Assessment in the early years: physical, social and emotional development

The second in a series, this article presents research evidence on why supporting and assessing young children’s physical, social and emotional development alongside their cognitive skills is essential for successful early learning and assessment.

Social and emotional development

Children’s ability to form healthy relationships, through understanding and developing behavioural expectations for both themselves and others, includes skills such as empathy, self-regulation, prosocial behaviour and emotion identification. Research suggests that solid foundations in social and emotional development are crucial for wider development:

  • five-year-olds with strong prosocial skills score higher in areas of learning including emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, working memory, mental flexibility and emotion identification1
  • longitudinal studies have revealed significant associations between young children’s self-regulation skills and later academic success 2
  • neuroscience studies have shown that the areas in the brain for cognition and emotion are interlinked and work together to inform a child’s behaviour.3


How has Covid-19 affected children’s social and emotional development?

From spring 2020 to autumn 2021, Reception children made less progress than expected in all areas of learning including social and emotional development. In a study into the impact of Covid-19, personal, social and emotional development (PSED) was raised by teachers and parents as a prominent learning concern upon the start of school in September 2020.

Moreover, early years children who were able to attend school more frequently during the third lockdown (January-March 2021) were noticeably more advanced in their learning and development, particularly in PSED, than peers with lower attendance. While there may be other confounding factors which influenced regular attendance during the third lockdown, this research suggests that a focus on PSED could be important in closing learning gaps.4


Physical development

Results from IELS5 suggest that physical development, consisting of both gross and fine motor skills, plays an important role in a child’s holistic development at age five:

  • fine and gross motor development were positively related to emergent numeracy, emergent literacy, emotion identification and mental flexibility
  • physical development, particularly fine motor skills, was positively related to children’s ability to stay on task during assessments.


How has Covid-19 affected children’s physical development?

Emerging evidence suggests the physical development of young children is likely to have been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is especially true for vulnerable groups, including children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from UK ethnic minorities. Lifestyle change during the pandemic is thought to be a contributing factor in reduced physical activity among early years children.6,7


How can we support the assessment and development of social, emotional and physical development in the early years?

Rather than viewing social, emotional and physical development as separate to cognitive skills, they should be embedded into classroom learning and assessment, particularly to support children in the early years to recover from the impact of school closures. A variety of strategies can be utilised.

  • Access to larger spaces (indoor and outdoor) is essential for supporting and assessing children’s gross motor skills to give them freedom to move; where possible these spaces should be available more frequently so that children can practise these skills on their own terms rather than during dedicated sessions.
  • Increased opportunities, resources and spaces for children to be on their own or come together in pairs or small and large groups will enable them to practise self-regulation strategies as well as essential prosocial skills such as listening, sharing feelings and negotiating.
  • Teacher support, such as explicit structured teaching, teacher-led discussions and scaffolding should be provided alongside the space and opportunity for children to practise these independently during free-flow play.

Such provision increases the likelihood of accurate assessment: observing children in play and self-select activities rather than in more planned ‘on-demand’ assessment activities allows for more authentic contexts where children’s skills are more accurately determined.