An interview with Debbie Garvey, early years education expert

Debbie Garvey

Hi Debbie, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about your new book, and indeed on your growing collection of early years titles! What can readers expect from Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood and how does it differ from your previous work?

Well, I suppose the first major difference is that this book is about children, whereas the other books are about staff. This was always the book I wanted to write, it just took a little time to come to fruition, and I am so glad it did. The time in between first thinking about the PSED book, and starting to write it, meant time to develop ideas, read more research and really plan what themes I wanted to explore.

Another difference is perhaps that this book is a little more controversial as Dr Suzanne Zeedyk warns in the foreword, “It’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.” I didn’t set out to be controversial – I simply hope that practitioners will maybe think about things in a slightly different way. So, for example, I’ve asked readers to consider how we approach Christmas, Graduations and behaviours, and imagine being a young child in those situations. Often, putting ourselves in a young child’s shoes  allows us to see things in a very different way.

Who would you say your books would be most useful for, and what have you done to maximise their practicality?

I hope they are useful for anyone who cares about young children and early childhood. I worry that early childhood is being eroded, and is slowly disappearing, and I truly hope that by reading my books, practitioners and parents feel confident to put young children first.

My previous books are often highly recommended for their practical nature, the reflective practice activities, my easily understandable style of writing, and the way I explain research. I’ll let you in to a little secret – there is a very good reason for this.

I learnt to read by a bizarre method known as ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet). Introduced in the 1970’s, this method involved a pure phonetic way of reading and spelling – so ‘here’ and ‘hear’ for example was “heer” – which is phonetically correct. Then at seven-years of age children swapped to traditional ‘English’… Except, I didn’t. I struggled… and still do! Of course we now know that early learning is often ‘hard-wired’ in the brain, and re-wiring takes time. Unfortunately my brain has never fully grasped the re-wiring, especially if I am tired or stressed – I still revert back to the spelling and reading I learnt as a four-year-old. So, this means my books are practical and easy to read because of the way I was taught to read and write. It left me with some interesting skills, in terms of speed reading, being able to remember what I have read and link what I have read to other documents and information – but my spelling was (and still is) atrocious.

So how does this link to the practical style of my writing now – well, for years I thought I was stupid. I gave myself a hard time because I couldn’t spell. I never volunteered to take notes in meetings or on training, and I would spend hours writing and re-writing documents littered with spelling mistakes. Then two things happened almost simultaneously. The first was a previous manager (who had taught children ITA) mentioned my abilities to read, process and link information and documents quickly and coherently, and asked if I had learnt to read ITA – the second was that the PC became a standard piece of office equipment.

The manager explained that many children had struggled to move into ‘true’ English, and that my reading and processing skills were unique and encouraged me to explore them (this eventually led to me undertaking my degree). This, coupled with the availability of the PC revolutionised my life. Suddenly I had a machine that I could set up to check if I meant ‘here’ or ‘hear’ – and could help my atrocious spelling.  I could  now do things I had never been able to do, and with that my confidence developed too… So, yes my books are practical, because I have never forgotten how difficult I found things, and how coming across a word I didn’t know and couldn’t ‘read’ phonetically destroyed any confidence in understanding what I was reading.

You have written and taught on the topic of early years and early years management for some time now, how did you start out in early years education and quality provision training?

Working with young children was always something I knew I wanted to do. I was fascinated watching the children around me learn new things, seeing their excitement playing in puddles or snow for example. And I knew, even 30 years ago, that a cuddle from a toddler is something very special. I started out in early education in schools, and then I met, and married, the man who is my wonderful husband. Sadly, after a while we discovered we couldn’t have children of our own. So, I was faced with a dilemma – be surrounded by pregnancy, new babies and children, and deal with it…. or choose a different career path. I knew I couldn’t leave the career I was so passionate about, so interested in and so enthused by, so I made a conscious decision – if I couldn’t have children of my own, at least I could spend my life ensuring other people’s children had the best start possible. It sounds easy writing it like that, but there were times when I doubted my decision, dealing with safeguarding issues, for example, was particularly hard. I have had a long, long time to come to terms with this, and know in my heart, that this is what I was meant to do.

I’ve had a varied career, working with children from birth to eleven, working with children with SEND, and traveller children for example. I have worked in diverse inner-city schools, and across a range of childcare settings. Later I moved into a Local Authority officer role, initially developing quality improvement programmes, this led to partnership working with National Children’s Bureau, and the rest as they say – is history. I’ve run Stonegate Training for over ten years now, travelling the country, meeting, supporting and (hopefully) inspiring the many dedicated practitioners that work with young children.

So, as my career developed, I spoke to more and more early years staff, and more and more spoke of the lack of support for leaders and managers. I started (originally with Andrea Lancaster) to look at information and research around leadership and management in early years. I was surprised to find very little, so started to look further afield, in other sectors, and how we could adopt/adapt research into our own field, and so the specialism in leadership and management grew from that, whilst still maintaining my interest in early childhood. I feel blessed to have had such a fulfilling career, and some amazing opportunities, not only in my work with young children and families, but also working with some inspiring and enthusiastic colleagues, speaking at, and attending national conferences, becoming a Sector Specialist for Early Years for C4EO, and of course writing.

The role of the brain in a child’s development is a hot-topic amongst Early Years professionals, what can child care specialists of any kind learn from neuroscience in the early years?

Oh, where to start… There is so much information about neuroscience, and to be honest, not all of it is helpful. I was lucky enough to have the support of Prof. Francis McGlone, with the chapter on brain development, and for that I am ever grateful. Francis helped me sort out the useful from ‘not so useful’, and that has been a huge benefit to the book.


In terms of early years professionals, some of the messages I would count as key are the importance of relationships, attachments, cuddles, observations, talking (with children, each other and parents), consistency, appropriate environments… I could go on… all of these are ‘classic’ elements of good practice in early childhood – only now we ALSO have the science to back up why these things are so essential to young children’s growth, development, behaviours and learning.

You speak about the role of neuroscience in terms of adults and their role in the guidance of young children too don’t you? Can you briefly outline how you approach this?

I think everyone can learn from neuroscience. I talk about it all the time, on training, in my book, but even socially with family and friends – I am a bit of a neuroscience-geek. If we understand why someone is behaving or acting in a particular way (adult or child), then it is so much easier to offer support, understanding and empathise.

In terms of this book, I suppose one of the key neuroscience messages is the importance of understanding what happens in the brain influences growth, development, behaviours and learning – whether for adults or children. It isn’t about early childhood; it is about humanity, and being human.

Finally, (it would be remiss of me not to ask) if you were to give one tip for successful running of an early years practice, what would it be?

Don’t do or say anything to a child that you wouldn’t want someone to do or say to you – and don’t do or say anything to an adult that you wouldn’t want someone to do or say to you!

Click here to read an extract from Debbie Garvey’s new book.

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One thought

  1. My eldest child learnt to read with the ita system. He had no problem moving from the ita to English., and he did this before he was 7 , in fact he was the youngest child in his class and the second to move to English.He amazed us in the fact that one day he was reading ita and the next English. He certainly learnt to read swiftly, fleuently , no hesitation and always looking ahead along the line. Now he is still a speed reader with his eye focused ahead of what he is actually reading. Like you he processes, links and unravels documents coherently, it was a process that certainly has not done him any harm.
    He did not enjoy spelling, and told his teacher ( at the age of 6) that he had no need to learn to spell as his daddy could not spell, been to university and had a secretary who did the spelling and he was going to do the same, so there was no point having to learn spellings.
    I got called to school and had to do spelling every evening, but he eventually realised that he had to learn , though I remember that our son thought it a waste of time and effort when he could be playing.
    Of course he has a PA now but also a computer.
    I enjoyed learning to read that way as I had to do to listen to him, speeded, my reading up no end

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