What’s more important – baseline or settling in?
There has been a lot written about baseline recently with the trialling of the new baseline assessment starting in September. But the start to each academic year always provides practitioners with a real dichotomy between the need for an on entry assessment, to plan for next steps and show progress over time, versus the need to support children socially and emotionally at the beginning of this new phase, to ensure that they separate happily from their parents and carers, form good relationships with adults and their peers and are settling comfortably into a new, and often, unfamiliar environment.
I was expected to produce a baseline assessment just two and a half weeks after the children started school and so needed to be as creative as possible so this could be completed, in a short space of time, without compromising what I felt was more important, the settling in process. Ensuring children were settled, had established good relationships and understood the routines and expectations of the setting, I believe, is paramount to any future learning and so I planned for the baseline to be tied into activities, stories, games and role play, inside and out, so practitioners could sit back and observe what children could do without the pressure of constant questioning.
Giving them time to settle
I taught reception, for many years, at a school with no nursery, and so as far as I was concerned settling in was the priority. Our children arrived from many different settings, some local and others further away, plus we always had one or two who had never attended any form of pre-school. In addition to this, around 75% of our intake had English as an additional language, with approximately 30% of these speaking little, or no, English.
As a result I established a very thorough transition program which started in the summer term by visiting as many children as possible at nursery. We then invited them to spend a morning, in reception, with their parents. At the beginning of September we carried out home visits, followed by a two week part-time settling in period, with 45 (younger) children in the morning and 45 (older) children in the afternoon.
The learning environment was set up very much like nursery, in order to support the transition process and help children settle, with information gleaned from parents and nursery practitioners as to favoured activities and friendship groups. We normally started on a Wednesday and dedicated the first three days to playing with the children to get to know them before the start of the baseline assessment the following week.
In order to support children in knowing where to access and tidy away resources, we ensured that visual cues were used as much as possible from silhouettes to photo’s of resources with text. With 90 children in an open plan setting we had to ensure, from the very beginning, that time was taken to support children in tidying up at the end of each session in order that the resources, and the learning environment, remained accessible and organised as well as making explicit our expectations from the outset.
In order to support mathematical problem solving, I also added the total number of items, where appropriate, to silhouettes. This was great for encouraging problem solving in context, as once children had found the knives, for example, we would count them together then I would say ‘we should have 4 knives but we only have 3 – how many more do we need?’
This photo was taken, many years ago, during a training course with Early Excellence, and you can see how easy children would find to tidy this area, due to the use of silhouettes. Less is also more, particularly at the beginning of the year, as more resources can be added later once children know how to look after those already out.
A child’s view of tidy is not always the same as the adults and despite having boxes and baskets labelled with photos and text their tendency is to throw everything in the nearest basket. In order to combat this we took photos of each area, once they were set up, as a clear visual reminder of what we meant by tidy. I also broke tasks down into manageable chunks as that improved the likelihood of success. For example, in the small world area individual children would be asked to tidy up one resource such as cars, people or dinosaurs.
It is really important that time is taken to train children so they can become resourceful and independent learners. Process photo’s act as a visual prompt or reminder of what they are expected do. I used these successfully, for many years, in different areas and for different purposes such as developing independence in health and self care, (reminding children to flush, then wash and dry their hands, or to put on wellington boots and waterproofs (below) then place their shoes on the rack). I also used process photos to serve as a reminder of how to mix materials in the creative workshop, once the activities had been modelled to all. This worked really well in supporting children in becoming independent and led to them mixing powder paint and making their own play dough.
Baseline assessment does not have to be a face to face testing of individual children as there are many ways in which it can be achieved, through observation, planning from children’s interests, games and even role play. I particularly love the following idea, from teacher, Juliette Rodgers, which I read on a facebook post yesterday.
‘We have an adventure to Spain as part of World Culture Week so we take a whole class ‘trip’ on a plane (take off and landing on iwb – ), they have a ticket which they write their name on, find their corresponding seat number and obviously role play. We make passports-name writing, self portraits, talk about their birthday traditions. We visit the whole school food festival and taste and talk about foods from around the world. They make flags, fans, Spanish cocktails and have a go at Flamenco dancing. It’s all set up as cp but this week alone is enough to complete all my baselines.’
I needed to produce a baseline of 90 children, in a very short period of time, without compromising the more important need for settling children into school successfully, and so needed to plan creatively and cross curricular. Of course we looked at nursery reports and discussed individual children during the nursery visits however, as the children were all completely new to our setting and the quality of nursery provision (and reporting) in our local area was variable, we needed to ensure we had a comprehensive baseline based on our own judgement.
As a result, I usually started the term with a focus on something the children were most familiar with – their families. (Excerpts of the planning below)
Entry Point – Set up an interactive lift-the-flap display at child level entitled WHO LIVES IN A HOUSE LIKE THIS? This was designed to get children talking as they lifted the flaps and discussed the story characters. Being based on familiar stories it enabled children to show and share their knowledge of the stories, making for great observations.
Who lives in my house? Children were encouraged to draw, or paint, themselves and their families as well as write their name. Phonic knowledge and fine motor control was also assessed during this activity.
I often laid on the floor or sat with the children and drew, or painted, my family alongside them. This worked well as chatting, whilst we worked, provided me with a huge amount of information. The fact that home visits took place just before the children started school also helped, as I could talk about their homes and their family members from personal experience.
One activity can give an observer multiple assessment opportunities, if managed in a child friendly way, and whilst this activity can provide many assessment opportunities it would not be applicable to all. This highlights the need to spend some time playing with children before starting baseline assessment as there is no point in asking children to participate in certain activities if they have little understanding of English, have had no exposure to letters or sounds, or have under developed fine motor skills. Spending a few days just getting to know the children and playing with them will provide a good indication of who can do what, will help shape the assessment process and save busy practitioners lots of time.
What is a family? Talk about different relationships in families to support assessments in Communication and Language and People and Communities. This was supported by reading stories – So Much, My Two grannie’s and Alfie Gets in First, amongst others as well as using photos from home to support discussions during carpet times in key worker groups. One adult would read the story and lead the discussion whilst the other would record children’s comments, questions or observations.
What happened to the 3 Bears? We chose Goldilocks and the 3 bears as we wanted to build on previous experience as hopefully, most children would have been exposed to this at nursery or pre-school. This was further assessed through continuous provision which provided opportunities for observations through role play outside and small world inside.
Getting baseline outside the classroom
I have seen many practitioners, over the years, working away at baseline inside, as if it is the only place that assessments can be made. Given the fact that many children prefer being outside it makes sense to assess them where they are most engaged in order to provide a true picture of what they can really do, rather than call them in to complete an activity in which they have little interest.
Role play of familiar stories, such as Goldilocks and the 3 bears, outside enables children to retell the story, write recipes for porridge in the mud kitchen, notice and discuss any changes to materials as they make the porridge as well as counting/matching and ordering the bears, bowls and spoons by size.
Squirting water at sounds and numbers or throwing balls at 10 green bottles (filled with sand) are great fun and easy to assess. I have also played other games outside such as can you find the next number? Number mats were placed on the ground (several of each number to 10) and we then skipped around them singing, ‘Who can find the next number, next number, next number, Who can find the next number, can you find the number 5?’ Even those who didn’t know any numbers loved to play this game and followed the lead of the other children to find the correct number. This can be differentiated to find numbers to 20, 1 more / less than and even adapted for 2d shapes. I have found the best thing about this game is that once it has been played several times, you will find children playing it themselves!
Playing games with children is not only fun, it also enables you to assess who can listen and follow verbal instructions as well as supporting turn taking and learning names. It’s simple to assess whether or not children can blend sounds in words by playing a variation of Simon Says, issuing simple instructions to children to s-i-t, j-u-m-p, h-o-p etc. The children love this and it is quickly evident who can blend aurally and who can’t as the rest just follow the leader. Have another adult observing nearby and presto, a very quick multi-faceted assessment of the children without them even realising it.
Of course doing it this way meant that there was a lot of cross checking on our part to ensure that we had information on all the children, but it was worth it as, at the end of the two weeks, we delivered a comprehensive baseline which not only detailed the developmental levels of the children, providing the data needed to measure progress, but even better our observations detailed children’s interests, strengths and next steps, which informed our planning. More importantly though we were able to spend time just playing with the children, getting to know them and ensuring that they were well settled and becoming independent.
With baseline fast approaching, and many school leaders lacking early years experience, practitioners may feel pressured to produce a baseline assessment at the expense of settling children into school. It is up to us to ensure that we make the settling in process a priority as, if not done properly from the start, routines and expectations will not be embedded and children will lack independence, leading to lost teaching and learning time further down the line.