For parents and practitioners: Can we ditch learning targets and aim for quality of life instead?

Reducing pressure on children, parents and practitioners

This short article is about babies and infants who need extra support for their development and learning. I am going to argue for consideration of children’s quality of life in the present instead of setting learning targets for the future. I will also suggest we could ditch the word ‘disability’ and put ‘celebration’ in its place.

I think quality of life does not often appear in assessment reports or action plans but in my view it is an essential consideration both for parents and for practitioners who are helping them bring up their new child. Perhaps the basic common elements of a quality of life are much the same for all of us at any age and we can each make our own list. The ones that come to mind for me, once we have food, water, warmth, freedom from pain, etc. are the pleasure of being alive, self-expression, achievement and autonomy so I will use these to build my argument against learning targets for babies and infants. 

In my thinking early child and family support can move from what understanding and skills a child might or ought to acquire at some time in the future to affirming relations, perception and actions in the here and now. The following suggested elements of a quality of life are not formulaic and cannot be squeezed into the traditional areas of child development (movement, cognition, communication, etc.). Nonetheless, each one contributes to quality of life and adds to the essential foundations for future development and learning. The elements overlap because children are whole, interconnected and complicated beings and each reminds us that learning is one of life’s mysteries.

Autonomy first. This is not the same as independence. A child might not be able to put their socks on but they can be helped to choose the blue ones or the red ones. Moving across the room might not be possible yet but we can offer choices (sofa, toy-box   corner) and observe the child’s reactions. These are both adult-child interactions happening in the present moment with no reference to what the child might learn in the future. Do they have value in terms of quality of life? Obviously, because the child is empowered and not a passive recipient of caring attentions. A child who can be autonomous in these ways today might extend their repertoire tomorrow and develop new ways to communicate preferences. 

Secondly, achievement.  The natural pleasure of achievement can be part of each child’s day without pinning our hopes in the future with learning targets to tick in three months’ time (or not). Parents and practitioners instinctively notice and celebrate children’s achievements and can celebrate them with the baby or infant.  A child might move naturally from looking for praise to a growing sense of self-satisfaction but, either way, achievement in the here and now is part of quality of life for the child and the family. Today’s achievements will surely set the scene for tomorrow’s.

Thirdly we can consider self-expression. Each of these elements is a large bag into which we can put many aspects of a child’s development and learning and of family life. In the self-expression bag we can put self-esteem, making choices, a sense of self and other, a voice for speaking out and relating to others. At its root will be the first bonds of attachment. All of these are in the here and now, at home and in the nursery or kindergarten. Instead of investing our energies in the future, we can observe, enjoy, foster, encourage and celebrate the baby or infant’s self- expression knowing that self-expression will grow as the child grows – if we give it space.  

To summarise, I have argued that we must all think about child and family’s quality of life. I have suggested:

  1. As parents and practitioners we can be with the child, Zen-like, in the present. This is where the child is and it is where we should be.
  2. We can celebrate what the three-some of child, parent and practitioner are doing now, not what they might or might not be doing at some imagined time in the future.
  3. What children, family members and early-support practitioners do can, as much as possible, be flavoured with enjoyment, pleasure and fun.
  4. We can ditch learning targets that probably have a narrow focus and that put pressure on children, parents and practitioners to strive towards some desirable future position.

Getting rid of learning targets can leave practitioners free to enjoy the sessions they have with each child, getting into their world with them and just enjoying the shared experience  ̶  while watching carefully for what the child is saying they want to move on to.

Great skill and sensitivity is required here as parent and practitioner must divide their awareness into two halves: being totally absorbed with the child in one pleasurable activity or another;  and noticing changes in how the child relates to others, understands the world and manipulates the things in it.

This dual task of observing while playing can be helped by 5-minute videos in which behaviours will be seen that were not noticed at the time. I suggest 5 minutes because if they are longer they will consume too much time during or after the session.

And, lastly, why would I ditch the word disability? This is a medical term telling us what a new child cannot do now and will not do in the future. We do not need it in the home or nursery where parents and educators focus on what a child can do and might do. We can swap the downbeat and doom-laden ‘disability’ with celebration of what children have achieved, celebration of how parents have brought the child to this point with their love, devotion and caring and celebration of practitioners who bring all their skills to help parents bring up their child.

Peter Limbrick, April 2022.

Comments welcome.

These ideas are discussed in Early Childhood Intervention without Tears: Improved support for infants with disabilities and their families

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