My name is Dawn Louise Rigby – I am an Early Years Teacher, an Early Years Lecturer with a Masters degree in Early Childhood Studies from the University of Roehampton, and like all of us, I am passionate about the work that we all do.

All of us that work in this wonderful profession are dedicated to providing the best experience we can for our youngest children. My concern is that the expectations being put on the early years, is creating a generation of children who are being forced to conform in a way that is not developmentally appropriate.

I am sure we are all concerned about their mental health as figures released by NHS Digital in 2018 show that one in nine children between the ages of 5 and 10 had a mental health disorder. The thinking is that these may well have begun to take root earlier. Why is this happening? Why are our youngest children experiencing anxiety and distress at a time in their life when they should be happy and free?

Bryce-Clegg (2015) states ‘Children who feel positive, engaged and involved will learn better, and settings where children’s sense of well-being is nurtured are the most effective in ensuring high quality outcomes.’

So, when we talk about well being, what do we actually mean?

According to Naci and Ioannidis (2015) “Wellness refers to diverse and interconnected dimensions of physical, mental, and social well-being …… It includes choices and activities aimed at achieving physical vitality, mental alacrity, social satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and personal fulfillment.”

Moving from one adult directed activity to another can be stressful for children and does not give them a sense of accomplishment or personal fulfilment. Well-being comes from children being agents in their own learning. As Piaget advised us, children do not learn by being told, they learn by doing. I am an advocate for In The Moment Planning and have observed it in practice for the past year. The idea is that the response given to the children is unique to that child, in that moment.

We understand that for learning to take place, children need to feel safe and secure, in fact we all do. Any of us who have ever felt anxious, unsure or ignored will know those feelings do not enable us to take in or process any information. In settings, starting from the child’s interests, ensure the child remains content and so new learning is possible and that child’s progress is maximised by putting their well-being first and responding in ways that respect and value their unique identity.

High level involvement occurs most often when children are able to pursue their own interests and settings using this approach will encourage this by ensuring the setting is enabling for all children, accommodating their interests and that they are supported by skilled staff. Planning in the moment helps to make this possible.

Without good well-being, children cannot become deeply engaged in any activities and therefore, are not learning. All of the situations we impose on children from transitions to routines can all have an impact on their well-being. Constantly expecting children to move from activity to activity of adult’s choosing does not allow for deep engagement.

A child who is not happy cannot become deeply engaged
A child who is not challenged will not be deeply engaged
A child who is being controlled by adults will not be deeply engaged
A child who feels insecure will not be deeply engaged


Deep involvement indicates brain activity and this happens most during high quality child initiated play. A lack of this severely limits possibilities for children to explore and communicate their own interests and ideas. It also restricts opportunities for children to engage in the sort of dialogue that can scaffold their understanding and knowledge of the world around them. Genuine child initiated play is spontaneous and belongs to the child or children, it is not imposed by adults with any kind of agenda of what they feel the child should be doing and learning.

True child initiated play cannot be preplanned because we do not know what the children will initiate. Therefore, plan as you go, plan spontaneously, plan in the moment and respond as appropriate. This is freeing for the children, but also for us as staff.

The relentless pressure placed on staff to achieve results has become a real issue, creating a difficult work environment which is not conducive for positive mental health and well-being. The demands of paperwork, recording observations and planning next steps can all take their toll on colleagues sense of their own well-being.

In The Moment Planning allows the adults to be mindful of what is happening in their setting. Freedom from unnecessary planning and paperwork enables staff to be involved with the children to see what their interests are and to consider the most appropriate way to support their learning. Surely, that is why we all chose to work with children – to be involved and engaged with them – to make emotional connections with them.

Greg Bottrill (2018) describes this as being ‘far more rewarding for both you and the children if you go in to play conscious of each child and their needs rather than continually dragging them to the Red table….. Be mindful of the moment and be ready to seize the richness of the now’.

I love the expression, the richness of now. Being in the moment with that child or group of children allows us to focus on that richness.

This enables practitioners to observe the environment and decide where they are most needed or could be of the most benefit to the children. It may be that they are not needed immediately and the practitioner can wait – this is where the planning is happening, planning how or if to respond – Anna Ephgrave (2018) advises ‘let’s write less and interact more”

When we enable children to engage in play without interruptions for focus activities, the adults are available to the children, interacting with them and able to deal with any potential issues immediately, teaching the children self regulation skills they will need to adopt to support their independence and develop that sense of well being.

This requires practitioners to develop a connection to the children in their care – if a child does not feel connected to you, they will not respond to you. They need to trust you and know that you are on their side, to be emotionally available. This means engaging with the children in the moment. Spending more time interacting with the children rather than planning and writing activity plans allows that engagement. We can really connect to each other and rather than just acknowledging what a child may be feeling saying something like “I can see that you are really angry” …… we add “but” usually followed by something we want the child to do or perhaps telling that child to stop having that emotion, the timing is all wrong or we can’t deal with it right now because there is something, we consider, far more important, that needs attending to.

We tend to acknowledge the feeling. We make a good start by giving a name to the emotion and feel we have done enough, yet using ‘but’ we undo all of that and rather than validate that child’s feelings, we have done the complete opposite, showing them that we have placed little value on what they are going through and that our needs are far more important

In my setting, when the children feel overwhelmed by their emotions, they request “cuddle club” in order to feel secure and valued – always on the child’s terms – a chance to build an emotional connection to that child. In that calm, connected moment we can give value to those emotions.

Page and Elfer clarify that settings can be engaged in contributing to children’s emotional well being by the interactions between staff and the children and this is dependent on ‘consistent adult attention that is responsive and sensitive’. (2013) and I would add, in the moment. We can only really be responsive and sensitive, if we are given the time to interact with children and take part in what has interested and engaged them.

Planning in the moment allows for a calm and engaging atmosphere, where staff and children can connect to each other and spend time interacting. It allows for true, deep, child initiated play where children are deeply engaged and emotionally secure. It allows for staff to focus on the children and not paperwork. It allows for a sense of accomplishment, and personal fulfillment for children and staff. It allows for a sense of positive well being.


Bottrill G (2018) Can I Go & PLay Now? Rethinking the Early Years. Sage Publications Ltd London

Bryce-Clegg A (2015) Best Practice In The Early Years Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd London

Ephgrave A (2018) Planning In The Moment With Young Children Routledge Abingdon

Page J & Elfer P (2013) The emotional complexity of attachment interactions in nursery, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 21:4, 553-567


I am Dawn-Louise Rigby BA (Hons), Mont.Dip, EYTS, PGCE, MA and for over the last 2 decades, I have been immersed in all facets of the Early years sector. Like all of us working in this area, I am passionate about young children’s growth and development. I originally trained as a Montessori teacher, and have Early Years Teacher Status, a level 3 in speech and Language development, a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and a Masters Degree from the University of Roehampton.

A key principle of my practice, is that all those working with children need a good level of understanding of knowledge and theory and an outstanding practitioner needs to be able to demonstrate this knowledge by putting it into practice. My concern is that we have taken for granted that practitioners have this basic knowledge.

I believe that young children need a special environment in which to grow and deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and passionate about their learning. In a positive environment children thrive and grow, adopting positive attitudes to learning and the primary way to support this is through inspiring and motivating those who teach them.

I enjoy the process of learning and am excited by the prospect of sharing my knowledge and experience with colleagues and to learn from their perspectives. Working and collaborating with others has always inspired me, as I like to be part of a team.

Facebook page: Tales from the sandpit.
Twitter page: @ fromthesandpit.

2 Thoughts to “A child who is not happy”

  1. Debra Hastings

    Fantastic blog as always

  2. This gives me hope for the future. As a therapist, I’m seeing more and more children with anxiety. I would suggest that the tactics for engagemental mentioned could be valuable beyond just the early years but that is absolutely the place to start. Please carry on spreading the message.

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