Finding that early Voice of the Child

In 2015, a total of 64 Serious Case Reviews were reported, involving approximately 40 children under five years of age.

Yet how can you take account of the Voice of the Child when the children involved are so young they might not have the vocabulary or ability to communicate effectively? It’s a challenge facing Early Years teacher and Voice of the Child advocate Judith Staff on a daily basis.

“I think, when people think Voice of the Child, we focus on all this participation work about engaging 13-18 year olds, but how can the views of a 13 to 18 year old who has been abused or neglected represent the views of a younger child such as a 5 year old?”

“So we need to look at different ages and stages and see what is specific to them,” she says.

Part of the problem is often down to interpreting – and misinterpreting – what a child is saying, says Judith: “A good example would be if a child repeatedly says ‘I’ve got a tummy ache, I’ve got a tummy ache, I’ve got a tummy ache’. Is it really a chronic stomach disorder or is it something else, like anxiety because the playground is too noisy. So you can either take it at face value or they take half of what the child has said and make it into something else without really clarifying what that child is communicating?”

Addressing this problem is difficult, admits Judith – but it can be done, she says.

“I think, for under 5s, it’s making sure they have access to a range of adults who know that child well and trying to engage with them. However, when that child isn’t accessing state funded early years education it can be difficult.

“In early years education – when children are spending a significant part of their waking day without their parent or carer and in the care of other adults – other adults, if correctly trained – will notice signs and know what to look for if they have concerns.

“For example, I was just on the tube, and there was a little girl and she was about three and a half or four, and she appeared to be with her mother. And just by listening to her talk, I didn’t have any safeguarding concerns just by how she was chattering; it was like that early years monologue where speech was just coming out all of the time, and that gives you a good assessment of where that child is at.

“So this girl was sat there with some dolls in her hands, and she was trying to occupy herself because there was nothing else to do, and she said to her mother ‘Oh, it’s time for them to brush their teeth’, and the mum mimed putting some imaginary toothpaste onto an imaginary toothbrush so she could brush the doll’s teeth.

“Now, for an assessment, that would tell you that the child has some experience of brushing teeth, and she knew she needed a toothbrush and some toothpaste – so it gives you a really good assessment just listening to the monologue. Her emotional well-being was good as she was fully immersed in her play; her language skills and vocabulary were well-developed for her age; her verbal and physical interactions with her mother were confident and warm, and she presented as being secure and feeling safe in the relationship.

“You don’t need to interrupt and ask questions. You can tell the child has a really good imagination, she wasn’t anxious or worried about the other people on the train. There was so much assessment in that informal observation of a child in her own space, and it was all in the space of a three of stops on the underground.”

Early years education

Sadly however, changes to education threaten this observational skill. With a dwindling skilled early years teaching workforce – combined with the potential abolition of nursery schools – it threatens the voice of the child from being properly heard.

“Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum guidance is very much reliant on adult observation and written observation,” says Judith. “At that stage, most children can’t read and write – but I also don’t think people understand what the voice of the child is at that stage.

“It’s much easier to talk to a 16-year old about child sexual exploitation and use that as the voice of the child, but with the under 5s, a lot of people don’t have the skills in that area to speak to a child about tricky issues, and we haven’t learnt to put an emphasis on really enabling and listening to their voice and what it can actually tell us. So much of this is missed.

“The flipside of this is that, to make those observations, it needs someone who has early years’ skills, and our early years’ workforce in this country is exceedingly underpaid, and it doesn’t attract graduates or practitioners with backgrounds in other sectors or disciplines. I know this is something that is being worked on at a higher level, but there are not high numbers of early years teachers, and now they are talking about doing away with nursery schools, and nursery schools are the only early years provision where they have to have a qualified teacher on-site, so if there’s not going to be nursery schools, students will be less likely to train as an early years teacher if there’s going to be fewer jobs.

“Traditionally, looking after children under 5 was considered ‘childcare’, but now the expectation is that children start their education from birth. I question whether we are training the early years workforce adequately in Voice of the Child, as it seems some practitioners don’t have the skills to do that deeper level of interpreting of the child’s voice, meaning it isn’t adequately listen to and accurately record it. This is something we need to address if we are to properly understand the voice of the under 5s.”

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