Please enable JavaScript.  This webapp requires JavaScript to work.

Every child is different: the individual and diverse ways that children develop and learn

by Rory McDowall Clark on August 2

All of us are different in countless ways, priding ourselves on our individuality and unique character. It should be self-evident that the same is true of young children. Yet for many years an underlying concept underpinning child development has been that of socialisation; the idea that childhood is the period when children are shaped and moulded to ‘fit’ into society and conform to social norms and expectations.

Of course there is no reason why socialisation should necessarily mean conformity but often anxiety about developmental milestones and lack of awareness of diversity combine to create an environment in which children are measured against others’ progress and the degree to which they match conventional expectations. The EYFS principle of the Unique Child reminds us that each child develops and learns in individual and distinct ways and so the starting point for planning must always be the child rather than the curriculum, beginning with what the child brings to their learning rather than looking for what they lack and trying to ‘fill the gap’. A skilled early years practitioner recognises that good practice begins with the individual child.The individuality of children is often summed up simply in terms of ‘personality’ – recognition that one child is shy and another confident, that one is fearless whilst another seems very timid. Although it is a natural human response to try to categorise individuals with this kind of shorthand it is not a helpful way of considering young children; there is a danger that such notions may become limiting and self-fulfilling. For instance staff at Ellie’s nursery saw her as ‘a shy child’ when in reality shyness was just one of her many characteristics, and moreover one that was only evident under certain circumstances. This view not only overlooked Ellie’s other attributes but paid no attention to the strong social confidence she displayed when included in the play of her older siblings.

So quietness in a child may denote many things – it may be natural shyness, it may equally well be simply a stage of development which a child will grow out of, an individual response to new situations, or uncertainty about what is expected so that a child chooses to stand on the sidelines and watch. On the other hand, uncharacteristic quietness in a child may signal a concern, possibly a response to a change in home life such as family separation or the birth of a new sibling, and so withdrawn behaviour in a child who is usually outgoing always needs further investigation. The only way to be certain is to have a thorough knowledge of your key children’s individuality so as to accept and value all their unique qualities and recognise when a particular behaviour is uncharacteristic.

Another way children’s individuality is evident is their disposition towards learning. Some children are eager to rush in and try new experiences, others may be more reluctant; some need adult approval and encouragement or may be anxious and lack confidence in their own ability. All these individual responses affect the way children learn and develop. Learning dispositions are more than children’s personal aptitude and approach – they are the attitude which children have towards learning and the ways in which they apply their capabilities to new experiences and ideas.

It used to be fashionable to think in terms of visual, oral and kinaesthetic learners – that is, those who learn by watching, those who learn by hearing or being told and others with a more physical approach who learn by doing. In fact this is actually a very limiting way of thinking about learning as concentrating on only one ‘input’ can actually work to close down additional ways in which we might learn. Young children are learning all the time and use every means at their disposal so it is important to ensure that they are given as wide a range of opportunities as possible. It is more useful to think in terms of their learning dispositions so that if you know that Amir likes to return to an area of interest over and over again until he has thoroughly mastered it, you can make sure such opportunities are built into the continuous planning. In contrast much of Ben and Daniel’s learning takes place through exploration and joint investigations. They thrive in an environment where they can support each other in their discoveries, trying out new ideas and developing their own theories as they go. Planning to support Ben and Daniel’s learning and development should build on this and offer opportunities that take advantage of their particular approach.

Schemas are another way in which children’s individuality may affect how they learn and develop. Schemas provide a way of tuning into a child’s current preoccupations and so provide opportunities to extend their interests. Activities and experiences connecting with their current schemas will be meaningful to children and keep their attention, unlike adult-oriented activities intended to meet specific outcomes. For instance, Clare realised one of her key children, Charlie, was very keen on exploring his vertical schema and currently obsessed with building towers. She deliberately wondered out loud how many bricks tall Charlie might be and helped him to find out. Charlie then wanted to compare his height with that of his friend and Clare supported them both in making the comparison. Charlie sustained his interest in heights for more than a week during which time he moved on from using bricks as an arbitrary measurement to using centimetres and measuring sticks to make a height chart for the nursery wall. These activities gave plenty of scope for developing numeracy learning that matched Charlie’s individual interests and built on what he had already achieved.

Open ended activities such as resources for heuristic play are particularly good for enabling children to pursue their own concerns and schemas. Because there is no right or wrong way to play with them children are free to explore and follow through their ideas. Heuristic play also provides opportunities for staff to observe and identify children’s schemas so they can further extend opportunities for them. The simplest of materials can enable this to happen – for instance Jim collected several carrier bags of conkers in the autumn and took them into nursery where he emptied them out on a large blanket and waited to see what would happen. He was fascinated to note how the children’s individual schemas were apparent in their play as Jemma (transporting schema) loaded up conkers in the back of a small dumper truck, Aaron (containment schema) filled and emptied various containers and Nisha who was currently exploring her connecting schema made long lines with them. Again the children’s interest was sustained over several days as the open-ended nature of the conkers allowed them to follow their own individual ways of learning in purposeful and constructive ways. It also enabled Jim to plan further opportunities for the children that he knew would be meaningful to them.

The diversity children bring to their settings is another way in which their individuality should be acknowledged. Viewed positively this provides richness of experience which benefits everyone, but sometimes a child who diverges from typical patterns of development may be seen as a problem and cause of concern. It is important that early years practitioners have in depth knowledge of child development and the stages which young children are likely to go through but too much fixation on stages of development is not helpful. Development is broad, variable and frequently unpredictable. Although there are certain recognisable phases children do not necessarily develop sequentially through stages and may be more advanced in some areas and less so in others. For instance Jake was walking at 10 months but was very slow in developing language – possibly because he was too busy physically exploring! By contrast his younger brother was very reluctant to get up and physically investigate his surroundings but soon discovered ways in which he could bring the world to him. By engaging in language he attracted people to come and interact with him instead of needing to go to them. His failure to be walking at 15 months could have been interpreted as developmental delay and raise concerns if there was too close reliance on developmental charts, as indeed could his older brother’s slow language development. It is important to take a holistic view of the child and recognise the difference between lack of maturity which will right itself over time provided they are allowed to take things at their own pace and genuine developmental disorder which might signal particular difficulties needing early intervention and support. The only way to be certain to meet a child’s needs is through in depth knowledge of the individual combined with a strong partnership with parents and carers.

Diversity is also related to children’s cultural backgrounds and in many settings the diversity of the children is not reflected in diversity amongst the staff. This can make it difficult for staff to recognise children’s different ways of development which might be wrongly interpreted. For instance, in some cultures it is considered disrespectful for children to look adults directly in the eye whereas Anglo-American ways of working with young children actively encourages this (one of my primary teachers was forever telling children to ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you!’). This different expectation can result in children’s behaviour being incorrectly diagnosed and their development assessed by culturally inappropriate measures. Similarly young children whose home language is different to that of the setting commonly take longer to begin to speak as they assimilate two different languages. This is not language delay, it is a normal stage of development and the child will quickly catch up as soon as they are ready. Forcing children to talk out loud and take part in conversations before they are comfortable to do so is harmful and inappropriate because there are a number of cognitive adjustments which they need to make first.

Individuality and diversity has implications for planning and it is important that plans are of a ‘loose fit’ nature to enable all children opportunities to access provision equally. If you are aware of the individual needs and circumstances of each of your children, the way they are likely to approach any experience and how they are liable to respond, then you are in a position to ensure you take everyone into account in your planning. For instance, Leigh-Anne knew from observations that one of her key children was becoming particularly interested in mark making, another had recently had a new baby sister and she was conscious that young Harry was finding it hard to join in play with others and so was having difficulty making friends. Her decision to create a baby clinic is not unusual in early years provision where there are frequently several children in the class with new babies or mothers who are currently pregnant, but Leigh-Anne ensured there were plenty of mark making opportunities with forms to record babies’ notes, weighing sheets and an appointment book. In addition she created a scenario with the children where the clinic was part of a hospital so that babies who were ill could be seen by the doctor. She found a green tabard and suggested perhaps Harry might like to be an ambulance driver. Leigh-Anne got the ball rolling by ‘telephoning’ Harry to say ‘Quick, quick, my baby’s very ill – I think he needs to go to hospital!’ Having a role outside the main focus of the clinic enabled Harry to take part in a safe way gradually becoming integrated into the children’s play and developing confidence as he became accepted by the others.

All children are different because each brings different experiences into the setting but this individuality and diversity is in itself a great opportunity for children to learn to value each other and to appreciate their own special distinctiveness. Each child’s progress is individual to them and they do not make progress in all areas at the same time. The crucial factor is careful, systematic observation ensuring thorough knowledge of each child’s uniqueness. And observing the individual and diverse ways in which children develop and learn is one of the joys of working in the early years!

Rory McDowall Clark

Rory McDowall Clark originally trained as a nursery and primary teacher in Brighton and has an MA in Sociology: Contemporary Studies. Rory worked as an educational consultant for two local authorities before taking up a post in the Centre for Early Childhood at University of Worcester.