Last reviewed 29 October 2020

With child poverty now affecting more than four million children in the UK and rising concerns that the Covid-19 crisis has widened the disadvantage gap, early years providers should consider how they can play their part in supporting families who may be in difficulty following lockdown.

Growing up in disadvantage

According to research from the Social Metrics Commission, more than half of the 4.5 million children in poverty in the UK live in a family where the youngest child is under the age of five and the situation is predicted to get worse. Growing up in a disadvantaged home can have negative consequences for a child’s wellbeing and future life prospects. Young children from disadvantaged backgrounds already have lower educational outcomes than their peers by the age of five and on average are one and a half years of learning behind other pupils by the time they take their GCSEs. Children living in poverty are more likely to:

  • have poor physical and emotional wellbeing

  • experience mental health problems

  • underachieve at school

  • have employment difficulties in adult life.

The impact of Covid-19

Although children have fewer health risks from Covid-19, they have been hugely impacted by nursery and school closures during lockdown and disadvantaged children are likely to be the most seriously affected. High quality early years settings are known to have a positive impact on child development, attainment and outcomes in adult life, with disadvantaged children particularly benefiting, so it is feared these children were disproportionately affected during lockdown.

Even before the pandemic, the “word gap” was already obvious in early language and literacy with disadvantaged children starting school with vocabularies up to 19 months behind their better-off peers.

There have been warnings that the attainment gap has widened during the pandemic as children’s opportunities for learning and development during lockdown were influenced predominately by their home environment. Disadvantaged children are more likely to live in overcrowded and noisy homes and often without the same access to the internet, technology, books and other resources. Their parents are also often less able to support learning at home due to lack of time, skills, and confidence.

When nurseries and schools were closed during lockdown, children also missed out on opportunities to socialise, to eat nutritious food, and to participate in physical activity which is important for children who have less access to outdoor space.

The economic impact of Covid-19 is likely to be long-term and financial instability will hit low-income families the hardest. Early years providers are in a key position to identify families who may be struggling and can play their part in offering extra support to those most in need.

Early years entitlements

Since April 2015, nurseries, schools, childminders and other childcare providers have been able to claim extra funding through the early years pupil premium (EYPP) to support disadvantaged three and four-year-olds development, learning and care. Early years providers are responsible for identifying which of the children in their care may be eligible for the early years pupil premium (EYPP) and passing that information on to their local authority.

Following lockdown, early years providers need to ensure they are claiming for all children who are eligible. The Department for Education (DfE) has published a model form and letter to help early years settings identify which children may be eligible for the EYPP and it recommends that providers ask all parents and guardians, regardless of family income or circumstances, to complete the form when they enrol their child.

Although there are no restrictions on how the funding should be used, Ofsted will hold settings to account through their routine inspection process for how it has been used to support disadvantaged children, so managers need to be able to evidence this.

Early years staff need to identify the needs of the children who are in receipt of the EYPP funding and consult with families and other relevant professionals about the best use of the funding and how this can support the child. The SENCO can help to inform decisions on targeted interventions that could help to address the needs of the child, such as delays in language development, so that early support can be put in place.

Building relationships with parents

Working in partnership with parents is central to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and it is widely acknowledged that developing successful relationships between parents and providers can have long-lasting and beneficial effects on children’s learning and wellbeing.

Early years providers need to develop trusting relationships with families and adopt a non-judgmental approach while focusing on the needs of the child. Parents and carers should have the opportunity to discuss any changes or difficulties they are experiencing that could affect their child’s development and staff should work with children and their families to provide a safe environment in which to support the child’s individual needs.

Early years staff may require training on identifying and supporting disadvantaged or vulnerable children who are returning to the setting following lockdown. If parents are late in paying childcare fees or extras and not engaging in events at nursery they may be under financial pressure.

Staff should be able to signpost parents to appropriate local services and provide information in different formats on a range of community support such as childcare funding entitlements, health resources, foodbanks and money advice. Early years providers can also contact their local authority to identify what support is available in their area.

Supporting home learning

One of the main influences on a child’s early development is what happens in the home. However, disadvantaged children are less likely to experience a home environment that can best support their development, particularly in relation to early language.

Research suggests that children achieve better social and educational outcomes when early years providers encourage parents’ engagement in their children’s learning. Good practice includes sharing educational aims with parents and supporting children’s learning at home with suggested activities that complement their experiences in the provision.

Explaining the benefits of reading at home and the importance of everyday interactions in supporting children’s development can all help to improve home learning. Early years providers could also develop their own home learning packs with a selection of resources which are designed to be loaned out to families.

Providers can also signpost families to the DfE’s Hungry Little Minds campaign which aims to encourage parents and carers to engage in activities that support their child’s early learning. The website provides ideas and activities to support home learning for children aged from newborn to five. It also gives information on recommended apps and games that can benefit children’s learning at home.

Supporting children’s emotional health

Research suggests that children living in low income families are nearly three times more likely to have mental health problems than their more affluent peers. Early years staff should know how to identify risk factors and signs of poor emotional wellbeing such as:

  • a very short attention span

  • being withdrawn

  • being unresponsive

  • aggressive behaviour or other behaviour problems

  • delayed speech or poor communication and language skills.

Early years practitioners need a good knowledge and understanding of Personal, social and emotional development (PSED) and effective training in this area is important. Staff may also need more specialist training to deliver targeted support for children with emerging mental health needs and know when to make referrals to other professionals or specialist services if necessary.

Government guidance, Actions for early years and childcare providers during the coronavirus outbreak, states that settings should consider the mental health, pastoral or wider wellbeing support that children may need following lockdown and how to support them after a long period of absence. The DfE is strongly encouraging all children who normally access childcare to attend their setting so that they can gain the educational and wellbeing benefits of early education.

See also Supporting emotional wellbeing in the early years.

Supporting healthy eating and physical activity

Physical and mental health are closely linked and early years providers should promote the benefits of physical activity and healthy eating to families wherever possible.

However, the pandemic has exacerbated child food poverty in the UK and if providers are concerned that families are struggling with food insecurity they should signpost them to local support such as food banks. Nurseries can also sign up for the Fareshare scheme which redistributes surplus food to charities and community groups. The scheme helps to prevent food waste and participating nurseries can use the donations to supplement existing food supplies and offer it families to take home.

Placing a strong emphasis on physical activity and outdoor learning such as forest school, or growing vegetables is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children who are less likely to have access to outdoor space at home. Early years providers have a large part to play in enabling young children to fulfil the Government’s physical activity guidelines for the under-fives and they can support parents in developing healthy behaviours in their children from a young age.

Further information

The Social Metric Commission aims to develop a new approach to poverty measurement that better reflects the nature of poverty that different families in the UK experience.

The Trussell Trust supports a nationwide network of food banks and provides emergency food and support to people in poverty.

Fareshare redistributes surplus food to charities and community groups.

Home Start is a local community network of trained volunteers and expert support helping families with young children through challenging times.

Family Action provides practical, emotional and financial support to those who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage and social isolation across England.