail, they ponder why and try again, with little to no perfectionism, no stress and no concept of failure. Failing isn’t a part of this experimental process. This process is learning. 

Narrowing the focus

But then they enter Year 1 and we narrow their focus. We have a set list of skills they need to learn. The blinkers are on. We admire the leaf with brown bits being shoved under our noses for 10 seconds, rather than 10 minutes, because we have more urgent matters to attend to; we need them to decode the word “thatch”. We no longer pore over the illustrations to ponder and notice, because we are busy asking for a list of similes for the word “big”…

Don’t get me wrong: our curriculums are engaging. But they are missing the key components needed to build a beginner’s mindset. In a bid to serve up learning that is exciting and engages children, yet still meets the many skills dictated in the national curriculum, we create topics and maintain control. 

And, little by little, children lose the motivation, curiosity and independent learning skills they were on the path to developing in EYFS. These topics are wonderful, but they are linear and adult led.

Fast forward to key stage 2, and we inherit children who find it hard to visualise, represent or make sense of a problem, and they have zero motivation to try. Children encountering mastery teaching can’t understand why you’re asking them to draw a picture, and they have no idea where to start. How could that possibly help them to do maths?

In English lessons, children bring us their book to swap because they’ve read it, yet they know nothing about it. They literally decoded it – and nothing more. In science lessons, there is a lack of scientific enquiry, because we have been slowly killing it off since they left EYFS. 

There’s no curiosity and no determination to try again. A simple mistake is seen as failure, rather than an opportunity. They are now almost adults, but they lack the mindset of a learner, which they should have been developing for the past 10 years. 

No number of initiatives or assemblies are going to turn the tide or develop character traits. Knowing what motivation means is not the same as having it. And they did have it – back in early years. 

I believe that key stage 1 and 2 together should be the foundation stage. This is where we should create and follow their joy, draw and discuss pictures and be endlessly curious. Without this, we have little chance of developing the mindset of a learner and the curiosity, self-esteem or perseverance skills that are a part of it. 

Without that, they are ill prepared for secondary education and whatever follows. It doesn’t matter how much their teachers know about core skills if the children are poorly equipped to take on the task. 

How do we balance this need to teach an overfilled curriculum with an approach that recognises children’s own passions and develops these elusive but much-prized character traits? I don’t know – but I do know that if every teacher spent a term in EYFS, then I would have good company while I ponder the problem. 

Lizzy Price is a primary teacher in the East Midlands. She tweets @thinker_teacher

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