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Your Nursery can Make a Difference in Child Protection

“Intervention that is timely and evidence informed can and does make a difference, especially in early childhood,” says Dr Eunice Lumsden…

Dr Eunice Lumsden
by Dr Eunice Lumsden

Have you ever felt like standing on the top of a mountain and screaming, “Why will you not listen!?” Increasingly, I find myself shouting so much that I get fed up of my own voice, and resort to weeping inside.

Why? The answer is simple – 40 years ago I started on a career pathway to work alongside children and adults whose life chances were severely impacted upon by factors often outside their control.

Roll forward to 2018 and I am still driven by the same naive belief I had at 18, that one day we will eradicate what is commonly known as the ‘cycle of deprivation’ – the ‘intergenerational DNA’ that permeates some families and provides ongoing barriers to social mobility and inequity of life chances.

As my knowledge and practice experience has evolved, so has my focus on early childhood and how we can collectively improve the life chances of children who are abused.

Currently, national and local policy initiatives tend to be short-term and driven by political ideology, rather than a holistic long-term integrated approach to early childhood. Real change can only happen when health, social care and early years education policy works hand in hand.

For example, the recent decision to extend 30 hours free childcare to foster carers needs applauding. Providing rich, well-planned early learning opportunities for those who have faced abuse and trauma, that fully appreciates their unique daily challenges, is essential.

However, this potentially life-changing opportunity was marketed as a recruitment opportunity, highlighting that foster carers can combine work with their role.

Many foster carers already combine the two, but it is not an easy balance. They have to attend numerous meetings and facilitate contact sessions as well as providing nurturing care to children with complex needs.

Early intervention

The (in)visibility of the needs of young children who require protection is deeply concerning. The risk to children is not just about being abused; they are also ‘at risk’ because of the environments in which they live.

Government statistics in England evidence that the majority of children referred for child protection initial assessments live in households characterised by domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

Consequently, for some children, their early life is typified by ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs), which include toxic environments where domestic violence, drugs and alcohol prevail, as well as abuse.

Moreover, there is increasing research evidence of the effect ACEs have across an individual’s life, including mental and physical health issues.

Consequently, intervention that is timely and evidence informed can and does make a difference, especially in early childhood. Insights from neuroscience and molecular biology are having a massive impact on our knowledge and understanding of child and brain development.

While caution must be used when applying the findings from research, the ever-increasing knowledge about the science of child development affords us with new opportunities to foster practice that improves young children’s developmental outcomes.

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings have a vital role to play in ensuring that a holistic approach to early learning is promoted through nurturing care. Research, including the EPPE project, reinforces the need for high-quality ECEC provision.

Moreover, the importance of a well-qualified, graduate-led, early years workforce cannot be underestimated.

I have seen some amazing practice and worked with some incredible people who I admire greatly – but I have also visited settings, where, had it been a family home visit, I’d have been asking “Are these young children’s emotional needs being met or am I seeing ‘neglect’?”.

This is a really ‘tricky’ area, but our most vulnerable young children have the right to the highest quality services to enhance their life chances, not least because most children who experience ACEs continue to live with their families.

They may experience episodes in the care system but only a small percentage of children are legally separated from their families through adoption.

A supporting role

Working with children who have been abused is emotionally demanding and requires extensive knowledge and practice skills.

Traumatised young children need highly qualified staff who understand and are attuned to their complex needs, recognise the importance of a holistic approach and are able to provide nurturing care.

They must be able to provide young children with constructive early learning experiences that reflect not only the child’s developmental stage but also take account of the wider adverse factors impacting on them.

Children in need of protection, also need positive role models, leaders and practitioners who understand their own responsibilities and roles in meeting complex and multi-faceted needs.

They need practitioners who take responsibility for their ongoing learning and can navigate the continually changing policy landscape, understand research findings and apply them in practice.

However, ECEC settings continue to struggle with qualifications levels and staff recruitment, as well as pay and conditions.

Consequently, a setting may not have the capacity, knowledge and skills to ensure a planned integrated response to the early development needs of young children, let alone the ability to release staff to attend essential meetings.

Despite these challenges, collectively we can make a difference to the life chances of young children living in adversity. However, we need to take responsibility in our own practice and ensure, whatever the challenges we are facing, that the needs of our youngest children who need protection are visible in all we do.

In practice

How does your setting ensure that young children with ACEs are:

  • Seen
    How do you try to understand how a child’s adverse experiences are impacting on their behaviour?
  • Soothed
    How do you help children to self-regulate? Do you know how to self-regulate yourself?
  • Secure
    How do you provide nurturing safe environments that promote holistic development and early learning?
  • Safe
    How do you avoid actions and responses that have the potential to frighten or harm a child?

Based on Siegal and Bryson’s framework for supporting parents with attachment in The Whole Brain Child.

Dr Eunice Lumsden is head of early years at the University of Northampton, and the the author of Child Protection in the Early Years (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £16.99) – an accessible and practical guide to supporting young children who have encountered abuse. Visit

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