Building Positive First Experiences in Early Years Settings

Published On: 17 March 2023

The early years are amongst the most transformative of a child’s life. They are a period of exponential growth and development in children – physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially – and they go on to the shape the adults they become.

Given the seismic implications of this phase, it is imperative that we build positive experiences for children from the get-go, beginning at home and continuing on into early years settings. In this way, we give ourselves the best chance of nurturing happy, emotionally regulated and well-balanced human beings.

It all begins at home

By the time a child enters formal education, they have already been subject to a vast number of experiences, so it is important to note that in EYFS, we are not starting with a clean slate, as such. Instead, we welcome children who, despite their young age, have experienced a spectrum of emotions and feelings, and whose behaviour is a response to that.

From birth, all children are products of their experience. That is not to say that, by the time they reach their early years setting, it is too late to change the narrative; neither does it mean that we cannot plan for and provide positive ‘first’ experiences. It simply means that we must acknowledge what children have experienced before they reach us, and use this information to examine and, where necessary, intercept their cycle of influence.

The Cycle of Influence explained

Children’s behaviour, like most human behaviour, does not happen on a conscious level; instead, they react subconsciously to their feelings and emotions, and behaviour follows. Take the example of a child who responds physically when asked to share their toys. Here is what is happening:

Experience:

The child experiences being told to share a toy when they are not emotionally or socially ready to do so.

Feelings:

This experience results in feelings of anger and frustration which they may feel physically in their body (e.g. flushed cheeks, racing heart, clenched fists).

Behaviour:

These feelings cause them to snatch the toy away and scream loudly at their play mate.

Response:

This behaviour then drives a response, such as the child having the toy removed from them by an adult.

These responses can reinforce the experience, but they can also help to change it. For example, with the child who struggles to share a toy, an adult might instead of removing it from them, agree with them that sharing can be hard and let them help choose a different toy for their friend to have. Planning activities to practice sharing could then be used to develop this skill over time and with support.

It is worth reminding ourselves that all of this is happening at a subconscious level. Children are not choosing to react in a certain way, nor are they intentionally deciding to behave in a way that we may find frustrating. It is just that, over time, when experiences are repeated over and over again, behaviours become automatic and the cycle continues unchecked.

Crucially, if children are repeatedly exposed to negative experiences during their earliest years, they can become trapped in a cycle of reactivity and behaviour that will not serve them as they grow and develop.

Building positive experiences in early years settings

The good news is that the experiences created by EYFS professionals offer a wonderful opportunity to interrupt the Cycle of Influence at every stage and change outcomes for all children.

By intentionally planning for and providing positive first experiences for children, including those who may have had ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) or who have faced trauma or adversity at home, we can help create this change.

So what does this look like in practice?

1: Provide rich, hands-on experiences

Play is one of the most effective vehicles to enhance a child’s learning and development. A combination of structured and unstructured, individual and group play helps children to develop a range of social skills and allows them to ‘watch and learn’ from others’ interactions.

Get children outside; set up a little garden where they can grow and take care of plants; take them on trips beyond the school gates, if that’s viable; introduce them to live music, art and drama performances. Providing rich, hands-on experiences that inspire and challenge sparks a love of learning and a curiosity about the world around them. When learning feels good, there is a better chance of children developing the behaviours we want to see.

2: Build positive relationships

Everyone likes to feel special and valued – it helps build our self-esteem and self-confidence. Take the time to get to know the children in your care. Ask them questions about themselves: What do you love doing most? What do you think you are good at? What would you like to do today? Do you prefer doing X or Y?

By gaining valuable insight into individual children’s characters and personalities, we can be sure to plan appropriate experiences that they will embrace and enjoy. Moreover, strong relationships built on trust are closely linked to children’s emotional development and mean that we can more easily anticipate how they might feel and behave in different situations.

3: Model responses, not reactions

The most effective way of influencing others’ behaviour is by controlling our own responses to it. When a child is faced with a different response to their behaviour, it can subtly change their experience, create new experiences, and prompt different feelings. With practice, new behaviours can be developed.

Let’s look again at the child who is struggling to share toys with another child. If they look to be spiralling towards crisis, we can intercept and choose our response to influence their behaviour. We could calmly talk about taking turns; we could show empathy (I understand. It can be hard to share, can’t it?); we could model how to share and explain, out loud, what we are doing and why (I’m going to let Sam play with the truck now because he looks sad. Shall we cheer him up?); we could directly teach sharing in an age-appropriate way starting with items of less value to the child (let’s give all the toys at the tea party a biscuit and a drink). Instead of reacting to the behaviour, we can step back and understand what is driving it and choose how to best respond.

Essentially, we are acknowledging and validating their emotional needs, while simultaneously demonstrating that there is another way and that there are different ways to respond.

Positivity breeds positivity

Despite the pressures on early years staff to prepare children for the next stage of their education, it is vital not to rush or curtail these positive experiences. Early brain development, shaped by their environment, sets the foundation for children’s future emotional, social and physical well-being, so the stakes are high.

When children are continually exposed to positive experiences, they begin to foster feelings of excitement, joy, and curiosity, all of which impact their behaviour. It stands to reason then, that building positive, nurturing, and stimulating experiences in early years settings gifts us the opportunity to positively impact the Cycle of Influence, ensuring that children are equipped with the tools they need to confidently and competently navigate life’s ups and downs.