Effective early years intervention

Poverty is the greatest risk factor for children’s outcomes in the early years. More than 2.9 million children in the UK are affected by it and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately represented.

Early years settings work with children and families from a wide range of ethnic, religious, social and economic backgrounds. High quality early learning has a positive impact of all children but especially on disadvantaged children. Provision that addresses child and family poverty through outreach, targeted intervention and “sustained shared thinking” will lead to better outcomes for young children.


Children’s backgrounds and characteristics play a key role in determining their outcomes. At the age of five poor children will have worse health and more specific health problems than children from higher socio-economic bands. They are also more likely to be admitted to accident and emergency departments and their families are less likely to feel safe in the area where they live.

Children from poor families also do less well academically, making less progress in learning during the early years.

Certain ethnic groups are particularly affected by child poverty. In 2006-7, most black non-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi children and young people were living in poverty, compared with a quarter of white children.

Children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) have poorer social and academic outcomes in the early years but as their language skills improve they catch up. In fact, most associations between ethnicity and outcomes are related to poverty and EAL; once these are taken into account there are few differences in attainment between ethnic groups at the age of seven.

A mother’s education influences her child’s learning and development outcomes during the early years but all children will achieve more with a positive home learning environment (HLE). The HLE measures the extent to which parents are involved in learning activities such as reading, playing with numbers and letters and painting and drawing. What parents do is more important than who they are.


Focused, consistent strategies can help to alleviate poverty and improve outcomes for children across the Every Child Matters agenda. These strategies should aim to boost the home learning environment and encourage the passing on of positive learning behaviours by providing culturally sensitive outreach and support.

Children and their families should be supported during the transition into pre-school and later into mainstream schooling. Children with EAL should be provided with effective English language support to enable them to catch up linguistically and improve their social skills and behaviour. Strategies to develop secure and stable families, neighbourhoods and schools will help children feel safe and fulfil their potential.


At home and in pre-school settings, children benefit from culturally relevant learning provision that is sensitive to their needs and provides a range of experiences. To improve outcomes there should be routine provision of warm, relaxed, supportive early childhood learning environments which can help children settle in and make good progress. Key areas of good provision include:

Outreach work: Well-designed interventions and outreach programmes by trained professionals can strengthen home learning environments and support parents’ participation in learning activities. This can improve relationships between families from disadvantaged and minority groups and early years practitioners and increase up-take of pre-school provision.

Transition strategies: The transition to pre-school can be particularly challenging for young children from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with EAL. Home-school liaison and other strategies to ease this process are invaluable.

Bilingual staff: Strategies that make effective use of bilingual staff can ease the pre-school experience for children from minority ethnic backgrounds. A lack of shared experience between children and staff can lead to marginalisation of these children.

Training on EAL: Children who have EAL can have difficulty communicating which has a negative impact on relationships with staff and other children, leading to frustration and underperformance. Specific training in this area can help staff bridge communication barriers.

Practice points

● Certain ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by child poverty.

● Parents who support children’s learning can counteract the effects of disadvantage.

● Although English as an additional language is linked to lower attainment it does not affect outcomes in the longer term.

● Strategies to reduce child poverty can improve outcomes for children. Routine provision of well-focused pre-school support can improve engagement and learning.

● Outreach work should support parents and promote family-based learning.

● Families and children should be supported during the transition to pre-school.

● Provision should be culturally sensitive. Effective use of bilingual teachers and training for other teachers can help limit the isolation felt by from ethnic minority children.

Messages for pre-schools

Strategies to make the curriculum more accessible and increase engagement and attainment among groups of children vary but effective pre-schools tend to use the following approaches:

● Targeted interventions: Interventions focused on literacy and language support geared towards the needs of specific groups can help to improve outcomes for children at risk of low attainment, particularly those from poor families or with EAL.

● Encouraging pre-school attendance: Strategies should ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds take up pre-school as attendance is beneficial to all children, especially those living in poverty.

● Routine high quality provision: A high standard of pre-school provision which focus on individual children’s needs plays an important part in improving children’s outcomes.

● Free play: Children should spend at least two-thirds of the time in child-initiated activities. Free play gives children the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning while exploring their own interests.

● “Sustained shared thinking”: Early years professionals should be trained and given opportunities to perform this educational technique, which sees adults interacting with children and extending their thinking.

● Strong, consistent staffing: Effective pre-schools are characterised by strong leadership in curriculum and planning, good levels of staff qualification and opportunities for professional development and low turnover.

● Developing the home learning environment:

Staff should support home learning through communication with parents and outreach programmes tailored to individuals and groups.


● C4EO: Narrowing the gap in outcomes for young children through effective practices in the early years – Social Care Institute for Excellence

Research abstracts: early years intervention

Author: Adams N, Johnson G, Matejic P, Toufexis N, Whatley J (eds)
Title: Households below average income: an analysis of the income distribution 1994/95-2006/07 (19th edition)
Reference: Department for Work and Pensions

Abstract This report presents information on living standards as determined by disposable income in 2006-7, changes in income patterns over time and income mobility.

Author: Brewer M, Muriel A, Phillips D, Sibueta L
Title: Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2008
Reference: IFS Commentary No. 105

Abstract This briefing note provides an update on trends in living standards, income inequality and poverty. It uses the same approach to measuring income and poverty as the government employs in its Households Below Average Income (HBAI) publication. The analysis is based on the latest HBAI figures (published on 27 March 2007), providing information about incomes up to the year 2005-6.

Author: Clarke A, and Statham J
Title: Listening to young children: experts in their own lives
Reference: Adoption and fostering, 29(1), pp. 45-56

Abstract Most existing literature on children’s participation has focused on their involvement in service planning, delivery and evaluation rather than on children’s views of their own world, starting from their interests and concerns. Few studies have considered the views and experiences of young children (under five years old). One of the barriers to this work has been uncertainty about how to listen to children at this age. This article explores the Mosaic approach, a methodology for listening to young children that brings together verbal and visual tools to reveal young children’s perspectives.

Author: R Springate I, Atkinson M, Straw S, Lamont E, Grayson, H
Title: Narrowing the gap in outcomes: early years (0-5 years)
Reference: Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008. 54p, bibliog

Abstract This report was commissioned by the Local Government Association to inform the Department for Children, Schools and Families and LGA work on improving outcomes. It focuses on early years provision and presents findings from a review of the best evidence on outcomes across the five Every Child Matters areas for vulnerable groups in the context of improving outcomes for all. In general, the evidence demonstrates that interventions focused on children in their early years have the potential to improve outcomes that are fundamental to their future life chances, and to narrow the gap between disadvantaged and other children.


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