During the summer holidays I decided to do some light reading and settled down with a copy of Listening to children’s perspectives: improving the quality of provision in early years settings. I then met up with some colleagues and our usual ‘chit-chat’ evolved into a discussion relating to ‘listening to’ little ones, especially before they can communicate effectively, as they often struggle to tell us what they are thinking. We jotted down ways to clue into their non verbal communications as it is very important that we are always aware of what they are saying to us.

It is important that children are given opportunities to voice their thoughts, feelings, emotions and concerns … and that they are listened to and acknowledged when they do tell you things that are important to them.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that ‘a child’s opinion should be taken into account on anything that affects them’ and the EYFS 2012 and Development Matters guidance all tell us that we must listen to children and involve them in decisions which affect them.

It was established that respectful, listening care means that we do ask children, when we can see they are not busy (not in the middle of a very important game) if we can take them to change their nappy and we do listen to their reply and explain that they need a clean nappy so they are comfortable and do not get sore… and then we lead them gently and respectfully to the nappy changing area and allow them to dictate the type of change they want - quick and efficient because they are busy or longer with a favourite song because they want some one-to-one interaction time with an adult.

Although I use bi-annual questionnaires to gain children’s views, it is done alongside listening and respecting children’s opinions during day-to-day interactions and the ways every child is supported - even little babies – so they feel that they are an important part of the setting.

We put forward several scenarios and discussed what we assumed our reactions would be to the babies/children involved -
• Baby is screaming constantly and you don’t know how to help him. He doesn’t seem to improve whether you hold him or put him down - what do you do? How do you best meet his needs? Do you ask yourself whether he is in the right provision to meet his needs or do you struggle on because you need the money? What do you tell parents - that he has been a bit clingy or the truth?
... Baby is telling you that he is not happy and that his emotional needs are not being met… your response if you listen to him needs to be calm and reassuring, letting him cry when he needs to express his emotions and maybe using a sling to keep him close. You should also be working closely with parents and finding out how he is handled at home - maybe a home visit would be useful?

• Toddler is running around the house and your rules say ‘we walk inside’. You have asked him time and time again to walk and you are getting frustrated…
... You need to ask yourself whether you are meeting his needs fully by asking him to walk. Would you be better getting him in his coat and shoes and encouraging him to play outside so he can run around until he has worked the need to run out of his system?

• You are getting 2 children ready for an outing to the park when 1 of them says that he does not want to go. Do you ignore him, knowing he will be happy when he gets there? Do you stop what you are doing and sit and talk to the children to try and elicit more information from him about why he does not want to go? Do you speak to parents and find out when he last went, what might be stopping him wanting to go etc? Do you still go on the outing - regardless of his wishes?
... Children usually have a good reason for saying ‘no’ they don’t want to do something. They might be tired after a later than usual night or disturbed sleep … or they could be hungry, feeling a little ill, remembering a bad experience last time they went to the park etc. We are responsible for keeping them safe and ensuring their mental health as well as physical so we need to consider whether we are doing the right thing if we ‘jolly them along’ and take them when they have said ‘no’.

• An older child is trying to do some jigsaws and struggling. He needs help and asks you to show him where a piece goes. Do you sit with him and show him how to start the jigsaw properly by looking for corner pieces? Or do you ask him how he is doing the jigsaw and chat about strategies he might use to find where the pieces go by himself, encouraging him to use his knowledge about size, direction, colour and shape?
... It is very important to listen carefully to what a child is saying to you and respond appropriately to their questions and concerns. It is very easy for us to use our experience and knowledge to take over their games and lead their play - but often this just puts a child off asking in the future because we disturbed them and they didn’t want us do more than answer the specific question.

• You are organising a game of ‘follow the leader’ and one child always pushes to the front and wants to take control of the game. You are worried that if the child is not allowed to go first he will have a tantrum (this has happened before) … but you are also aware that it is not fair on the other children who have to wait their turn every time. How do you support all the children in this type of situation? What games can you play / what activities can you introduce to help them take turns and share more effectively? In a similar situation, you are sitting reading with a group of children and asking them questions to check their understanding of the book. One child constantly shouts out the answers while another child is quiet and rarely responds. How do you ensure both children are given opportunities to have their voice heard?
... In this sort of scenario, the child who is pushing forward and shouting out needs someone to listen to them and reflect on why they need to be first … working with parents is normally a good place to start in situations like this.

• You are feeding the children when one child pushes his plate away / spits out food he ate yesterday/refuses to eat his sandwich (and you know he likes it). You know that his parents don’t give him any more food at home if they think he is being ‘silly’ with his food. You also know that the child’s nutritional needs will not be met if you do not feed him.
... Childminders are not responsible for making rules about what happens when a child does not eat - and we are not allowed to starve a child! The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) is clear that children have a right to food. It is a good idea to have a little store of food that you know children like that is also nutritious and healthy so you can offer it if they refuse their main meal - we always give children the option of a toastie or sandwich, milky drink or water and yoghurt plus fruit to follow if they dislike something we have made them. While not a perfect meal, they are getting their necessary food groups - and we are respectfully acknowledging that their tastes change and they can sometimes be picky and we understand that they are trying to tell us something when they refuse the food we offer - rather than trying to be difficult.

It’s not all about letting children have what they want (or don’t want) all the time, but about listening to their concerns, and supporting their choices in a way that shows we respect their individuality and right to say “NO!” while encouraging them to be responsible citizens and take the needs of others onto account at the same time.